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Massive crowd gathers for bulk shopping spree

Lured by the prospect of not having to drive to North Tampa, New Port Richey or Clearwater for warehouse bargains, hundreds of eager shoppers converged on the new Sam's Club on Cortez Boulevard on Thursday.

Minivans, sport utility vehicles and family sedans filled the parking lot and spilled onto grassy areas. Some shoppers parked at the adjacent Wal-Mart, then hiked to Sam's. Hernando sheriff's deputies and even Wal-Mart employees directed traffic.

"I've lost my husband," chuckled Jean Dufresne of Brookridge, as she gripped the big, signature-blue shopping cart in the crowd stalled in front of Sam's Club soon after the grand opening.

"He dropped me off 10 minutes ago and went to park," Dufresne said, her eyes scanning the tide of shoppers headed inside. "He'll never find me."

Inside the 138,500-square-foot retail warehouse, shoppers braved congestion as they took advantage of discounted prices, bulk-quantity merchandise and demonstration stations, where they snacked on free samples of deep-fried shrimp, seafood salad, smoked sausage, bratwurst, cheese, cheesecake and fudge.

A big crowd pleaser was the 2,400-serving marble cake, frosted in club colors of blazing orange, blue and white.

"It's a big day, and it's a big cake," demo coordinator Joyce Darby called out as she rapidly sliced and handed out the cake. Bakery manager Tom Lower said he and another baker prepared the grand opening treat by connecting 24 half-sheet cakes with icing in about two hours.

Another showstopper were two Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids.

"My husband was especially taken with the mermaid in the seafood department," said Sue Kendrick of Spring Hill. "He made the rounds (there) a couple of times."

Kendrick and her husband, Marty, previously drove to State Road 54 in New Port Richey to shop at Sam's Club. As they left with a cart full of groceries, the couple praised the Spring Hill location.

"It's a nice store, a really nice store," Marty Kendrick said.

John Dahm of Spring Hill also was impressed with the floor plan, which is different from the Sam's Club in Clearwater, where he previously shopped.

"It's well laid out," he said.

Store manager Sam Seletos appreciated the way customers responded to the look and feel of the new store.

"The newest layout is for people to find their way," said Seletos, who spent the past 10 years working for the Wal-Mart subsidiary. The Spring Hill store employs 210 people, including about 35 who transferred from other Sam's locations.

Seletos wasn't surprised by Thursday's crush of customers. When he was working at the North Tampa Sam's Club at Carrollwood, he had often heard members ask, "When are you coming to Hernando County?"

Dufresne is glad the club has finally come closer to home.

"All the way down on Dale Mabry, 45 minutes to an hour each way," she said of the trip to the North Tampa store. "This is really going to be great, very convenient," she added, still scanning the crowd for her lost husband.

Compared with the North Tampa location, Seletos said this store offers a liquor outlet, one-hour photo department, pharmacy, optical department and an enlarged fresh-food area with ready-to-serve meals.

The store's variety thrilled Sharon Anderson of Spring Hill, who likes to buy in the club's standard bulk quantity.

"I always have lots of company," said Anderson, who will buy a whole pork loin, have it cut into both roasts and chops, and freeze it for cooking when she has guests.

Cliff Replogle of Brooksville was stocking up on a big box of frozen beef patties and outsized packages of bacon, along with a couple of crates of bottled water: "Fishing trip stuff," he said.

While the new store is stocked with features and goods designed to attract busy young families and senior citizens, Sam's Club spokeswoman Beverly Rick said the store will also target small-business buyers. Sam's staged a 5{-hour opening only for business buyers on Wednesday.

"We had a very good business turnout," Seletos said.

Businesses will continue to get special attention with shopping hours designated for them from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays and 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Saturdays. Business members also may order online or by fax.

"Call in by the morning, and we'll have it ready by 5 p.m.," Rick said.

Regular member shopping hours are 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. weekdays, 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.

The parking lot was packed at the new Sam's Club on Cortez Boulevard Thursday. Determined shoppers even parked on the grass and at the nearby Wal-Mart. The day was far more than a first crack at bargains _ many in the community turned out just to welcome the store, including Anna Poholek, 8, top, and the Chocachatti Strings of Chocachatti Elementary School. Two Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids and a walking manatee also showed up.