(July 23, 12:55 p.m.) The stagnating economy has sent more consumers to grocery stores. To save money, distributors in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore region say more people are eating at home. That shift has benefited the mid-Atlantic region’s grocery stores.

One chain that has benefited from the trend is Magruder Inc., a Rockville, Md.-based chain of nine stores.

One of the ways Magruders tries to stay ahead of its competitor stores is through its merchandising of produce, said Mike Patterson, director of produce operations.

While the produce department typically accounts for 11% of a store’s sales, produce at Magruders represents 32% of the chain’s total sales — three times the norm.

“One of the big things at Magruders is the produce side,” Patterson said. “We really do try to push produce in this company. We promote it like a third of our ads are related to produce. We have produce outside and inside of the store and do supplemental displays throughout the stores.”

Patterson noted the store engages in much cross-merchandising. At the meat counter, Magruders positions portabella mushrooms next to the steaks and Vidalia onions alongside hamburger.

Increasing specialty sales

Retail sales have increased for Coosemans D.C. Inc., Jessup, Md.

“Because of the economy, my belief is that fewer people are eating out,” said Lolo Mengel, co-owner and general manager. “They still want high-quality foods, and they want to entertain. They’re turning more toward the retail market and are preparing more meals at home.”

Mengel said the Washington-Baltimore area seems to weather economic difficulties better than other regions. The region benefits from a large governmental presence. The region is seeing new businesses and industries, such as those related to national security and technology open, Mengel said.

“I’m grateful I have my business here because I don’t see the downturn I see everywhere else,” she said.

Mengel said Coosemans serves new chain stores such as the El Grande International Supermarket and the Pan American Markets.

The region’s produce economy has remained steady, said Gus Pappas, president of Pete Pappas & Sons Inc. Washington, D.C.

As the price of fuel rises, more people change the way they dine, he said.

“People will be more apt to entertain at home instead of going on weekend trips,” Pappas said. “We get real busy when people entertain. They buy more than they normally buy for parties.”

Steady sales

Dave Goodman, president of Sid Goodman & Co. Inc., Jessup, characterized retail sector sales as steady.

“They seem to be doing a little better (than foodservice) but no one is setting the world on fire,” he said. “I don’t see people having a lot of money left over for luxury items after they spend their money on gas, milk and bread. Especially if they go to the store and have to pay $10 for a bag of cherries.”

The different chains that dominate the Baltimore and D.C. area make for a healthy retail landscape.

“Overall, it’s a very competitive area,” he said. “They do a good job with produce here.

Tony Vitrano, president of the Tony Vitrano Co., Jessup, said changing demographics have helped retail produce sales.

Vitrano said he’s seen a bigger effect in the Washington area, which because of its larger population, has a bigger immigrant base.

“They have helped change the way produce is sold in the produce market around here,” Vitrano said. “It has helped the market here stay on an even keel. While we don’t have the support of the larger chains we had 10-15 years ago, a lot of the small grocery stores depend on the market for their produce. A lot of their customers buy produce every day, so it helps a lot.”

Though the change has been gradual, Vitrano said it has been noticeable.

Tomato safety reaction

During the national tomato salmonella scare, Magruders removed its round reds and roma tomatoes.

Patterson said the stores immediately contacted its suppliers to determine where all the tomatoes originated. The chain began returning the tomatoes to the shelves after the Food and Drug Administration cleared Florida growing regions that were in production and when tomatoes moved from Florida to Georgia and South Carolina.

“We put enough information in the stores around the tomatoes, information we received from the FDA, the trade papers and what we wrote up, to assure customers that it was safe to eat these tomatoes from where we were getting them from,” Patterson said.

Patterson said the chain changed its weekly advertising during late June and began heavily promoting stem, beefsteak or hydroponic tomatoes. That sale, Patterson said, had the chain selling 650 boxes of tomatoes in one week.

Patterson said the chain sold the same number of tomatoes as it usually does and that the scare didn’t have a big effect on tomato sales.