Monday, June 8, 2009

The Lifestyles of Winn-Dixie

Remember the early 1980’s? Big hair? Shoulder pads? Skinny ties? Huge eyeglass frames? New Wave music? Cellphones the size of cinderblocks (for the few who were lucky enough to own ‘em yet)? The smell of “Love’s Baby Soft” wafting through the air?

Well, the 80’s brought about changes in many aspects of American life, and after a couple of years had begun to make their mark on the lowly supermarket as well. The styles of the seventies, so different from what had gone before, appeared tired, grungy and long out-of-date by 1982 or so. When the time came to open new stores or revamp existing ones, major supermarket chains were opting for a very different look. Gone were the muted earth-tones, dark stained woods, Helvetica-lettered signs, and “any color as long as it’s brown” exteriors. In their place were neon, mirrors, high-gloss tile, light-colored woods, faux-metallic surfaces and “any color as long as it’s beige” exteriors. In short, it was a much brighter, shinier look, if not necessarily more tasteful.

Superficial though they might have appeared, these changes were emblematic of a cultural shift in society. This was the Reagan Era, a sharp contrast to the back-to-nature ethic and economy-induced austerity of the previous decade. The popular TV shows of the early and mid-80’s - Dynasty, Dallas, Falcon Crest, Hotel, Miami Vice and (in particular) Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous – provided a vehicle for the average American viewer to live the life of the wealthy, if only vicariously. Prosperity was “in”, whether one was experiencing it personally or not. Retail store designers, a group which seldom fails to notice trends, began to incorporate this into their new offerings. Whether they achieved “an optimistic look” or “an affluent look” is debatable, but one thing’s for sure – they poured on the glitz!

Winn-Dixie, whose conservative management style was mirrored by its conservative store designs, took a bold step into the new era with its first “Marketplace” store, a 45,000 square foot format grocery/drug combination store, which opened in Valdosta, Georgia in 1984. A number of 35,000 square foot (well above the Winn-Dixie average) “superstores” opened at same time. These new, larger stores were rife with innovations for Winn-Dixie, including vastly expanded deli and bakery departments, floral sections, new “World of Cheese” bars, Gourmet Cookery areas and “Fisherman’s Wharf” seafood departments. And of course, beef was still star of the show in the newly dubbed “Prestige Meats” section.

The décor of these new superstores was on a completely different plane from the standard-issue Winn-Dixie, where painted walls and simple cutout-lettered signage were most commonly seen. Compare the photos above with the 1977 interiors shown in the previous post. The contrast is striking.

Winn-Dixie’s sales and market position remained relatively strong through the 1980’s and early 90’s. The landscape was slowly but surely changing, however. Challenges would come from a number of corners, some uncomfortably close to home. In 1980, Sam Walton, founder and chairman of (then still strictly regional) Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., was invited to join the Winn-Dixie board of directors. For six years, Walton lent his considerable management wisdom to Winn-Dixie, while at the same time gaining a priceless education with respect to the grocery industry. In late 1986, Walton resigned from the Winn-Dixie board. Just over a year later, in March 1988, the first Wal-Mart Supercenter opened, with a full grocery department under roof. Unfortunately for Winn-Dixie, the launch of this new format coincided with a full court press by Wal-Mart into their home turf – the Deep South and Florida.

And the pressure was building from another direction as well. Lakeland, Florida-based Publix Super Markets, Inc., had long stood in the shadow of Winn-Dixie, at least where volume is concerned. Publix had a highly enviable reputation for service, elegant store design and a very loyal customer base. Through the two companies’ early history, however, Publix’s relative handful of stores compared to the giant Winn-Dixie allowed them to fly low on the official Beef People radar screen. Publix had a chainwide policy of Sunday closures until the early 1980’s, and had no stores at all outside of Florida until 1991. Over the years, the balance ever so gradually shifted as Publix’s growing store count inched closer. In early 1962, for example, Winn-Dixie had over 200 stores in Florida, nearly 400 outside of Florida, while Publix had 74 in Florida, zero outside. In 1972, Winn-Dixie had 197 stores in Florida, 562 outside to Publix’s 174 in Florida, still zero outside, and in 1982, Winn-Dixie had 405 in Florida, 817 outside. While Publix grabbed the Florida lead that year, all of their 438 stores remained safely within the Sunshine State borders. (Today, after the voluminous dust of the last few years has settled, Winn-Dixie has 358 stores in Florida, 162 outside. Publix has a whopping 719 in Florida, 283 outside. These are the current figures on the companies’ websites.)

By the mid-90’s, Winn-Dixie was in a dreadful situation in its key markets, competing against Wal-Mart on price and Publix on service and style. As the late New York Times writer Constance Hays put it, “In both cases, (Winn-Dixie) was struggling against nimbler, more experienced foes.” Through the 80’s and 90’s, though, the company made attempts to compete on both fronts. In 1987, Winn-Dixie resurrected the “Table Supply” name for a discount warehouse format, but it proved to be short-lived, with five of the six stores launched closing down after just two years. Years later, another warehouse discount format would be launched, SaveRite, on a much wider basis. On the other hand, through the 90’s Winn-Dixie continued to open larger, more deluxe stores, but it was a slow and expensive process. By 1990, only a third of the chain’s 1,200 stores were over 35,000 square feet, and there were still a fairly small number of the 45,000 square foot upscale Marketplace stores. Far too many of the chain’s stores were too old, too small and too dated.

