The Idaho-based WinCo is entering the crowded Valley grocery market and is planning on moving into this big-box store on the southeast corner of Power Road and Southern Ave. in Mesa, shown Friday, Jan. 21, 2011.

Tim Hacker

A grocery chain planning an Arizona expansion is continuing to sign leases for massive stores across the Valley even as the company says it's not sure when or where it will open shops.

Idaho-based WinCo inked deals on sites in east Mesa and Glendale in late 2010, after at least a year of scouting in Gilbert, Phoenix and other cities.

The employee-owned discount chain isn't ready to say much about its Arizona plans, said Michael Read, WinCo's vice president of public and legal affairs.

"It's clear we're interested and we've looked and are looking," Read said. "But in terms of timing, potential sites, where - it's far too early to comment. In this economy, we've actually scaled back expansion plans."

Still, the company signed a lease for a 139,000-square foot former Costco at the southeast corner of Power Road and Southern Avenue, according to CB Richard Ellis' quarterly retail report. WinCo leased a Glendale site in the same quarter.

Also, WinCo is considering a store at the southeast corner of Pecos Road and Market Street in Gilbert. That site has generated some opposition, as it would take up part of Main Street Commons, a development that was first pitched as an upscale center like Kierland Commons. Many of the higher-end projects within Main Street Commons withdrew plans during the recession.

WinCo's stores are larger than traditional grocery stores at about 90,000 square feet. The chain touts low prices and keeps costs down by having customers bag their own groceries and by keeping the décor simple.

"It's not fancy by any means, but it's very much just a large supermarket," Read said. "What we focus on is low pricing. We strive to be the area's supermarket low price leader in every market where we operate."

Shoppers could find lower prices as WinCo's presence would put more pressure on competitors. The Valley is already one of the nation's most competitive markets, with Walmart, Fry's Albertson's, Safeway, Costco, Trader Joe's, Fresh ‘N Easy, Sunflower Market and now even Target jostling for their place in the grocery industry. The pressure helped push Chandler-based Bashas' into a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization last year, though it did emerge after shuttering some of its Bashas', Food City and AJ's Fine Foods locations.

WinCo is owned by its employees and had been expanding in recent years, with 78 stores in Idaho, California, Utah, Washington, Oregon and Nevada. It employs 14,000 and has annual sales of nearly $5 billion. Forbes magazine listed WinCo as the nation's 65th largest privately-held company in its most recent rankings.

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