You could argue it started with the Fresh Market.
In the early 2000s, the gourmet chain opened in Tampa and a local grocer evolution began to build. The competition grew far fiercer than just Publix versus Winn-Dixie. Walmart and Target entered the space; Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s continued to expand, attracting legions of dedicated fans. Publix, though still the leader in Florida’s grocery game, was no longer many shoppers’ default.
In 2018, Tampa Bay shoppers have more options than ever before, thanks to an influx of smaller, specialty chains.
While some states’ grocery space per year is shrinking, Florida’s is actually growing. Experts point to a few reasons: the state’s ever-increasing population; the demographics of those shoppers, many of whom have expendable incomes; and the changing desires of shoppers.
LET’S GO SHOPPING: How do Tampa Bay’s smaller, specialty grocery stores compare?
"This is a new phenomena," said Paul Rutledge, who leads a Tampa team at real estate firm JLL. "For 20 years, there was only big red signs and big green signs … all that has changed, and a lot of that has to do with a change in lifestyle."
Baby boomers are retiring in droves, Rutledge said, and a lot of them are finding entertainment in shopping. They want the grocery store to be an experience, not just a necessary trip. At the same time, millennials have contributed to the growing demand for niche items and fresh produce.
The result: Trader Joe’s entry to the local market in 2014. Then Earth Fare, Sprouts Farmers Market and Lucky’s Market, all of which have entered the scene in the past two years. At the same time, Aldi announced it would crank up expansion efforts, opening new locations and making older stores more accessible.
Florida shoppers have a lot more options than some of their counterparts up north, but the Sunshine State isn’t alone in the grocery explosion.
"We may not be as special as you think," said Orlando retail expert and CEO of America’s Research group Brett Beemer. "One of the things you are seeing is stores going to a lot of states that have lower income taxes where consumers have more disposable income."
Texas, Beemer said, is another state reveling in grocery store expansion.
Florida has further advantages: People with disposable incomes come here to retire and enjoy the beaches.
"What else are you going to accumulate?" Rutledge said. "People want to enjoy something more sensual; they want five different kinds of olives, smoked bacon that has citrus in it … they want experiences."
Much of the new market plays to those who might be watching their budgets, by advertising low produce prices, weekly sales, specials or money off through smartphone apps.
Aldi has wedged itself in as a competitor by winning over shoppers who may not have previously considered a discount store — largely because of its private label organic brand and consistently cheap produce.
"People don’t shop like they did 25 years ago," Beemer said. Most people take multiple trips a week — not just one big haul — and they’re paying attention to promotions and which stores might have specific items on special.
Florida’s growing population means there are enough shoppers to fill the stores, but that doesn’t mean every one is a winner. Southeastern Grocers-owned Winn-Dixie, known for its low prices, is just emerging from bankruptcy. It has closed struggling locations, expanded its specialty Hispanic market to Tampa and is overhauling its remaining stores to have more organic goods and prepared foods.
Rutledge said the competitive space is pushing every store to be at its best.
"Isn’t that what you want?" he said. "It’s good for everybody so we get the best performance out of every store and every employee."
We set out to compare some of the newest chains or the specialty stores that have expanded in recent years.
Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.