Publix Super Markets Inc. has agreed to buy half the Albertsons stores left in Florida, including all but a handful in the Tampa Bay area, as a fiercely competitive grocery war claims another casualty.
Signaling a major retreat from one of the state's biggest markets, the sale of 49 of 93 Albertsons across the state includes getting rid of 17 of 22 stores in the Tampa Bay area. Among the surviving stores are one on Gulf-to-Bay in Clearwater, one in Largo Mall and one on North Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.
The sell-off means 5,000 workers, including 1,700 in the bay area, stand to lose their jobs. Albertsons officials declined to outline what sort of severance plan, if any, it will offer.
"We're hoping Publix will hire many of them, but we intend to remain in business in Florida," said Shane McEntarffer, spokesman for Albertsons. Publix will hold job fairs within weeks to interview those who might be interested in switching.
Albertsons' executives plan to continue supplying their remaining business from a huge distribution center in Plant City. But a distribution center typically needs to support 40 to 50 stores to be profitable. So Albertsons may continue to shrink its Florida presence as buyout opportunities arise.
Neither company disclosed the sale price or terms, but the sale is slated to be completed by September.
The sale will further cement Publix's position as the state's market share leader even as Wal-Mart continues to catch up. The Lakeland chain stands likely to add most of Albertsons' 4 percent share of the Florida food retailing dollar to its current 40 percent.
Publix is buying four Albertsons in Pensacola, Publix's first presence there as it stretches its reach to the perimeter of Mobile, Ala. Signs of the deal became apparent recently when Publix started signing deals for new stores in the Panhandle as far west as the bridge leading to Pensacola.
"We are always looking for good locations, especially in markets we don't serve, which made this a very good deal for us," said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix, which had 936 stores spread over five states before the acquisition.
The sale also signals a musical chairs shakeup in grocery store locations because several stores Publix is buying are within a block or two of existing Publix locations, such as in South Pasadena.
Rival grocers — including Winn-Dixie, Whole Foods and Sweetbay Supermarket — have been sizing up the Albertsons locations for more than a year. So it's likely some of the Publix purchases are defensive moves to keep competitors from buying them.
Unlike most grocers that lease their stores, Albertsons owns its real estate outright and has built one of the most formidable supermarket portfolios in Florida over the past 32 years. So Publix is paying a premium for a deed rather than just buying out leases. Publix will not make decisions on what to do with duplicate stores until the sale is complete in September, but most stores acquired will be remodeled under the Publix banner.
Now a distant fifth place in food retailing market share in the Tampa Bay area behind Publix and Wal-Mart, Albertsons was struggling well before its parent company was broken in two and sold two years ago. SuperValu Inc. bought 1,800 stores elsewhere that it considered the easiest to turn around.
The 655 unwanted stores in seven states including Florida were acquired by Cerberus Capital Management and operated as a private company called Albertsons LLC. Cerberus has whittled those 655 stores to 313.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or 727-893-8252.