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Business: Growth of grocery stores is start of retail trend

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

One is closing, but two more are on the way.

That trend is likely to continue as grocery stores compete for a share of the Pawleys Island market, and residents can expect other national retailers to follow, according to one economist.

“They’re not just building for today,” said Rob Salvino, research economist at Coastal Carolina University.

The Piggly Wiggly at Litchfield Market Village will close next week. It was among the stores the Charleston-based chain sold earlier this year to Bi-Lo. The building at Litchfield will undergo a three-month renovation and expansion and reopen as a Bi-Lo.

Meanwhile, work continues on Lowes Foods at Pawleys Market. It is scheduled to open in May.

Publix announced last month it will open a store at Pawleys Island Plaza in 2015. Added to the existing Food Lion and Fresh Market, that has many residents wondering how many grocery stores the area needs.

“In Pawleys Island in particular, the growth is so new one could argue the offerings haven’t kept up with the growing demand,” Salvino said. “Grocery stores have a simple model, a certain population in a certain radius.”

What put the area on the map for national retailers was the U.S. Census. South Carolina’s population grew over 15 percent in the 2010 census and Myrtle Beach was among the fastest growing areas in the state. Those are numbers that national firms look at, Salvino said.

And when they see an area like Pawleys Island, where the population grew 32 percent in the 2010 census, near an area like Myrtle Beach, the companies take notice.

“For example, Wal-Mart wanted to come in,” Salvino said.

The owners of Pawleys Island Plaza said Wal-Mart was initially interested in one of Neighborhood Market stores. A plan for the plaza submitted to Georgetown County last year called for a 120,000-square-foot retail building, that the developers said was for a Walmart store. It failed to get county approval to exceed the county’s limit of 60,000 square feet for buildings in the commercial corridor along Highway 17. The Publix will be 45,000 square feet.

Publix also plans a store in North Myrtle Beach. “Before, Pawleys Island might not have been identified with Myrtle Beach,” Salvino said. “National chains are going to start looking at Pawleys Island.”

“That was exactly my point with Wal-Mart,” said Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis. Even though the town limit doesn’t extend to Highway 17, the town was among the leaders of the opposition to the big-box Walmart store. The town believes that the county’s limit on commercial building size protects the character of the mainland’s small business community.

“If Georgetown County doesn’t hold the line, we’ll have Best Buy and everybody else lining up,” Otis said. “I made that point with the Lowe’s hardware store at the South Causeway.”

A 2005 request to the county to build a 168,000-square-foot Lowe’s Home Improvement Center led to the creation of the Don’t Box the Neck campaign, which helped defeat the plan and returned to fight the Walmart project. Lowes Foods, a separate company, first announced plans for a Pawleys Island store in 2008, but the cancelled them during the Great Recession. It’s now building a 45,000-square-foot store.

The store is on track, according to Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. “I was surprised by their schedule, but it looks like they’re going to make it.”

Bi-Lo wants to expand the soon-to-be-former Piggly Wiggly. The owners of Piggly Wiggly got county approval in 2007 to add 7,500 square feet to the 36,000-square-foot store that opened in 1998. The extra space was never built because the owners balked at a county requirement that it provide access between Litchfield Market Village and the adjacent Mingo commercial and residential development.

Johnson said he hasn’t heard from Bi-Lo and calls to the company’s headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla., were not returned.

Grocery stores are usually the first wave of national retailers because they sell staples, Salvino said.”It’s usually the most stable,” he said. “It’s a signal that there’s population there.”

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