As big-box chains go, Meijer Inc. is not all that big.
The supercenter retailer, combining a full supermarket grocery and discount general merchandise, is not even national – and far from it.
If Meijer's plans bear fruit, Wisconsin will soon be just the sixth state it has entered, joining Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.
Regional player Meijer has proposals in the works to build megastores in Wauwatosa, Franklin and Grafton as its first inroads into The Dairy State.
But that doesn't mean Meijer is a newcomer in the industry.
"Meijer pioneered the supercenter, in Grand Rapids in 1962," said Frank Guglielmi, director of public relations for the Michigan-based company. "It was the first modern store to combine full lines of food and general merchandise under one roof."
Take that, Walmart.
Actually, not only Walmart but a host of national and regional chains, including every supermarket grocer in the country and much of the world, owes a few things to Meijer.
Besides inventing the supercenter, Meijer gave us the first newspaper advertising circulars and the first metal shopping carts.
So, being the industry innovator, why isn't Meijer where Walmart is – with nearly 50 times as many stores worldwide, and more than half again as many in the state of Texas alone as Meijer has all together?
"Meijer is still a family-owned and privately held business," Guglielmi said. "We have 195 stores that we've built up very carefully over a long time. It's a different model.
"Meijer has its roots in the grocery business, and that's still the focus. Meijer stores are 60 to 70 percent groceries and the rest retail merchandise. That's about the opposite of our competitors."
Guglielmi never names Meijer's competitors, but the contrast with other major players is clear.
Walmart came late, comparatively, to the idea of adding groceries to a large discount merchandise store – Target and others even later.
Meijer was founded in 1934 in Greenville, Mich., during the Great Depression, by Dutch barber Hendrik Meijer, an immigrant who saw a need for hungry people to buy food at reasonable prices.
Grocery supermarkets were already in business – Piggly Wiggly, A&P and many more – but they weren't everywhere, and they weren't expanding in the economic crunch.
In middle-sized communities in Michigan, the small neighborhood market was still the norm, and there was a place for the economies of scale that Meijer groceries offered.
The supercenter concept simply expanded on that idea during the boom of middle-class consumerism in the postwar decades.
Now, Guglielmi says, Hendrik Meijer's original focus is relevant again.
"About half our stores are in Michigan," he said, "with 44 stores in metro Detroit – some of them hard-hit communities.
"We're very, very focused on our communities. We donate 6 percent of our profits, mostly to local causes. That's an industry-leading percentage.
"Feeding the hungry is our major focus. We donate heavily to food banks; we have been a leader in food rescue."
The reason for the Meijer's current expansion into Wisconsin is related to those historical roots as well – in this case, the local, fresh-food movement.
"Freshness – we're the leader there," Guglielmi said. "We believe our handling of perishable foods is second to none, fresh produce delivered every day.
"We're very consistent, not only in our product but in the stores themselves, the appearance, the experience. We're small enough that every store is impeccable. They're clean and bright, they are well-stocked, they have wide aisles, and customers always seem to enjoy shopping with us."
Guglielmi said that Wauwatosa can rest assured that Meijer won't be a big box that will come and go. Meijer never leases properties; it always buys in, he said.
Meijer even arranged a somewhat complicated contract to combine several fractions for its planned Wauwatosa store on the site of the former Stroh Die Casting plant at 11123 W. Burleigh St.
"We don't own it yet, we have the site under contract," Guglielmi said. "Once all the permitting is in place – once we actually purchase a property, we move pretty quickly."