Giant Eagle CEO loves competitive Columbus grocery market

JD Malone, The Columbus Dispatch
The Giant Eagle Market District store at Grandview Yard is set to open on Friday.

September 2, 2014

Minutes after presiding over the ribbon-cutting at a store in Hilliard on Thursday morning, Giant Eagle CEO Laura Karet was stopped in the produce section by a young man wearing a store uniform who thanked her for coming.

"That was so nice," Karet said.

She attends almost every store opening, from the unglamorous GetGo gas stations to the swanky Market District groceries. On Friday, she's scheduled to be back in town to cut her third ribbon in central Ohio in less than a month - at the Grandview Yard Market District store.

Giant Eagle, a privately owned grocer based in Pittsburgh, has added dozens of stores in central Ohio since coming to the market in 2001 during Big Bear's death throes. Columbus is the chain's most competitive market, where it goes up against Kroger (the nation's largest grocer), Wal-Mart, Meijer and many specialty retailers such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Aldi.

The competition has made Giant Eagle better, Karet said.

"We love Columbus," she said. "We wanted to come to Columbus because it is such an energetic and dynamic market."

Grocery analyst David J. Livingston marveled at Giant Eagle's growth in Columbus but said the chain is still a minor player.

"In Columbus, Giant Eagle is what we call a distant 'also-ran,'??" Livingston said.

Giant Eagle dominates Cleveland and Pittsburgh, but its foothold in Columbus has allowed it to gain insights into its business.

"Columbus pushes us to be better," Karet said. "We try to improve every store that we open."

The store in Hilliard is a midrange Giant Eagle format, but it carries a lot of the flair and upscale feel of a Market District. The signs are the same. The bakery is a direct copy, as is the craft beer and wine section. It even has a dry-aging case in the meat department, a first for a Giant Eagle store.

"We're trying to push the envelope," Karet said, adding that lessons learned from its Market District stores will trickle into other Giant Eagle locations.

After leaving the Toledo market this year and pushing forward with plans to expand into Indianapolis - where it will again face Kroger, Wal-Mart and Meijer - Giant Eagle can use Columbus as a way to see what works.

"If it works in Columbus, it will probably work anywhere," Livingston said. "If they try something in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, of course it works. You're the only game in town."

Giant Eagle filled the void of Big Bear here and found other niches as well. It has 51 locations among GetGo, Giant Eagle and Market District stores in the chain's multicounty central Ohio region. The Market District store that will open in Grandview Yard on Friday will be the third in Columbus, more than in any market other than Pittsburgh.

The chain's latest concept, Market District Express, a much smaller format than its flagship store, is slated to be built in downtown Bexley next year.

Karet envisions more growth in Columbus and more changes to its fleet of stores.

"We will grow and change as Columbus grows and changes," Karet said.