Baton Rouge grocers scramble to add amenities in increasingly tight market

With Rouses preparing to open two more locations in Baton Rouge, including one that will anchor a development near LSU, grocers in the region are scrambling to renovate and stay on top of trends to compete in an increasingly competitive industry.

And though most local grocers insist they don’t feel any impact from the proliferation of Rouses—which became the area’s largest grocer last October when it bought out all nine LeBlanc’s Food Stores locations—several have spruced up their stores to offer more prepared foods, add amenities such as sushi bars and dabble in online and mobile shopping.

Winn-Dixie has remodeled four Louisiana stores already this year, says Anthony Hucker, CEO of parent company Southeastern Grocers. This week, Winn-Dixie unveiled a remodeled store across from Rouses’ planned store on Burbank Drive that includes a pizza shop as well as sushi and hot wing bars.

Hi Nabor also just finished a remodel of its Jones Creek location, unveiling an expanded deli and sushi offerings as well. Meanwhile, Matherne’s downtown store—its only remaining location after Rouses bought out the store on Bluebonnet Boulevard near Perkins Rowe—recently unveiled the high-end juice bar, The Big Squeezy, in its store.

Grocers here are seemingly under attack from all sides: Rouses continues to expand to great success; Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and subsequent price cutting has the industry on its toes; and online services are quickly changing what consumers expect from their neighborhood grocery store.

“This is really an opportunity for a retailer to prove that what it’s doing and how it’s operating is serving the best needs of its consumers,” Progressive Grocer editorial director Jim Dudlicek says of the trends.

The Amazon deal in particular has attracted the attention of virtually every grocery store owner in the country, Dudlicek says, and the move has served as a “wake up call” for traditional retailers to innovate.

In Louisiana, Dudlicek points to Rouses embracing its role as a “home state grocer,” offering a host of local items and prepared foods that consumers have responded to. He also cites a recent Deloitte study that found “digital influence” in grocery shoppers increased from 33% to 51% last year, indicating a powerful trend toward online and mobile services.

But that doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the local grocer, he adds. Unlike traditional retailers, which have been pummeled by now-ubiquitous and affordable online shopping, grocers still enjoy a customer base that mostly buys from brick-and-mortar stores.

“You can’t let your store get stale,” says Hi Nabor President Jim Crifasi. “You’ve got to keep making improvements to make the customer more comfortable when they do come in.”

With Matherne’s having somewhat of a captive market downtown, owner Ernie Matherne Sr. doesn’t think competition from Rouses or other stores throughout the city threaten his business. Still, he’s planning to roll out an online shopping tool for deliveries. Conventional grocers that aren’t keeping up with technology and demand for fresh items have become passe, Matherne says.

“The grocery business is not like it used to be,” he says.

—Sam Karlin

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