Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"The Beef People" got Leaner and Meaner: Winn-Dixie Today

Alas we hear today that Winn-Dixie is still yet alive, but at least not in my parts. In fact, today they only exist in five states: Georgia (south of Atlanta), Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. In a recent trip to Anniston, AL, a store was noted in that area off of US 431. Winn-Dixie was once the leading grocery store in North Georgia pretty much from the 1950's to the 1990's. Essentially the Wal-Mart of deep south supermarkets, its range was far and wide from large cities such as Atlanta to smaller towns such as Franklin, NC, pictured here.

These three photos above show a perfectly preserved specimen of a 70's-style Winn-Dixie in Franklin, NC on April 16, 2005. Winn-Dixie completely left North Carolina in 2005.

In the late 1980's, Winn-Dixie started a major upgrade of their stores to the "Marketplace" concept. It was quite showy at first, but encroachment from Publix into most of their markets along with way too many dated-looking stores led to declining traffic at too many of their stores. This led to them suddenly having difficulty competing with the as well as Kroger on the high end and Ingles on the low end. The toughest blow came when Wal-Mart and Target began to sell groceries, making the competition even stiffer. It was just too many players for the once dominant chain without a real niche.

The Marketplace concept obviously worked for us, because throughout the 1990's, it was very convenient and at first a pretty decent store. Unfortunately, this was also one of the first locations to close as the area around it became less profitable and traffic dwindled to none. That store today is now a Goodwill.

The above three pictures are of the Gainesville Winn-Dixie Marketplace in original late 1980's form. This was shortly before it closed in 2005.

Winn-Dixie's greatest trouble was that they catered to the lower-end of grocery customers. While this market is reliable with less competition, they are not shopping for an image or a specialty item...only the lowest prices. Winn-Dixie was basically undersold and squeezed out of many, many markets from the near fatal blow of Wal-Mart and Ingles combined. Winn-Dixie was also strained for another reason, and that was a desperate attempt to modernize and relocate stores. A store near Hiram, for instance, moved three times within a span of less than five years. First they left their 70's-style store for a new store in a more remote location only to move it again a short time later to a sleek new store in a lonely intersection removed from all other retail. Needless to say, this store closed within a year of opening. It seemed at that point, the store was finding itself in increasingly inferior locations, which did not help.

After the Atlanta area Winn-Dixies closed, Winn-Dixie tried something very strange...resurrecting the more profitable of the Atlanta area stores into a warehouse grocery concept called "Saverite". Saverite was hardly a hit, but their mascot in their slogan was quite amusing featuring a comical, bug-eyed man in a cape who was going to save you from high prices. Honestly it looked like the cape was on too tight causing his eyes to bulge through them! In real life, such a character would be hauled off to the psych ward and likewise this crazy and rather dated attempt at advertising wasn't enough to disguise (pardon the pun) that it was Winn-Dixie's last gasp in the Atlanta market. They all closed less than a year later.

This Saverite is shown here on Cobb Parkway (US 41) in Kennesaw. It replaced a Winn-Dixie Marketplace that opened in 1989, which replaced an older Winn-Dixie on Old US 41. The original Winn-Dixie is now country-western bar "Cowboys".

Despite this, most of these stores held out until the big retail purge of 2004-2005 and from what I understand the company is now much leaner and meaner. In fact, discussion I have heard lately about the chain is that it is coming back quite nicely in their remaining markets and has greatly improved on the quality and appearance of their stores. Gone are the sloped metal fronted 70's stores in dated shopping centers. Gone are the ridiculously offbeat locations in saturated markets. The battered company is refueling itself where it stands today. Will it come back bigger and stronger against the tough competition that mauled them in the first place? All of us who ever grew up shopping there hope so.

Also, check out a more historical piece on Winn-Dixie featured at Pleasant Family Shopping.


  1. Thanks for the memories.

    We miss W-D. The older stores were usually grungy and not kept-up but there were a few newer, cleaner ones, like the nearly new store on Hwy85 that is now a Super-H Mart. That store was shiny and spotless in it's W-D/Saverite days. It was a model of realy decent store design. It was also empty of customers which was the real issue.

    I went to that store's last day as a Saverite and walked away in tears. It was like being at a funeral. Been to lots of store closings but never felt it so bad.

    So that was a nice store. Many of the other Saverites (the more run-down, crummy locations like Metropolitan Parkway, Main Street in College Park, and Headland & Delowe) have become Wayfield stores (who once upon a time had their own discount concept called "Buy & Save" which was a "food on pallets/ bag-it-yourself" store a lot like Aldi).

