Winn-Dixie readies to rebrand Sweetbay stores

Say goodbye to Sweetbay supermarkets. Months after Bi-Lo Holdings announced it was buying the Sweetbay stores and converting them into Winn-Dixies, the end is finally here.

Stores in southeast Hillsborough County and St. Petersburg close Saturday and will reopen as Winn-Dixies April 4. Stores in Tampa and the surrounding area close April 5 and reopen April 11.

Clearance sales are under way, with My Essentials, Hannaford and other Sweetbay-branded items 25 percent off. That's a great deal, considering generic brands are already cheaper than name brands. I scored a box of Tasteeos cereal for $1.78 and a two-liter of diet ginger ale for 63 cents.

During the six-day closures, the stores will be transformed into Winn-Dixies from top to bottom. Aisles will be rearranged, shelves will be restocked with Winn-Dixie products and employees carried over from Sweetbay will be retrained. Too bad Sweetbay's pretty purple and green signs will be replaced with Winn-Dixie's not-so-exciting check mark logo.

Joey Medina, Winn-Dixie's regional vice president, said customers will be "pleasantly surprised'' by efforts to provide fresh quality products at affordable prices.

I hope he's right. Sweetbay may have failed to find its place among Publix, Walmart and gourmet grocers, but it has its redeeming qualities. Matched against Winn-Dixie, it may even be the superior store, at least in terms of appearance.

The rebranding is part of Bi-Lo Holdings' acquisition of 165 Sweetbay, Harveys and Reid's supermarkets owned by Delhaize America. For many Sweetbay loyalists, the change is bittersweet. It's never easy watching a hometown company disappear. (Sweetbay is based in Tampa even though Delhaize was out of North Carolina.) But even worse would be shuttered buildings. By joining the 480-store Winn-Dixie chain, the stores might have a shot of surviving long-term.

If I were heading up the conversion, here's what I'd take from Sweetbay and what I would toss or retool.

• Keep the salad bar. It's fresh, simple and quick. I was somewhat miffed to see the price recently upped to $5.99 per pound from $4.99 at the Tampa store on Swann Avenue, but it's still less than the $7.99 Whole Foods and other stores charge.

• Add product finders on the grocery carts. Sweetbay's carts list common items in alphabetical order with the corresponding aisle number. It prevents a lot of wandering or hunting for an employee. It's especially helpful when you aren't familiar with a store.

• Ditch the rotisserie chickens near the checkouts. I get the idea of grab-and-go items but for chewing gum and batteries, not a sitdown meal. Cooked chickens don't look appetizing next to star gossip magazines. The smell must make vegetarians gag.

• Reformat Sweetbay's weekly fliers. The dotted lines around sales items are deceptive. I think there's a coupon somewhere, but there isn't. I leaf through disappointed.

I hope Winn-Dixie incorporates the bells it recently introduced at some stores. Customers can ring them on the way out if they had a pleasurable shopping experience. Cashiers cheer. Word has it Winn-Dixie borrowed the idea from a Sweetbay store.

I finally got to shop at Trader Joe's in Tampa, after writing about its opening last week. I strategically went at 8:45 a.m. Sunday in the hopes of avoiding crowds, and I did. The store was busy, but I got parking spot right away and didn't have to wait for a register. My friend, on the other hand, tried to go at 11:15 a.m. but got stuck trying to park and left.

My only quibble: The checkout crew, while friendly and helpful, could use a lesson in bagging groceries. They put my eggs at the bottom of the bag and my orange juice on the top — oddly on its side. And, speaking of juice, the Trader Joe's brand isn't great. The price caught my eye — $1.99 for a half gallon — but the OJ tastes like stuff out of a can. Fortunately, the sliced mango and chocolate-covered pretzels more than make up for it.

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

Winn-Dixie readies to rebrand Sweetbay stores 03/24/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 5:28pm]

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