It’s been more than 2½ years since developers first filed plans for a grocery store that looks remarkably similar to an Amazon Fresh in Safety Harbor.
Since then, Amazon leaders announced it would shift its strategy on the supermarket brand famous for allowing customers to walk out of the store without having to pay at a cash register.
Could the mystery surrounding the future of this Safety Harbor retail space lead to a “zombie store” within Tampa Bay?
Reports from across the country have detailed this new phenomenon by Amazon, where leases are signed and permits are pulled, only for the future stores to be caught in the construction phase for long stretches of time and never end up opening.
So what’s going on with the 35,000-square-foot store that used to be a Winn-Dixie? Here’s what we know so far.
A shell of a building
Amazon has yet to confirm it is building a store in the Tampa Bay area at the Northwood Oaks shopping center at 2519 N. McMullen Booth Road. But the store’s exterior had signature details of the Amazon Fresh brand, from gray panelling and the classic lime green stripe framing above the door to a dedicated space to store grocery carts.
The only thing missing? A sign.
The owner of the property, a company tied to Tampa-based East Coast Acquisitions, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Tampa Bay Times. An Amazon spokesperson said the company doesn’t have any details to share on Amazon Fresh openings.
But work is being done to complete the shell of the building, according to city records.
While the exterior appears near completion, the inside is barren. When a Tampa Bay Times reporter visited the site, the store’s automatic doors were open and the inside had no floor, just a bunch of sand. There were beams across the ceiling, which could one day hold cameras for tracking customer purchases in the store.
Safety Harbor community development director Marcie Stenmark said the city still expects the project to move forward.
“(The landlord has) a game plan of having a tenant,” she said. “We don’t have any concerns.”
The original building permit was recently canceled, but Stenmark said it would be refiled into two parts. A new permit was filed Friday for the exterior, but the city is still waiting for plans to build out the inside.
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Rise of “zombie stores”
Earlier this year, Amazon officials said they were pulling back on opening new Amazon Fresh stores to reassess their grocery strategy.
There are 44 Amazon Fresh stores across the U.S., but none are open in Florida yet. If construction continues, the north Pinellas location would be the first in the state to open.
“We’re not going to expand the physical fresh doors until we have that equation with differentiation and economic value that we like, but we’re optimistic that we’re going to find that in 2023,” Amazon CEO Andy Jassy told investors in February.
Unopened locations across the U.S. have assumed the moniker “zombie stores” from industry professionals. There are already a few of them in South Florida.
Plans for a proposed Amazon Fresh store in Boca Raton fizzled when the company decided to open a Whole Foods Market instead, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The newspaper also reported that Amazon is facing a lawsuit from a landlord in Plantation related to unpaid rent and trying to back out of its lease.
Amazon may have misunderstood consumer interests when it comes to the grocery shopping experience, said food industry analyst Phil Lempert.
“As the pandemic eased, customers went back into stores. They weren’t looking for efficiency, they were actually looking for a unique shopping experience in their community so that they could relate to their neighbors and so on,” Lempert said. “So when we look at the original Amazon Fresh stores, the format was very different than what we’re seeing now. They were sterile.”
It’s not just about getting in and out, but having a “warm and fuzzy” experience that make grocers like Publix popular, he said.
While Amazon Fresh is more sophisticated from a technology standpoint, Lempert said the stores lacked a human touch. And having a bunch of cameras tracking customers in order to record transactions sure didn’t help.
Now Amazon is in a wait-and-see period to determine its future in the grocery business.
It’ll require a “fair bit of experimentation” to see what works, Amazon’s CEO said in February. And once the company figures out its niche, then Amazon plans to “expand it more expansively.”
So what does that mean for Safety Harbor? It’s still unclear, but work continues on building the potential store.