Bi-Lo to buy Sweetbay: sweet or sour deal?

Workers worry about job future

TAMPA - Heather Carpenter rolled her shopping across the mostly empty parking lot, eventually unloading several plastic bags into her SUV in the hot midday sun. 

The Dale Mabry Sweetbay supermarket is the closest store to her Tampa home, but it's not her favorite place to shop.

"I think they're inconsistent from location to location," Carpenter said.  "I don't think they compare to Publix for quality and cleanliness, and certainly not in hospitality," she said.

But Carpenter still shops at Sweetbay because it's nearby.  She was encouraged to hear that the grocery chain has been sold, and would like to see improvements.

"Some higher-end products, maybe," Carpenter said.  The Tampa resident remembered the old Kash N' Karry chain before it was rebranded to Sweetbay, and said the new stores just didn't go far enough to compete with Publix or Fresh Market stores.

The estimated $267 million sale to Bi-Lo of Jacksonville could lead to possible business growth, according to marketing professor Dip Biswas of USF.

"They might inject capital, or cash, and go on a good strategy expansion plan that would save jobs," Biswas said.

Bi-Lo also owns the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain, and it's unclear if the company would rebrand Sweetbay to match its other stores, or just improve on the current line.

In either case, Biswas said, the company needs to do something to distinguish itself from the formidable competitors in the Tampa Bay marketplace.

"Maybe they can make Sweetbay stand for something," Biswas said.  "In customers' minds, why should I go to Sweetbay?  If I'm looking for a low-price option, I'll go to Walmart.  If I'm looking for good service I'll go to Publix."

Bi-Lo said in a statement that it would "extend our great products at great value to a broader customer base."

Several employees, who asked to be anonymous, said they are nervous about the sale because it's not clear if they'll keep their jobs. 

The last restructuring of Sweetbay earlier in the year meant the closing of nearly three dozen locations, leaving thousands of workers unemployed.

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