As it readies a second NYC store, Brooklyn Wegmans reflects the diverse nature and tastes of New York.
Originally printed in the February 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Three years ago, Wegmans opened its first store in New York City, and, as it works to open a second NYC store in Manhattan, the initial location in Brooklyn is playing a huge role in advancing its operations.
Scheduled to open later this year, the Manhattan Wegmans will occupy 82,000 square feet on two levels of a classic New York building that once housed Wanamaker’s department store and until recently was the home of Kmart. The Astor Place address puts the Manhattan Wegmans right in the heart of the famous Greenwich Village/East Village community.
A store is also planned for exurban Suffolk County, the first for the company on Long Island.
Wegmans Food Markets Inc. is a regional supermarket chain with more than 100 stores located along the East Coast.
Wegmans can credit the Brooklyn location, despite its being the smallest store in the chain at 74,000 square feet, as establishing its presence in Gotham. The store not only serves northeast Brooklyn but, through its work with delivery partner Instacart, lower Manhattan as well. In fact, delivery is a major proportion of the Brooklyn store sales. Not only that, but training for the Manhattan store produce section is being substantially done in Brooklyn.
Jordan Wise, produce manager at the Brooklyn store, had been working at the Wegmans in Woodbridge, NJ, a densely populated suburb not far from the New York City borough of Staten Island, that once was the most urbanized of the chain’s locations. From there, he went to Brooklyn and now is helping train workers who will run the produce section in Manhattan.
Although the Manhattan location will be bigger than in Brooklyn, and the biggest supermarket in the borough, Wegmans produce departments tend to maintain the same general layout, with low-profile table displays down the center and cold and wet cases taking up the sides.
The assortment has a basic character, with abundance of display and variety. The Brooklyn produce operation also reflects the diverse nature and tastes of New York, where food traditions mingle and most consumers embrace a wide range of cuisines. In fact, Wegmans Brooklyn is the chain’s top seller of avocados and is consistently one of the top three slots in tropicals.
The store also emphasizes convenience. Brooklyn kitchens tend to be small, and Manhattan kitchens even smaller, so the abundance of fresh-cut products and packaged salads is meant to satisfy customers who tend to shop often for perishables. Wegmans provides the opportunity to grab easily assembled meal ingredients, and at lower prices than is the case with smaller operators.
A further incentive is that Wegmans Brooklyn will move a variety of exotic and seasonal items through its in-store “chop shop” to produce lots of fresh-cut products, some of which might be unfamiliar even to Brooklynites. So, this summer, the store stocked dragon fruit in whole and fresh-cut options, Wise says. The availability not only suits customers who are accustomed to eating such produce, but also entices New Yorkers who are frequently eager to try new kinds of food.
Setting The Stage
Although the core shoppers at the Brooklyn store are more diverse ethnically and financially than will be the case at the Manhattan store in the long-gentrified Village, the overall customer base won’t be as different because of Instacart. Wise says the heavy proportion of Wegmans Brooklyn business done via Instacart has come from an expansion in the store’s native borough and later Manhattan, giving Wegmans not only more sales, but a better idea of what to expect when it opens the Greenwich Village store.
Brooklyn is setting the stage for the Manhattan operation in other ways as well. Produce employees destined for the Manhattan Wegmans are learning the business in Brooklyn.
“We have a lot of people we’re training,” Wise says. “Right now, we’re working with a lot of leadership and full-timers before we get to more of the part-timers. We’re having people train here and some other stores, but we’re doing the majority of training of new employees to get them ready for Astor Place as it opens.”
The produce section begins with seasonal presentations — for example, pomegranates taking a prominent place in the holiday season — in a set of displays that also include everyday value presentations of avocados, and traditional staples such as tomatoes.
Other recent produce trends manifest in Wegmans Brooklyn include not only heavy demand in avocados and tropicals but also citrus, carrots and packaged salads.
Wegmans has continued to offer a sharp price on packaged salads, which can be half of that offered by its immediate competitors in Brooklyn, Wise says. Selection is also a selling point, with a wide variety of choice in bagged, clamshell and bowl items. The Wegmans assortment includes private label and branded salads, and they are a distinct merchandising element.
Along with fresh greens, which are growing in sales despite the heavy packaged presence, the salad wall is a defining element in the Brooklyn Wegmans produce department by right of sheer scope, and variety, which few other New York City supermarkets approach. Merchandised in an open case that forms one side of the produce section, bagged salads eventually give way to salad bowls, which have become an important part of the packaged salad mix. Their convenience as easy-to-pick-up meal items and their resealability have made bowls and clamshells more popular, Wise says.
The convenience items support, and are supported by, the abundant service counters offering everything from seafood and meat, including prepared dishes, to fresh bakery goods and even pizza. As such, customers on their way to or from work can pick up needed items and a meal so they don’t have to cook after shopping.
On the opposite side of the produce section, the sequence of cases include whole vegetables such as peppers, Wegmans’ own brand bagged cut vegetables, including green beans and broccoli florets, a mushroom presentation and slot for Asian vegetables. Where the case ends, floral begins. Adjacent, at the back of the produce department, is a vast banana table display touting 59 cents conventional and 79-cent organic fruit.
Organics are big business for the Brooklyn Wegmans, Wise says, with a floor display in addition to what’s in the side cases. Organics include whole items, packaged salads and fresh-cut products.
“Anything organic is going to be moving off our shelves real fast,” he says.
Organics and tropicals have dedicated displays, but are also offered on the main produce sales floor mixed with other items to generate interest and additional sales.
“We try integrating a lot,” Wise says. “In the summer, dragon fruit was big.”
The presence of cut dragon fruit increased sales and contribution, he says.
“We’re giving convenience,” Wise says, “and we can get a better yield than an average person trying for the first time.”
As such, Wegmans can build on a diverse assortment, both everyday and seasonal, to get customers to try unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, ultimately building sales and, potentially, produce consumption.
The Brooklyn Wegmans is a dynamic place and has to role with the rhythms of its New York neighborhood, such as stocking cider conspicuously in the fall, bringing in extra cauliflower for Easter and understanding that some customers are going to retreat to summer rentals and vacation locales for at least parts of July and August.
“We tend to go up and down with business in the summer, then we’ll have a busy month,” he says. “You really have to follow the trends that we see in the systems we use. You have to be in stock every day, have what people are buying, but while sticking to core and having those core things: I’m never going to run out of bananas, I’m never going to run out of avocados. Then you see what our top sellers are as well. Planning for that, it changes every day, every week. We’ve learned a lot.”
Wise made an astute observation about the Brooklyn Wegmans. Although it is thriving, the store is, in a manner of speaking, just starting out. The COVID-19 pandemic hit soon after the opening of the Brooklyn Wegmans, so it never established ‘normal’ operations. That means 2023 is going to be as close to normal as the Brooklyn location has yet had. As such, there will be more to learn.
“This is our truest year,” Wise says.
21 Flushing Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11205
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Stay Abreast Of Trends
When it comes to trends in fruit and vegetable sales, says Jordan Wise, produce manager, Wegmans Brooklyn, it’s important to understand what competitors are doing and use the expertise of vendors. But these days, it’s also important to know what’s happening online.
“Social media and e-commerce have a big effect on what’s popular and what’s moving,” Wise says.
For example, Wegmans keeps abreast of trends on Instagram and TikTok, to know what potentially might be triggering demand of a specific produce item, and also maintains social media channels to promote products, often fresh produce.