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Grocery Wars Part II: Wauwatosans Win Food Fight

As competition ramps up along the west side and settles down on the east side, on a plateau that rises much higher than the surrounding terrain – Wauwatosa has just got it really good when it comes to buying food.

David Livingston has spent more than 30 years studying the grocery business, measuring demographics, analyzing consumer likes and buying habits, tracking traffic. His businesss, DJL Research, advises industry players on where they ought to locate their stores and on what market segments they should focus.

So when Patch asked him for his opinions of the growth of groceries throughout the west and northwest suburbs, he obliged with an assessment capsulized last week in 

Livingston concluded that most of the area Patch was looking at was "capped out" or very near capacity for store square footage and, with the entry of new players in the market – Walmart Markets, Target and especially the coming of Meijer supercenters – a culling of some area stores was bound to happen.

As for some of the grocers themselves – Roundy's, owners of Pick 'n Saves, Metro Markets and some other brands, and Meijer itself – they said only that competition is good for everyone and particularly good for customers, who benefit when stores vie for their attention (and dollars) with high-quality goods, service and deals.

Livingston didn't disagree with that, even when he said that over the next few years several stores will be driven out of the market.

But there was one thing he kept coming back to, time and again, that he said is definitely true right now and looks like it should hold up going forward.

When it comes to winners, the Wauwatosa shopper gets the gold medal.

'You have it better than your neighbors'

“Your community is blessed with good stores," Livingston said. "There’s something for everybody there. Tosa has the best of what retailers have to offer in the area.”

As to the Mayfair Road corridor and the northwest cluster of stores around North 124th Street and West Capitol Drive, pricing, offerings and service at so many competing stores will no doubt be top notch for the names involved, as Walmart Market, Target and Pick 'n Save (Brookfield East) prepare for the advent of Meijer in 2014.

“If you just want price, there’s even an Aldi," Livingston said. That's at 12120 W. Burleight St., just a west of where the new Meijer will set up shop at 112th and Burleigh. The Meijer will be within less than a 2-mile radius from those stores plus a second Pick 'n Save at 1717 N. Mayfair – which Livingston declared "probably redundant."

“In the meantime," Livingston said, "you never have to complain. You have it all. You have it better than your neighbors.”

A food-lover's delight on the east side

That goes for all of Wauwatosa. But if only the strongest will survive in west and northwest Wauwatosa, the thing that impresses Livingston most about the grocery market in Wauwatosa is the foodie's paradise that the eastern half of the city has become.

Sendik's, Metcalfe's Sentry, Outpost and what Livingston considers one of the best of the Pick 'n Save stores in metro Milwaukee are all competing vigorously, but at the same time comfortably, within their segments, he said. And it looks like they will continue not only to survive but thrive.

“You have a lot of money and a lot of diversity," Livingston said. "You have extreme wealth, as in the case of many in the health care professions (at the Medical Center), and the concentration of people that brings who are also very health-conscious.

"Outpost is doing very well. Sendik’s has done very well. Metcalfe's is one of the highest volume stores in Wisconsin, if not the highest, and it continues to be a very, very good store.

"The Pick 'n Save there is at the top of its game, too. It has to be."

Remember the bad old times?

Such was by no means always the case, Livingston recalled, and so will anyone who has lived in east Wauwatosa for 15 or so years.

“Back in the early ‘90s," Livingston said, "Pick ‘n Save was strong and getting stronger, and Kohl’s was fading. The flip-flop in Wauwatosa was that Kohl’s best stores were in, and still doing best in, Wauwatosa – doing well for Kohl’s. Wauwatosa was Kohl’s last stand for having some decent stores."

“Sentry (before Metcalfe's) was one of their highest-volume stores," he said. "I never understood why they let that store go. It became a Rainbow.

"Rainbow was dreadful. And that Pick 'n Save was not a very good store at all. For awhile, there in the proven best market anywhere, it was just really dismal. We had much weaker stores in the ‘90s."

