The food included soft pretzels. The Phanatic was phrolicking on the lawn. William Penn, perched as always atop City Hall, overlooked it all.
The only way Giant Food Stores’ 95th anniversary event could have been any more Philly was if Sylvester Stallone came running down Broad Street, backed by the Hooters playing “Gonna Fly Now” and tossing Tastykakes into the crowd.
No need to patronize, however, as there was no mistaking Giant’s determination to make a home in the city of Philadelphia, where as part of that event last week officials revealed details of Giant’s first stab at downtown retail, the newly named Giant Heirloom Market, a small-store format set to open shortly in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood at 23rd and Bainbridge Street.
At the event, Giant President Nick Bertram confessed the city was something of a final frontier for the Carlisle, Pa.-based Ahold Delhaize division, whose traditional supermarkets have been steadily invading the Philly suburbs for a decade but until now had only cracked the city proper with one store in the relatively leafy Northeast.
“It’s the only part of the Philadelphia DMA where we’re underrepresented,” Bertam told me. “We’ve got 83 stores in the surrounding counties and we’re a strong No. 2 market share. But to get to that No. 1 market position, Philadelphia County is the next hurrah for us.”
Bertram wouldn’t confirm this, but Giant has eyes on at least four downtown locations for Heirloom Market in the coming months. Its roots go back to Ahold’s since-dissolved Fresh Formats team, which imagined them to be a Philly-based version of the BFresh stores that group opened in Boston. But the switch to Giant’s control is also coming with an evolution of the concept based largely on research into the desires of local residents, Bertram says. The surveys revealed that Giant, with a few tweaks for space, technology and selection, can play to its traditional strengths, even in considerably tighter concrete confines.
“We’ll be much more of a grocery store, whereas BFresh was so much about food right now,” he explained. “The big unlock for us, and what has us excited, is that there are a lot of great restaurants and great chefs in Philadelphia. But people here also want to make their food; they want to cook.
“When we started doing surveys, people said, ‘I need a great place for produce,’ and we happen to be one of the best produce retailers in the country. We can do that. They want natural, and we have the billion-dollar Nature's Promise brand. They want beer and wine? We have more than 70 of those [outlets] in the state now. We are confident in our ability to provide what they want.”
One indication of the brand’s seriousness about becoming a full-fledged Brotherly Lover came this spring, when an opportunity to become the official grocery store of the Philadelphia Phillies suddenly arose and Giant—newly freed as an independent brand in Ahold Delhaize’s decentralized strategy—stepped up to the plate, replacing incumbent rival ShopRite. Officials say the partnership—which among other things landed a Giant logo on the center field fence at Citizens Bank Park this year—aligns the Giant and Phillies brands behind common audiences and community values.
At last week’s event, Giant presented a $1 million check to Philabundance, the city’s largest hunger-relief organization, drawing applause from Mayor Jim Kenney, who came down from his office to the Dilworth Park plaza to make remarks and issue a citation. (Kenney’s soda tax imposition has made him a wildly unpopular figure with some in the industry, but the activity indicates it hasn’t driven all new investment away.) Philabundance Executive Director Glenn Bergman said the organization would use the majority of Giant’s donation to fund an endowment to help deliver food and healthy snacks for patients at another venerable Philly institution, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Giant is hardly the only food retailer to have set sights on downtown Philly in recent years. Only two weeks before, Phoenix-based natural foods retailer Sprouts Farmers Market made a splashy South Philly debut as part of a new mixed-use project that will also include one of an expected fleet of Target “flex-format” stores also headed downtown. Although Sprouts isn’t likely to pepper city neighborhoods as densely as Giant might, it has big plans for the region and is another exciting new food arrival in a city that last October welcomed Mom’s Organic Market and the October before that made room for another Whole Foods. In this sense, Philly and the Mid-Atlantic are beginning to resemble pockets further south along the East Coast, where insurgent retailers with eyes on prosperous shoppers are investing heavily to capture a fracturing food shopping market.
John Stanton, a professor in the food marketing department at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s University, says the changes make sense for a city increasingly influenced by younger shoppers with higher expectations of food providers, themselves putting their roots in the city. The incoming retail fleet and accompanying residential building boom may not be authentically Philadelphian, he acknowledges, but delivering what those shoppers want could trump provincial snobbishness.
“For the longest time, if you asked a supermarket in Philadelphia who their target audience was, they would say, 'Anybody with a pulse and a penny,'” Stanton said. “Today, it’s different. Millennials have urbanized. There’s diversity in tastes. More people are into health and nutrition. I think what’s happened is that the sophisticated supermarkets are getting better about using technology to find what it is their shoppers really want.”
If not, they can always send an intern: