Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Because of Winn-Dixie

It’s a beautiful, sunny day somewhere in the South, 1966. A pretty lady (with way-cool shades) and her two kids wait patiently as a courteous Winn-Dixie employee in black tie and Brylcreem is about to load their groceries into the family Buick.

At time this photo was taken, the wonderfully profitable Winn-Dixie was the envy of the entire supermarket industry, with a greater return percentage on stockholders’ equity than Safeway, and profits nearly as high as those of Kroger, both companies triple its size. Of course, time and the events of the last few decades have changed all of that, but one word still accurately applies to Winn-Dixie – survivor.

For me, Winn-Dixie evokes many good memories - of summer weeks in the early seventies spent with my maternal grandparents in Kennesaw (suburb of Atlanta), Georgia, shopping at the Marietta Winn-Dixie. Of eating their Deep South brand peanut butter (a brand name Winn-Dixie discarded just a couple of years ago) and drinking Chek soft drinks. Of several trips the whole crew - my immediate family, my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins - made, driving from Atlanta to Treasure Island, Florida, near St. Petersburg, to spend four or five days on the Gulf. The Winn-Dixie there was literally within walking distance of the motel where we always stayed. The store seemed large to me, a 10-12 year old kid, but looking back I’m sure it was of very moderate size.

As you might expect, the memories have stayed with me. On a business trip to Birmingham four years ago, I drove past a Winn-Dixie store with a huge “store closing” banner across the storefront. Sadly, this was one of many stores the company closed as part of a major cutback that year. I pulled into the parking lot and (on a mission, now) sprinted into the store. I managed to snag the last two jars of Deep South peanut butter! It tasted as good as I’d remembered.


  1. Was the Winn-Dixie you shopped at where the country-western bar Cowboy's is now? The shopping center I am thinking about was at the time at US 41 and GA 293 and also had a Kmart that was originally slated to open as Grant's. The Winn-Dixie there moved down the road in 1989 to a Winn-Dixie Marketplace before closing. That store, I believe, became one of the short lived Winn-Dixie warehouse concept stores Saverite. Publix was credited as the major reason for Winn-Dixie's demise in Georgia. I took quite a few pics of Winn-Dixie as they were departing.

  2. J.T. - The WD you mentioned is the one my grandparents shopped at in later years. It was much closer to their home in Kennesaw. The one I'm referring to was actually in Marietta, although at this point I'm clueless on the address. It was somewhere near downtown. I also remember one of the Atlanta WD's by my aunt and uncle's place, near Ponce de Leon, I think. Thanks!

  3. The one surviving W-D near Ponce in ATL was on Monroe Drive where the Virginia-Highland and Midtown neighborhoods came together. It was a "Marketplace" but relatively small--I'd guess 80s/early 90s. It was part of a strip mall complex that is now mostly bars and restaurants, and a Landmark Theatre. Trader Joe's has gone into the old WD space.

    Publix was probably the last nail in the coffin. Until then, the competition was weak: A&P, Ingles (in the burbs) and a small innercity chain, Wayfield, as well as market leader Kroger. The WDs were dumps, with dim lighting and poor staffing. When they converted to Saverite, they ripped out delis and the like without even cosmetic remodeling. Despite lower prices, they weren't able to build volume.

    My intro to WD was on a road trip from Nashville to New Orleans around 1990--a converted Kroger somewhere in Mississippi. It was an absolute dump--I've never seensuch a pathetic chain grocery before or since, even among other WDs. No investment in the store (it was a battered-looking greenhouse) and they couldn't even fill all of the space--a dirty store with awful perishables. I've wondered how they ever survived as long as they did. Apparently, the competent managment guys left to build Food Lion.

  4. Winn-Dixie's success was built upon carrying a very low debt and having agressively bought scores of small regionals throughout the South, lastly buying the Texas based Kimball's chain in 1976 and moving outside the South with the purchase of Thriftway of Cincinnati in the early 90's-both acquisitions were less than spectacular, but it took almost 25 years for the Texas division to unravel.

