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-- The local retail fight that once pitted Food Lion against Harris Teeter for grocery store supremacy has become an increasingly crowded battlefield.

Including the impending arrival of several new specialty players, New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties will soon be home to at least 12 grocery store chains and no less than 58 individual stores.

But the sheer enormity of the grocery store presence in the region doesn't surprise Tracey Meyer, chair of the marketing department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

"Every consumer eats, so grocery business is big business, she said.

In the next few years, Publix, Aldi and Lidl will all open their first local stores. Just Monday, Aldi filing plans for a Market Street location -- its third in the region.

Krysta Cearley, ALDI Salisbury Division vice president, confirmed Tuesday theMarketStreet location will join thepreviouslyannounced Wilmington and Leland stores.

The boom in grocery chain presence in the area can likely be attributed to the region's own booming population.

"Retailers and grocery stores tend to follow the rooftops," said Andy Ellen, president of theNorth Carolina Retail Merchants Association. "North Carolina is the ninth largest state in the country in population ... On the coast we are seeing growth.It's only logical that grocery stores follow the people."

By 2040, New Hanover County officials project the three-county region will see growth of as much as 90 percent, sending its population soaring past 550,000.

Ellen said Southeastern North Carolina's growing population of retirees andpeople with disposable incomes, in particular, drive the attraction up for retailers.

For its part, Cearley said Aldi selects new locations based on "population density, proximity to competition, cost of the property and traffic patterns."

Separate from population, grocery stores also hold a special place in the retail industry as an essential piece of daily life. But they are ultimately limited in their chances of expansion in the age of online shopping.

In other words, they will likely never be big online sellers, forcing them to focus more on the in-person business strategy, Meyer said.

The only way for them to grow is to open brick-and-mortar stores," she said.

Hansen Matthews, of Maus, Warwick, Matthews & Co., was a listing agent for the Publix at Pine Valley and is contracted with another grocer opening a store in Leland. He said there are plenty of positives for a grocery store eyeing the region. But in a market already saturated with options, there are also challenges.

"Anytime you are a new company in a given market, the existing competitors have already taken a lot of the best corners and intersections," he said. "It is imperative to get the best remaining sites."

Squeezing into busy corridors and neighborhoods can mean tweaking designs and having to widen or connect driveways.

But experts agree that shoppers crave diversity and that is what the existing Cape Fear grocery market lacks.

"The specialty store, that is what we were missing here," Meyer said.

So what makes all of these grocery stores stand out among the growing herd? We investigate.

Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com.

Food Lion

Local presence: 20 stores

Specialty: The most populous grocery retailer in the region operates stores that are smaller in size but offer a cheaper alternative to the more specialized retailers.

For the original version including any supplementary images or video, visit Aldi, Publix, Lidl - More stores join supermarket fray | StarNewsOnline.com

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