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Clearance sales at Sweetbay Supermarkets can be a sad, depressing experience

Sweetbay employee Nicky Burke, left, of Brooksville assists Dianne Phillips of Spring Hill last week at the Spring Hill Drive store. That’s one of the 22 stores in the Tampa Bay area that will be closing ahead of the Feb. 13 target date.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Sweetbay employee Nicky Burke, left, of Brooksville assists Dianne Phillips of Spring Hill last week at the Spring Hill Drive store. That’s one of the 22 stores in the Tampa Bay area that will be closing ahead of the Feb. 13 target date.

It's hard to find the silver lining in the death of a grocery store, even when everything on the shelves is half off.

Just go to a clearance sale at one of the Sweetbay Supermarkets getting ready to close. It's depressing.

News spread quickly — like all bad news does — when Tampa-based Sweetbay announced last month it was shuttering 33 underperforming stores in Florida, including 22 in the Tampa Bay area. Sales started soon after, attracting crowds hungry for bargains.

Sweetbay said Monday the stores will likely close by Wednesday, earlier than the Feb. 13 target date, because they emptied out so quickly. Markdowns of 75 percent began Sunday.

I felt like a vulture walking the aisles of the Sweetbay at Hillsborough and Armenia avenues in Tampa. Shoppers picked at the leftovers, grabbing bug spray, nail polish and cupcake sprinkles. Employees consolidated random merchandise, cordoning off sections of the store as forever closed.

While I usually celebrate any purchase at 50 percent off or more, getting tissue paper for 59 cents lacked the thrill. It seemed heartless rejoicing in my good fortune knowing the clerk at the register was losing her job. I don't care how little money someone makes, most people take pride in their work.

Ditto for Al Roberts, a longtime shopper at the Sweetbay at 62nd Avenue S in St. Petersburg. He saved 25 percent on a bunch of groceries last week but was sad to see his neighborhood store come to such an abrupt end. For years, it had been part of his routine.

Ideally, a grocery store should be a happy place, full of potential and possibilities. It's where moms dream up the next family dinner. It's where couples build the perfect sundae for movie night on the couch. It's where every good party starts.

Of course, other grocery stores will step up to fill the void, which can't be too big or the stores wouldn't be closing in the first place. Even before the Sweetbay locations shuttered for good, Publix sent fliers to neighbors of some affected stores. "Looking for a new place to shop for groceries?" Here's a $5 coupon. Come check us out.

Still, it must be strange working at the 72 remaining stores. For every customer who expressed gratitude that a store isn't closing, more must have asked about its future. Even the most loyal of employees doesn't like sailing on a sinking ship.

Sweetbay has said thinning out underperforming stores will help strengthen the chain overall. Hopefully, shoppers will switch to other Sweetbay stores, and the chain will rebuild from a stronger base.

It's easy to be pessimistic. Publix and Walmart are formidable opponents and show no signs of weakening. Add in discount stores such as Aldi and Save-A-Lot and gourmet grocers such as Whole Foods and Fresh Market, and Sweetbay's piece of the grocery pie gets smaller, not bigger.

I visited a Save-A-Lot last week to check out some of the competition. Lo and behold, there's one about a mile from the Sweetbay that is closing on Hillsborough.

I was intrigued, but not blown away. It's quick and small, and I liked the concept of charging 3 cents for a plastic grocery bag. Not only does it encourage shoppers to bring their own, but it discourages wasteful double bagging, which I can't stand.

Conscientious shoppers will perk up at some of the prices: 49 cents for canned corn, $2.49 for a half-gallon of Florida orange juice, $2.29 for a bag of Swedish fish.

The baked goods looked comparable to what you get at traditional supermarkets but much cheaper. I'd go back for the yummy cinnamon rolls but definitely not for the McDaniels coffee. Sorry, but yuck.

I can see how places like Sweetbay get lost in the mushy middle. They aren't discount grocers with exciting prices, and they aren't the higher-end ones with exciting products. Being good is fine but, in the long run, that might not be enough to compete.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Clearance sales at Sweetbay Supermarkets can be a sad, depressing experience 02/04/13 [Last modified: Monday, February 4, 2013 10:01pm]
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