    We used to shop at Saverite all the time but Wayfield is not worth the bother or the extra cost. Anybody with an option is going to shop elsewhere.

    There are/were a few grocery items only sold by W-D which my family was hooked on. Stuff we can't get anywhere else. Really good stuff. About twice a year, we still take a trip from the Atlanta area over to Anniston and hit all the W-Ds we can and come back with a car load of stuff. I just hope W-D holds themselves together for the long term. They had some good ideas. Just need to focus.

    I am still expecting Publix to eventually take over. But I hope not tomorrow. :)

  2. J.T., This is a nice piece (and great photos) of Winn-Dixie's latter days in those markets. It really is a shame that they had to contract their footprint that much. At least they seem to be making a go of it in the markets they've stayed on in.

    I'm particularly interested in the Franklin, NC store - one of the best of the 70's classic style. I can remember years back traveling from Atlanta to Gatlinburg through Franklin.

  3. We still have a couple of functioning 70s era store prototypes along the Gulf Coast. You know, the store with the prominent facade sections divided by brick. The enlarged interiors usually have been revamps in lighter, airier tones.

  4. I miss Winn-Dixie now that they're gone from my region, but I never really appreciated them very much, sad to say.

    The Winn-Dixie stores I remember from the Seventies were always colorful and oddly attractive but never held a candle to Kroger's elaborate Superstores of the same era. Likewise, the Eighties stores were impressive for their time, but were executed rather cheaply compared to Kroger and Harris Teeter stores.

    This cost cutting began to show rather quickly. The Nineties stores before Marketplace were universally bad due to shabby upkeep and cheap remodels. Food Lion went from being "Winn-Dixie Light" to basically the new Winn-Dixie, winning on price and service, while Winn-Dixie became the old Food Lion, basically the place where you'd go for groceries if you couldn't go anywhere else.

    Marketplace marked a positive turning point. This was a real grocery store again. Clean aisles, exceptional interiors, superior services. They appeared ready to give Kroger a run for its money. Unfortunately, they arrived at upscale exactly as Wal-Mart and Costco rewrote the grocery game to "cheap and plentiful." They held on when there was no competition in town, but everybody ate Winn-Dixie for lunch where there were multiple grocery choices.

    I wish them the best in this new incarnation. They've had it pretty rough for a while.

  5. Very few Winn-Dixie's in the Atlanta region were high volume stores, though very few were devoid of customers either. A&P and Big Star during their final years had stores that customers avoided while others had volumes that rivaled the busiest Kroger and Cub Foods in the region. Ingles seems to be doing a similar level of business in the region, which is a shame because they have become competitive on price and have a good fresh food selection.

    The arrival of Publix sent Kroger on the defensive and A&P, Big Star, and Bruno's were driven out of the market. Winn-Dixie was still capitalized well enough to respond with new store construction that was a little too late, but enabled WD to survive longer than their more poorly capitalized competitors. And why Harris-Teeter chose to enter the fray is even more puzzling, but another story.

    Then came the rollout of Walmart Supercenters-80% of Winn-Dixies were located within 10 miles of a WMT Supercenter, greater exposure than any major grocery chain. Given WD's following was primarily the blue collar middle class that also shopped WMT, its most loyal customers left.

    For now WD is once again a healthy operation, albeit its marketing region is greatly contracted, it is a viable competitor in its markets, often the #1 or #2 chain and has virtually no debt and a low stock price-a recipe for takeover target in better economic conditions than the present.

  6. Here in Anniston, AL, all we have are Winn-Dixie and Wal-Mart for our grocery needs. Bruno's pulled the plug on their last store in the county last month. We wish someone like Kroger or Publix would come here. We need the competition badly! Bruno's had bad store locations, except for the one in Oxford. They should have kept it open!

  7. What I recall about the later days of Winn Dixie in the Atlanta area is their employee's reaction to Publix coming to town.

    Instead of working on cleaning up their dingy and dirty stores and placing an emphasis on improving their customer service, the WD employees chose to spend their free time walking picket lines in front of the new Publix stores to protest the fact that Publix was a non-union chain.

    They managed to keep this up for over a year, while their stores continued to decline and Publix gained new customers.

    In retrospect, probably not the best plan. As others have pointed out, WD pretty much "owned" Atlanta for many years and with a little effort in improving service they might still be here today.