Surging online sales has shaken up the food industry, but the GIANT Co. is betting that it can lure back customers with a new two-level flagship store — with 65,00 square feet, free parking, a beer garden, and a food hall overlooking the Schuylkill.

The chain announced Thursday that the store at 60 N. 23rd St. in Center City will open March 19. It will occupy the bottom of the 25-floor Riverwalk residential tower.

Alex Baloga, president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, said that the supermarket should do well once in-store shopping rebounds. He predicted consumers would keep on buying more food to make at home.

“I believe people will go back to in-person shopping and those immersive experiences,” Baloga said. “People have shifted their shopping trends and habits and there’s a lot more purchasing being done from retailers being consumed inside the home. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there still.”

John Stanton, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, also saw GIANT’s investment as a smart move.

“I personally believe that a lot of this being afraid to be in a store for health reasons, I think eventually this will subside,” Stanton said. “And GIANT will be ahead of the game.”

Total U.S. online food and beverage sales, both grocery and restaurant delivery, more than doubled to $106 billion over roughly the last year, according to NielsenIQ data.

The research firm estimates that 2020 saw 22 million new online shoppers for consumer packaged goods, or CPG. Total U.S. sales of CPG, everything from tooth paste to canned tomatoes, went up 12% in about the same period, NielsenIQ said.

Dutch supermarket titan Ahold Delhaize, whose chains include GIANT, Food Lion, and Stop & Shop, reported on Wednesday that its online U.S. sales doubled last year, fueling a 16% climb in total sales.

The Carlisle-based GIANT announced the flagship project in 2019 and initially said the store would open last fall. The store, at the river’s edge near 23rd and Arch Streets, will face competition from a Trader Joe’s, two blocks away at 2121 Market St., and, in Fairmount, a Whole Foods Market at 2101 Pennsylvania Ave. The Whole Foods and the new GIANT are almost exactly the same size.

The new store, which will provide 220 jobs, is the fifth GIANT to open in the city. It is the latest in a flurry of recent store openings in and near downtown Philadelphia by the chain.

For years, its sole Philadelphia location was a conventional supermarket it opened in 2011 on Grant Avenue in the Northeast. In 2019, though, the company opened three smaller stores — boutique-like — in the trendy Graduate Hospital, University City and Northern Liberties neighborhoods. It calls them Heirloom Markets.

GIANT doesn’t share the cost of projects but the company said in a statement that it invested a total of $106 million in its five city locations A company spokeswoman added that the flagship store is the costliest of GIANT’s nearly 190 stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Ever since COVID-19 surfaced last spring, stepping inside a supermarket has been worrisome, prompting people to limit visits. But GIANT thinks that once the pandemic subsides, shoppers will be drawn back to stores with special features.

The new store will have a ground-level garage that will be free for the first two hours and $5 per 30 minutes after. The store’s lobby will house a full-size Starbucks and a pickup station for online orders.

A centerpiece of the Riverwalk store will be the food hall that will offer Mexican, Japanese and made-to-order sandwiches, among other cuisines. There will also be an expansive beer and wine section and the beer garden. Tenants at Riverwalk will have a private elevator to the supermarket.

“What we have learned from our data is [consumers] still do enjoy going to the store. They also enjoy picking up at times, and they enjoy being delivered to at times,” said Nicholas Bertram, GIANT Co. president. “And we’re in a unique position where we really can do all of those and then link it together.”

The flagship store will also have on cleanup duty Marty, GIANT’s 6-foot-5-inch, 130-pound, googly-eyed assistant who scans aisles for hazards such as fallen products. The Marty robot is deployed in most Giant stores. Bertram said Marty helps prevent accidents but doesn’t supplant any human coworkers.

Bertram said that his strategy is partially driven by the intense competition in the sector.

“I’m not blind to other players that are coming in,” he said. “And it’s interesting because a lot of players that have been there for a lot longer than me, I don’t know that they’ve done a whole lot to raise the experience.”

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