Sweetbay or Winn-Dixie?For many shoppers, Sweetbay is superior. Most of the stores are clean and newly remodeled. The produce is fresh and well displayed, surpassing even Publix's at times. (Blasphemy!) I particularly like Sweetbay's $3.99-a-pound salad bar.So when Bi-Lo Holdings, the parent company of Winn-Dixie that's buying the Sweetbay chain, said it will convert the Sweetbay stores into the Winn-Dixie brand, reaction was bland.But maybe it shouldn't be.Burt P. Flickinger III, a retail expert on the local grocery scene, said this could be Winn-Dixie's big chance, after years of decline. Adding Sweetbay's 72 stores will expand its geographic coverage and raise its prominence, especially in the Tampa Bay market, where it doesn't have as mighty a following as in other places."It gives Winn-Dixie more size and scale to compete in the state of Florida,'' said Flickinger, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm in New York. ''It gives it a stronger base.''Arguably Winn-Dixie is the stronger chain.For decades, Winn-Dixie was considered a top Florida grocer, especially in the north and the south. Consider its roots. The chain's owner, William Davis, started it in Miami in 1925. Its headquarters is in Jacksonville.By 1998, Winn-Dixie was a monster retailer with 1,200 stores across the South — even more than Publix's current 1,073. Shoppers praised the store for its meat and its low prices. And the word Dixie had Southern appeal.But amid increased competition from Publix, Walmart and other discounters, Winn-Dixie struggled to find its niche. In early 2005, it filed for bankruptcy protection.The company re-emerged the next year a significantly smaller player. It closed more than 360 stores and pulled out of the Carolinas and some big markets in Georgia. Efforts turned to beefing up customer service and upgrading the stores' looks.Today, the chain has 479 stores in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. Some have been remodeled with brown, neutral tones, but most still have the dated pastels and not-so-exciting facades.Absorbing the Sweetbay stores allows Winn-Dixie to quickly upgrade its image in the Tampa Bay area, where Winn-Dixie's stores are often spread out in remote areas such as Palm River and Seffner. Sweetbay stores are typically nicer and more modern than most Winn-Dixies, having gone through extensive remodelings when the brand converted from Kash n' Karry to Sweetbay several years ago. In the long run, Sweetbay probably didn't have much of a chance anyway. After closing 33 underperforming stores earlier this year, it didn't have a lot of locations left. Seldom do I see big crowds at the stores that remain.Shoppers didn't like that Sweetbay was owned by a non-U.S. company, Flickinger said. Although Sweetbay has its corporate headquarters in Tampa, its parent company, Delhaize Group, is from Belgium. Its U.S. subsidiary is in North Carolina."Winn-Dixie has always been a name that has connected well in Florida,'' Flickinger said. "Sweetbay has not connected well.''Maybe putting Winn-Dixie's name on Sweetbay's buildings will be the change that works.Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow her @susan_thurston on Twitter.