When Winn-Dixie's parent company announced it was buying Sweetbay supermarkets and turning them into Winn-Dixie stores, customers had two big questions:
Are you keeping the employees? And will the pretzels, pineapples and other products stay in the same place?
Winn-Dixie said yes to both.
Bi-Lo Holdings, the Jacksonville-based parent company, is converting 72 Sweetbay stores into Winn-Dixies as part of its recent purchase of 165 Sweetbay, Harveys and Reid's grocery stores from Delhaize America.
In the Tampa Bay area, the move was intended to help Winn-Dixie grab a bigger share of the grocery market now dominated by Publix and Walmart.
Bi-Lo has shut Sweetbays in waves, starting with stores in the Fort Myers-Naples area. Stores in the Tampa Bay area began closing March 29, and the last ones will close April 12.
Each store went dark for five days. Employees, vendors and contractors worked around the clock sprucing up the buildings and swapping out signs, merchandise and register machines.
"It's a herculean job," said Joey Medina, regional vice president of Winn-Dixie. "It's a big job to be doing in five days."
The task took months of planning and an army of people. Department managers from across the company are helping with each conversion. Just retagging and restocking the shelves requires up to 200 workers.
Winn-Dixie took pains to incorporate the best of both Sweetbay and Winn-Dixie. Sweetbay stores that had salad bars have them as Winn-Dixies, and soon every store will have a bell by the front door that customers can ring if they enjoyed their experience.
To cause the least disruption, Winn-Dixie kept the basic store layouts. Produce, seafood and bakery departments are in the same spots. The mustard didn't change aisles.
"We went to great lengths not to move products," Medina said.
As part of the $265 million sale, Bi-Lo bought the inventories of nonperishable items but not the fresh goods. It subbed Sweetbay's Hannaford, My Essentials and other generic brands for Winn-Dixie's namesake label and discount brand, Clear Value.
New for many Sweetbay shoppers are Winn-Dixie's promotions. Its reward card program offers discounts on gasoline, and any purchase of four bottles of wine is 10 percent off. Stores with pharmacies sell prescriptions for generic drugs for $4 for a 30-day supply and $10 for 90 days.
Winn-Dixie expanded its selection of meat, cheese and flowers in the stores and sells only higher-grade beef, a nod to its "Beef People" focus. The produce department highlights fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers.
The purchase of Tampa-based Sweetbay allowed Bi-Lo to immediately expand into a market where Winn-Dixie has a limited presence. Most of the Tampa stores are in areas outside the urban core.
"We're trying to give people in Tampa an opportunity to get reacquainted with Winn-Dixie," Medina said. "This market is very important to us."
So far, company officials are encouraged by the response. At a newly converted store in North Fort Myers, more than 100 shoppers were waiting outside when the new Winn-Dixie opened.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.