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Albertsons die-hards support Tampa Bay's last store

Albertsons, at 10500 Ulmerton Rd E #800, in Largo is one of only three stores which remain in Florida. The supermarket chain has operated 150 stores in Florida over the past 40 years, but has been in steady decline since selling a large number of their stores to rival Publix in 2008.
Albertsons, at 10500 Ulmerton Rd E #800, in Largo is one of only three stores which remain in Florida. The supermarket chain has operated 150 stores in Florida over the past 40 years, but has been in steady decline since selling a large number of their stores to rival Publix in 2008.
Published Sep. 10, 2015

LARGO — And then there was one.

Seven years ago, there were close to 100 Albertsons grocery stores in Florida, many of those in Tampa Bay. Now, there is just one left in the area, in Largo Mall at 10500 Ulmerton Road.

There are two other Florida stores: in Altamonte Springs in Seminole County and Oakland Park, north of Fort Lauderdale.

Though it seems to defy the rule of economies of scale, Albertsons is keeping its three Sunshine State stores open and even remodeling them.

"We are committed to all three of our Florida stores," said Albertsons president Sidney Hopper. "Our customers have supported us for quite some time, and we're excited to provide them with an enhanced shopping experience when our remodels are completed in the fall."

Grocery stores use everything from smartphone apps and taste kitchens to free ice cream sundaes and good old-fashioned coupons in the never-ending battle to win customers from competitors.

While some consumers jump sides faster than Benedict Arnold to get the best deals and perks on any given day, many have a loyal bond that can't be broken. A shopper's relationship with his or her favorite grocery store can last longer than many marriages.

Case in point: the shoppers who still frequent the region's lone Albertsons at Largo Mall.

"We've been shopping at Albertsons for 20 years," said Anthony Rispoli as he scanned the shelves recently with his wife, Marylou. "It's a beautiful store, and we like the wide aisles."

The Long Island, N.Y., natives have visited Clearwater for 20 years and just bought a condo there. They were sad to find their usual Clearwater Albertsons at 2170 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. dark. They are relieved there's still a Largo location.

That Clearwater store, which closed May 30, debuted in 1975 as the first Albertsons in Florida. The Boise, Idaho-based grocer went on to open almost 100 stores in the Sunshine State. In 2006, the company was struggling and started downsizing with financial backing from a New York investment firm. It sold 49 stores to Publix in 2008. The chain, which has stores in 33 states, was then left with 44 Florida stores. They have closed them steadily over the past seven years.

About 10 shoppers roamed the Largo Albertsons on a recent rainy morning. Across the street, almost 40 customers bustled through a Publix.

The Albertsons holdouts have their reasons.

"I shopped at Albertsons up on East Bay drive until Publix took it over," said Fred Psurny as he pushed a cart with two bags of Albertsons brand chocolate chip cookies. "I come here because I don't like Publix taking over everything. And I love their cookies."

Nancy Riley comes for Teddy. He's her 14-year-old cat with cystitis, a urinary tract disease.

"He can eat the Friskies special diet salmon, and this is the last outpost in the world that sells it," she said.

Moses Craveiro, 10, likes how the Albertsons employees know him by name.

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"They say, 'Hey Moses. You want to try this piece of cheese?' " he recounted as he shopped with his mom, grandmother and younger brother.

"I love this store. The people are very nice. They have very good meat," said his mother, Abigail Craveiro, adding that it's never crowded.

That's actually a key selling point for Albertsons, according to Burt Flickinger, a director at Strategic Resource Group in New York who follows the grocery industry.

"If someone wants to shop on their way home from work, they can park right in front of the store and don't have to wait in a line," he said. "It could take 20 minutes longer at another store."

Shoppers tend to have a stronger bond with their grocery store than other forms of retail, he added.

"About 40 percent of consumers stay loyal to his or her grocery store," he said. Albertsons can afford to maintain these uncrowded Florida stores in part because it's paying bargain prices for the real estate, Flickinger surmised. It clearly doesn't have the same sales as Publix, but it doesn't have to because costs are lower, he said.

His company estimates Albertsons does $5.50 to $7 in sales per square foot compared to Publix, which makes $11 to $12.50 a square foot per week.

While Albertsons may have negotiated inexpensive leases, the cost of distributing food to just three stores in Florida seems to fly in the face of economies of scale.

The Florida stores are part of an Albertsons division served by a distribution center in Houston, according to spokeswoman Dawne Proffitt.

The stores also get products directly from suppliers.

Neither Proffitt nor the company president would elaborate on why they are retaining the Florida stores.

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at kssmith@tampabay.com. Follow @snowsmith.

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