Business: Market Jitters

Can former checkout girl Judy Spires keep Acme relevant in the age of Whole Foods and Walmart Supercenters?

Judy Spires is buzzing around the Acme in Paoli, looking like she owns the place. She doesn’t, but who would deny her — a woman who started as a checkout girl and worked her way up to be president of the whole supermarket chain — the right to look so in charge? What she does not look like, with an expert blowout of her short blond hair and a trim frame that effortlessly carries a pale gray power suit, is a store employee. So shoppers seem slightly bemused by her ebullient shouts of “Thanks for shopping here!” and “How are you doing today?”

Spires spies a little boy arriving in a plastic fireman’s hat. “The fireman’s coming to visit the Acme! Yay!” she exclaims. Later, she oohs and aahs over a cute baby, asking his mom how old he is. You get the feeling Spires is on the campaign trail, and in a way, she is — stumping for Acme, mentally willing each customer to Shop here. Like my store. Come back soon, ya hear? The whole time, there’s a grin on her face, almost as if she won’t even consider the idea that customers might not shop here. Unfortunately for her, the chances are getting better and better that they very well may not.

In 1970, when Judy Spires began her grocery career at age 17 — her dad, an Acme bread-truck driver, helped her get a cashier job at a Westmont store near the family’s South Jersey home — it seemed everyone was loyal to the Ack-uh-me, the beloved local chain with South Philly roots dating to 1891. “There were two places where you shopped,” Spires recalls. “It was A&P or Acme, and Mom did the shopping one day a week and you bought a lot of stuff.” Back then, Wegmans was still more than 20 years away from expanding beyond its upstate New York roots, and the word “supercenter” was just a twinkle in Sam Walton’s eye.

Thirty years later, Acme still retains its long-held grip on the number-one supermarket spot in our region, but that dominance hasn’t been enough to scare away competitors; it’s just made them hungrier for Acme’s customers. ShopRite, CVS, Walmart, Giant, Wegmans, Wawa, and even less direct threats like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and The Fresh Market have joined the battle that by all accounts, including Spires’s, is fierce. So even though the Acme store in Paoli is humming with shoppers on this Monday afternoon in June, and even though (or maybe because) she’s smiling, I can’t help but imagine that Judy Spires has serious rope burn on her hands, because I’ve seen the numbers.

THOSE NUMBERS ARE called market share, and Acme has — and has had — the biggest slice of it in the Philadelphia region for decades. What’s worrisome is that its slice keeps getting skinnier.