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Wegmans said yesterday that it will close one of its six Massachusetts stores, located in the Natick Mall, about 20 miles west of Boston.

The company said that "the Natick store opened in 2018 and was Wegmans’ first multi-level store within a major mall. At 134,000 square feet, it is one of the company’s largest locations."

Brien MacKendrick, the human resources director for Wegmans' New England division, said that, "Unfortunately, with this non-traditional location we are unable to attract enough customers for our business model to work.”

The closing is slated for "later this summer," with the exact date not yet disclosed.  Wegmans emphasized in its prepared statement that " Wegmans does not have plans to close any other stores" in the Boston area.

"We love our Natick community and customers, and we’re eager to pursue new store locations in the area for the future,” MacKendrick tells the Boston Globe. “In the meantime, we hope to continue to serve our Natick customers through our e-commerce offerings and our other area stores.”

The Boston Globe also offers some additional context:

"The Natick Mall location, which took the place of a JCPenney, opened to much fanfare in 2018, boasting two stories, nearly 70,000 items, and a 32-seat wine tasting room. It initially housed the 260-seat Blue Dalia Restaurant and Tequila Bar, but that closed in 2019.

"'Everyone in the industry is paying attention,' said company spokesperson Jo Natale to the Globe in 2018.  'We’re not sure how people will shop the store because we’ve never done this before.'

"This move comes as mall space across the region is being repurposed into apartment buildings and lab space as the suburban shopping palaces rethink their reason for being. The Natick Mall has embarked on several of these conversions in spaces formerly occupied by Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus, and has also welcomed experiential retail concepts such as entertainment complex Level99 and, soon, another location of the Puttshack mini golf venue.

"Wegmans joins the ranks of a few other grocery stores in the region that have gone dark in recent years — Market Basket in Billerica and Whole Foods in Brookline both closed their doors in 2022. Openings, however, tend to be more common; Nubian Markets in Roxbury opened in May, and Addie’s, a pick-up only spot in Norwood, began welcoming customers in January. Trader Joe’s recently sought a liquor license for a potential new store on Boylston Street in Back Bay."

KC's View:

As it happens, I've done two FaceTime videos from the Natick Mall store, both back in 2018, and while I was impressed by the Wegmans offering, at various times I expressed some doubt about the decision to locate it in a mall.

I also talked about the idea that while the store's top floor, with a plethora of fresh offerings, was animated and energetic, the lower floor, focused on grocery, was considerably less busy.  The reason, I thought at the time, was that there were few differential advantages offered by the lower floor, and so it might never justify the space it was given.

I conceded that if Wegmans is successful at driving more customers into its grocery departments, this store will be right-sized. But I actually made the opposite argument - that for the future that inevitably will come, that space is way too big. In fact, you think it is big now, just imagine how cavernous it will seem when five, 10 or 20 percent of CPG sales move online, which I think they inevitably will.

I do think it was interesting that MacKendrick suggested that Wegmans might be able to serve the area with its e-commerce offerings;  I'd suggest that it might make sense to open a fresh-only store in a far smaller footprint, and try to do almost all its packaged grocery sales via e-commerce, using both a pickup and delivery model.  Wegmans always has been willing to break the mold, and this might be one of those times to do exactly that.

In one story, I commented:

For the moment, I think, Wegmans is fine. (It is not like they need me to tell them they’re fine. They are, after all, freakin’ Wegmans. I offer this critique in the knowledge that even a scintilla of skepticism about Wegmans’ offering could undermine my credibility.)But I do wonder if down the road - five years from now, maybe? - they will find that the store has been overbuilt, considering the changing buying habits of consumers?

It took a year longer than I expected, but I also didn't know in 2018 that there would be a pandemic.  I also overestimated the Natick Mall's vitality, and the ability of the restaurants being operated by Wegmans to drive a sustainable level of traffic.

I continue to believe that retailers, in their physical locations, need to focus on the things that make them different rather than the things that make them similar to other retailers.  I think they have to have a compelling fresh offering, and use that as a differentiator, and position themselves for a future in which more and more CPG items are sold online and often are fulfilled via automatic replenishment programs.  And I continue to believe that malls, with some exceptions, are problematic for supermarkets.  

In fact, many of the nation's malls are problematic for retail in general.  Look for at least part of the Wegman space, once it is vacated by the grocer, to be taken over by pickleball courts, or something else along that line.