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.