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Seven Hills' Sweetbay in Spring Hill closes after sales empty shelves

SPRING HILL

Late last week, when Sweetbay Supermarket slashed prices by half at its Seven Hills Plaza store, shoppers swooped through the aisles as if it were Black Friday.

By Sunday, when the discount went to 75 percent, there wasn't much left.

The store at Spring Hill Drive and Mariner Boulevard is among 33 "under-performing" units the grocer's Belgian parent is closing this month. In fact, with the shelves laid bare, the Seven Hills store locked its doors for the final time at the end of business Monday.

The final days saw a steady stream of shoppers — a mix of longtime Sweetbay regulars and a lot of others simply looking to fill their pantries and refrigerators with bargains.

Jerry Bruzdewitz of Spring Hill was one of the regulars and said he will miss the convenience of the store.

"I've been shopping here since it opened," said Bruzdewitz, 72. "It used to be Kash n' Karry."

That was in 1990.

In 2004, a new corporate president stepped to the helm, renamed and refashioned the stores, jazzed up the ambience and encouraged the employment of associates with a "foodie" devotion.

It worked. But over time, other supermarkets made their own competitive bids for shoppers. And the biggest chains in Florida — Publix and Walmart — bit off the fattest slices of the pie.

Nonetheless, some shoppers said they will remain loyal to Sweetbay.

Bruzdewitz said he will transfer most of his business to the Sweetbay store at Mariner and Northcliffe boulevards in the Mariner Crossing shopping center, which will remain open. He figures he will buy some items at Publix as well.

Publix is the market of choice for Janet Pace of Spring Hill, but she was at Sweetbay on Friday, packing her hatchback with two carts full of groceries.

"For half price, we got everything we could," said the 50-year-old Pace, who brought along her uncle, Paul Blomstrohn, as a cart navigator.

Said Blomstrohn: "Beer's the only thing not on sale, and nobody was buying it."

Joe Lomastro of Spring Hill had followed Blomstrohn from the store to parking lot, waiting for his carts.

"I've been all over the parking lot four times," said Lomastro, of Spring Hill. "There are no carts inside."

That didn't deter Theresa Palmieri, 35, of Spring Hill, who juggled a couple of wedges of artisan cheese in one arm as she searched through more varieties of the normally pricey imported selections outside the deli case.

Near noon, it was Palmieri's second visit of the day. Before 8 a.m., she had packed two shopping carts with "a little bit of everything," zeroing in on chicken and diapers.

Even during her earlier foray, Palmieri said, other customers followed her to her car and helped her unload so they could commandeer her carts. She had returned to shop for "just a few more things. I'll get what my hands can take."

Palmieri, who usually shops at Walmart and Publix, said she had never experienced the closing of a grocery store.

"I feel bad for the people losing their jobs," she said.

Tampa-based Sweetbay spokeswoman Nicole LeBeau said employees at the closed stores were invited to apply for work at the company's remaining 72 supermarkets.

"If positions are available at other stores, they'll be considered," LeBeau said.

Terminated associates will receive severance packages based on their years of employment, she added.

The Seven Hills store had a roster of 50 workers, said manager Paul Bienstoch, himself with more than 12 years at Sweetbay, five of them at Seven Hills.

When asked how it was determined which stores would close, LeBeau said there were several factors.

"Every store is different — different sales goals. But it's not just sales volume," she said. Among the other factors: a store's location in relation to other grocers, the overall mix of retailers in the neighborhood and growth around a store.

Just across Mariner, a Winn-Dixie supermarket anchors another strip. Sweetbay's neighbors in Seven Hills Plaza that sell food include Walgreens, GNC, Subway, a bagel shop and a Chinese restaurant.

In announcing the closings in mid January, Sweetbay officials noted competition from Walmart and Publix, along with the expansions of Aldi's and Target in the Tampa Bay market.

"Everyone that sells groceries is a competitor," LeBeau noted. "You can get cleaning supplies at Lowe's, groceries at Walgreens."

At the next-door Walgreens, manager Gianlouis Santiago said he was only slightly concerned that Sweetbay's departure will cut the number of visitors to the plaza. "This is the busiest corner in the area," Santiago said. "Everything's full here."

The manager at GNC, which sells vitamins and supplements, voiced a little more concern.

"We've worried it might drive customers down," said manager Chris Lamb. "We're seeing that already."

Said Emilio Mancada, who owns a tailor shop in the plaza: "It's going to be damage for me."

Mancada said he moved his business to the plaza two years ago because of the traffic generated by his larger neighbors.

The plaza's leasing agent, Eden's, in North Carolina, declined by email to comment regarding the Sweetbay closing and whether there are any potential tenants for the vacant space.

Hernando County business development director Mike McHugh speculated that the 44,500-square-foot Sweetbay space may not remain empty for long. "When you look at Spring Hill, those commercial nodes, there's not an abundant supply of commercial space," McHugh said. "That's probably the most marketable (space) in the heart of Spring Hill. Traffic — retailers love that."

While many plazas are anchored by a grocery, McHugh noted, "I don't know that a supermarket itself is the be-all and end-all."

Santiago, of Walgreens, suggested that a gym fill the vacancy. GNC's Lamb said a store such as Big Lots might work. Mancada, the tailor, mentioned a big-box electronics store.

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

Seven Hills' Sweetbay in Spring Hill closes after sales empty shelves 02/05/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 8:11pm]

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