Retail isn't dying, but it's going through one heck of a never-ending transformation.
The last year of retail innovation has brought Florida shoppers an explosion of online ordering, pickup and delivery options, including Whole Foods groceries through Prime Now.
There's the clear winner (King Amazon) and loser (Sears) — but I'm not as interested in what's already happened as I am in what's to come.
As we dive into 2019, let's talk about the retail trends you ought to be watching.
Publix will continue to up its game.
The Lakeland grocer is well aware of the changing desires of shoppers as it heavily advertises its partnership with grocery delivery service Instacart and attempts to reach more foodies with its new GreenWise Market concept.
Publix recently filed plans with the City of Tampa's zoning board to create an "Instacart staging room" and event-planning office inside the Britton Plaza store in South Tampa. It's unclear if formalized staging areas are in the works at other stores, but Publix is definitely investing and experimenting with its delivery offerings.
"Online order and delivery is now available at all our locations, and this type of convenience is growing in popularity with our customers," Publix spokesman Brian West said in a statement.
Shoppers are also being drawn to more niche specialty stores. Lucky's Market, with grocer giant Kroger's backing, has been expanding across Florida at a higher rate than any other chain in the category. Publix seems to have answered with its new GreenWise Market stores, which debuted to Tallahassee shoppers in October and focus more on prepared foods and organic offerings.
I predict more GreenWise Market announcements in 2019 — and hopefully one a little closer to Tampa Bay than the upcoming Lakeland store.
The fast delivery competition will get more fierce, and I'm eyeing Amazon and Walmart's next moves.
Amazon shook up the already crowded grocery delivery scene in 2018 by adding Whole Foods delivery and curbside pickup in select metros, including Tampa Bay. More and more, we're seeing stores double as fulfillment and delivery hubs to try to keep up with the giant online retailer.
But what Walmart has that Amazon doesn't, is store volume. Thousands of stores make it easier for Walmart to put expanded grocery delivery and pickup services in reach of the bulk of Americans. Amazon has fewer than 500 Whole Foods locations — but that may not be for long.
Just ahead of the new year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon plans to expand Whole Foods locations across the country so suburbs and rural areas can access its grocery delivery services.
I could see this eventually meaning more Florida Whole Foods stores. In Tampa Bay, Pasco and Hernando County shoppers are mostly too far from the bay area's three Whole Foods to get free grocery delivery. It doesn't matter that they pay the same $119 Amazon Prime membership fee as those who can get grocery delivery in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
I imagine the company's focus for new stores is on the Midwest, where there are states without a single Whole Foods. The Wall Street Journal reported Amazon employees eyed spaces up to 45,000 square feet in Idaho, southern Utah and Wyoming. That size is bigger than the typical footprint for the organic grocer.
These new Whole Foods will be the first grocery stores Amazon can actually design and build since buying the chain in 2017. I expect the new stores to be centered around seamless delivery and pickup options.
Perhaps Amazon will make use of the growing number of vacant Sears and Kmart locations.
Speaking of which, I think everyone in the retail space is watching Kmart and Sears.
Things are not looking good for one of America's oldest retailers. It's kind of poetic that Sears Holdings announced its latest round of closings before the calendar changed, a real bookmark ending to a disastrous year dealing with bankruptcy.
The latest blow means the Sears at WestShore Plaza in Tampa and the Gulf View Mall in Port Richey will close by late March. That leaves three remaining stores in Tampa Bay: Kenneth City's lone Kmart and the Sears stores in Brooksville and Brandon.
We're all wondering if the company can emerge from bankruptcy in the new year. Chairman Edward Lampert's plan so far has been to buy the company for more than $4 billion through his own hedge fund, and it's still unclear if that could save the remaining 400 stores and thousands of jobs.
Locally, though, I'm watching the soon-to-be vacated real estate.
WestShore Plaza announced in October it had unspecified plans for the Sears space. At the Gulf View Mall, developers are turning the plots of land that once housed a JC Penney and Macy's into apartment complexes.
I suspect we will continue to see these big-box spaces divided into mix-use and smaller retail storefronts. Maybe not every plan will be as bold as the vision by developers of the University Mall in Tampa to turn the mall into a research village. But I can see the WestShore and Gulf View parcels being set up on a similar path as what developers did to the Sears at the Tyrone mall in St. Pete.
What was once a struggling Sears is now one of the city's most popular shopping plazas — with Lucky’s Market, Dick’s Sporting Goods, 5 Below and PetSmart — where you can expect to round the lot a few times in search of a spot in front of Lucky's on any given Saturday.
That's transformation. That's retail.
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.