  5. WD had operations as far west as New Mexico..the Foodway chain, originally a unit of the Kimball chain. Foodway ran into labor troubles in the late 70s and the stores were sold to Smith's Food King

  6. Growing up in Florida in the 1980's/90's. I was able to see the best and the worst of Winn Dixie. Early on there stores were modern, clean and competitive with Publix and Albertsons. By the late 80's however there stores started to seem aged, and not well kept. The thing I remember the most is that the stores were really dark. Publix by comparison were always really well lit. It gave one the impression that the store was cleaner. By the late 90's early 00's Winn Dixie stores were such a mess I stopped shopping there completely. From the sounds of things I was not alone.

  7. Anonymous - The WD I'm thinking of was well before the "Marketplace" era (around 1975 or so). It may have been a standard store that was later converted. It is a true shame the way WD allowed their market position to slip so badly.

    Ken - I knew of the WD Texas division but didn't know they owned Thriftway. Interesting that they went up against Kroger in their own backyard.

    Jamcool - Again, thanks. New Mexico is a long way from Jacksonville!

    Anonymous - I'd be interested to see what WD has done in the last couple of years. I understand that they've made some good strides, but playing catch up in any 21st century retail situation is extremely difficult.

  8. Last year, I was in Florida and I was impressed with the conditions in the Winn-Dixies I saw. They have been remodeling, cleaning and freshening the stores and made great improvements in their pricing since their 2005 exit from the Atlanta market. Store staffing levels were better than I had experienced in the past.

    With Albertson's unraveling in Florida and Sweetbay Superamarkets moving upmarket, W-D seems positioned to pick up business from the customers left behind. They are probably the most competitive they have been in years, but with Publix and Wal-Mart ahead in Florida, it is still going to be a tough road to haul.

    I understand the New Orleans division is still lacking the makeovers, so I wonder if it's due to the overall state of the region since Katrina, or if Florida receives the investments first and then the other markets, or if the chain's future in SE Louisiana is still in question.

    Many of the old standby brands have been consolidated to the Winn-Dixie brand, but Chek cola remains as does some others.

  9. Ken - That's good to hear, thanks for that update. Hopefully, WD will be able to take full advantage of the changing market as opposed to focusing on Publix, or worse yet on Walmart.

    It makes sense that they would try to shore up the Florida units before revamping those in other territories. Seems to me that the Louisiana markets could still be winners for WD, since Katrina may have slowed investment by competitors. And of course, WD has a long history there.

  10. I lived in Florida as a child from 1982-1989, and our main supermarket was Publix. Every time we stepped into our local Winn-Dixie it just seemed very dark, dirty, and uninviting (and had a very strange odor I can't even begin to describe). I left the state, only to return between 1995 and 1999 as a student at the University of Florida. Usually my friends and I shopped at Publix or Albertson's, but we ended up at Winn-Dixie one night and it reminded me exactly of our local one from all those years ago--same darkness, same dirtiness, and same strange odor! I know of the proud tradition of Winn-Dixie in the South; I guess I either arrived there too late to see it or I was just unlucky with the local stores where I was living during these times.

  11. The strongest memory I have of Winn-Dixie is the format that featured the three section facade design, with each section seperated by some type of brick or masonry work. I'd love to explore the history of that store format. Those stores were designed with a darker, heavier palette both inside and out and accented with nice layer of grease.

  12. Anonymous - It's a shame you didn't catch these stores in their prime. As mentioned, I understand that WD has spruced up its stores significantly in the last couple of years.

    DewN Nitek - You're probably talking about the 70's stores with the "The Beef People" slogan to the right (or was it left) of the store name. It was adardkpallette. mostly dark browns as I remember from personal experience and have seen in pics.

  13. Wow, Winn Dixie must have gotten a good ten years plus out of that prototype. In some cases, its architecture actually dictates the design language of the entire strip mall. You're also correct, 'The Beef People' signage was on the right-hand section. Some of the older Winn Dixie stores in my market are using that store format.