That low, low point in retail grocery selection in Wauwatosa oddly coincided with the beginning of a Renaissance in tastes and interest in high-quality and diverse foods generally. Throughout the nation, in Milwaukee and here in Wauwatosa, both classic and fusion cuisines began to explode in popularity.

Ristorante Bartolotta opened in the Village, soon to be followed by Jolly's on Harwood and Eddie Martini's. Wauwatosa became a diner's delight.

But for the home cook, finding ingredients to match such chefs as those and on increasingly popular and proliferating TV cooking shows was nigh onto impossible.

Tosans force the market to come to them

Nature and business abhor a vaccum.

At its store on East Capitol Drive in Milwaukee, Outpost Natural Foods had grown from a hippy holdover natural food co-op into a destination food store with a full selection of health-oriented fare, including one of the better produce sections to be found.

The store was doing so well in the newly food-conscious world, in fact, that it was beginning to become overburdened.

In a customer survey, Outpost learned that a startling 20 percent of its customers were arriving all the way from Wauwatosa. Tosa foodies would not be denied. Anybody in business would be irresponsible not to respond.

In March 2000, Outpost opened its second location at 7000 State Street – a brand new store, right across from the Pick 'n Save.

Our cup (and plate) runneth over

Game on.

In 2003, Metcalfe's, a family business founded in 1917 that had just two stores in Madison, opened in the ex-Sentry/ex-Rainbow location at 6700 W. State St. It would wear the Sentry name behind the family name, but it was a very different store – and a much better one – than its predecessors.

Pick 'n Save responded by giving its store a complete and 1,000 percent improved makeover. Sendik's bought the empty former Kohl's building at 8616 W. North Ave. and does what Sendik's does wherever it goes – creates great stores with a lot of personality and a lot of selection.

How good are all these stores? In July 2011, one of them was named by Greenpeace as the best store in the state and one of the 10 best in the nation for sustainable seafood practices.

It wasn't Sendik's or Outpost. It was Metcalfe's.

"Now, we have a very good selection of stores," Livingston said. "As consumers, just enjoy it, because you’ve got it better than just about everybody, anywhere."

mykidsmom January 23, 2013 at 02:31 PM
I dissagree completely that Pick 'n Save on State St "is at the top of its game". They RARELY have anyone to bag groceres (other then the over-worked cashiers themselves)! Miller Park Pick 'n Save is the far supieror store in this regard. AND State St hot deli employees show their obvious disdain to helping customers if their little area is not thechnically "open". This store has a long way to go to compare itself to other customer friendly stores such as the superb Mercalf's.
pupdog1 January 23, 2013 at 05:00 PM
"Sendik's, Metcalfe's Sentry, Outpost, and what Livingston considers one of the best of the Pick 'n Save stores in metro Milwaukee..." Has this guy ever actually been in a grocery store, especially this particular Pick 'n Save?
pupdog1 January 23, 2013 at 05:03 PM
Oops--lack of clarity alert--those first three stores are excellent. I was referring to that hideous State Street Pick 'N Save, which I cannot believe is still in business.
Toni Araiza January 23, 2013 at 08:20 PM
I must agree with the comments regarding the PNS on State Street, the worst customer service rendering ever! As for not having available baggers to bag my purchases, I'd much rather bag my own purchases. The baggers pay NO heed to mixing the veggies with toiletry products! This is a big no-no! It's obvious that the PNS "big brother" isn't overseeing their employees bagging practices. The Wal-Mart grocer has great customer service skills. PNS has yet to remain consistent with providing exemplary customer service. This all changes after a few months of their grand openings.
dave roberts January 24, 2013 at 01:01 AM
I consider myself a grocery expert and have shopped in several states and overseas. There are some good stores in the tosa area but not to the degree i have found in other areas of the country. What bis needed is a combination of store philosophies value driven like pns, efficent like aldi and customer centric like metcalfs/sendeks
Dorothy April 10, 2013 at 07:12 PM
Metro Market gets my VOTE for a Grocery Store!!!!! GREAT SERVICE, CLEAN STORE, GREAT VARIETY OF FOOD, GREAT PRICES AND GREAT SALES all the Time!! THAT'S MY GROCERY STORY!! Dorothy

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