The first years of the 21st century could only be described as a disaster for Winn-Dixie, with sales and profits spiraling downward. Between 1998 and 2003, the company closed more than 200 stores, and in 2003 alone, Winn-Dixie stock lost nearly half its value. That year, many of the Atlanta stores, including several of the elegant Marketplace units were converted to the SaveRite warehouse format. In February 2005, faced with the toughest challenges in the company’s proud 70-year history, Winn-Dixie filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The following June, the painful details of the company’s reorganization were announced. Over 300 of the company’s 913 stores would be closed, and Winn-Dixie would exit four states altogether – Tennessee, Virginia, North and South Carolina. The latter two states in particular had contained key company markets for decades. In addition, Winn-Dixie would say goodbye to Atlanta after some 45 years.

A year later, under the guidance of new CEO Peter Lynch, a former Albertsons executive, Winn-Dixie emerged from bankruptcy. Maintaining a smaller store base of some 520 units, the company progress has been well noted by Wall Street, which by and large seems to like Winn-Dixie again. One initiative the company has undertaken is to streamline its stable of private label brands to just a few, with two primary ones – a simple “Winn-Dixie” for most items, and in a nod to company history, “Winn and Lovett” as a premium brand. Peter Lynch’s stated goal is admirably straightforward – “To make Winn-Dixie a better company.” The company’s new tagline underscores this goal – “Getting better all the time”, which for me instantly conjures up the 1967 Beatles song.

Of course, an 80’s song would fit the bill pretty well also!

Pictured above are four Winn-Dixie Marketplace interior views. Meat and seafood departments from the first store, in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1984, followed by a produce department view from 1985 and a typical “Cheese Shop” from the following year. Below are two Marketplace exteriors, from 1986 and 1993 respectively. The last view shows a friendly-looking crew from a 1986 standard (non-Marketplace) store. I find myself wishing they had added a few more departments just to see what additional uniform colors they could come up with.


  1. Hi, Dave! Great info on Winn Dixie! I used to travel to Florida with my aunt and uncle every year (by car) and we shopped at quite a few of these stores. When I lived in Florida I practically lived at Winn Dixie, as well--it was across the street from my apartment. Lots of good memories indeed.

    No offense to Howard Jones, but I'd go with The Beatles song. :)

  2. I've only ever been to Chicago land area and Milwaukee, but I'm still feeling this... Love the neon, great stuff as always!!!!

  3. What's striking is how long they managed to limp along. It sounds like they were operating horrible stores as early as the 70s. There have been many chains that went the penny pinching route, including National Tea, First national (in its New England-only days), Acme (pre-mergers), etc. and most of them crashed and burned far more quickly than W-D. The Marketplace stores are flashier than the 70s stores, but they look like cheap imitations of their competition. W-D also made other mistakes--adding odd departments like "melon bars" and expanding into markets where they were destined to fail like Cincinnati (Kroger's home turf) and the far exurbs of DC, when they should have been making better investments on their home turf.

    "Table Supply" was resurrected just before the bankruptcy to fill closed locations, mostly in Florida. Those stores sold almost exclusively house brand merchandise and were probably a way to keep the manufacturing part of the business going.

  4. Wow, thank you for the trip down memory lane. I worked for Winn Dixie from 1979-1984, right in the midst of all of the changes. Publix was always our competion. I stopped shopping at the W/D when I stopped working there. The management never quite knew how to treat or motivate employees.

  5. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. I worked for Winn Dixie from 1979-1984, right when they were in the midst of the "MarketPlace" concept. The managment was never quite able to keep up with the times and we were always competing against Publix for business. I actually wore one of those hideous Blue and White cashier uniforms. They were polyester and awful.

  6. What's striking is how long they managed to limp along. It sounds like they were operating horrible stores as early as the 70s. There have been many chains that went the penny pinching route, including National Tea, First national (in its New England-only days), Acme (pre-mergers), etc. and most of them crashed and burned far more quickly than W-D.

    The same thing happened out west with chains like Furr's and A.J. Bayless-old stores, indifferent management, and aggressive competitors.

  7. Kim - Thanks, great to hear from you! That's how I'm familiar with Winn-Dixie (the family vacation part - I've never lived in Florida). I'd go with the Beatles song as well. (They're probably not licensing for supermarket ads!)But Howard was one of the best during an exciting period in music, and he's still touring.

    Michael - Thanks very much! I'm into it too. The store pictured would have been a great one to see when it was new. I don't remember a lot of neon in the Chicago area, but that's around the time I moved away.

    Anonymous - "Melon bars"? Talk about market segmentation! You have to give them points for still being around, though.

    Dawn - Glad it brought back some memories, even if polyester is part of them! The brown deli-bakery uniforms remind me of the Burger King cashier outfits of the time.

    Jamcool - Bayless is a name I haven't heard in a long time. Phoenix, right?

  8. Melon Bars were part of the produce department in WD Marketplace stores from the mid90's onward, primarily a merchandising gimmick that may have been a little early as cut fruit is one of growth segments in produce today. Salad Bars were more de rigueur in upscale supermarkets at the time, so Winn-Dixie was actually an innovator for a change.

    The current store count in Florida, 357 units in nothing to balk at, thus the chain still carries a cache in its markets, as Albertson's is down to 37 Florida locations and Sweetbay is still struggling to find a niche with a little more than 100 stores on the Florida West Coast.

    By attrition they have survived the collapse of Bruno's in its home state of Alabama and still have a strong presence in Louisiana. The current Winn-Dixie is profitable with virtually no debt, a renewed store base and low stock price. Don't be surprised to see them become a target for acquisition or re-entering the takeover arena themselves once the economy improves.

  9. I like Howard Jones, too, and it's great to hear he is still touring! But you know how much of a Beatle fan I am... :)

  10. Love New Wave! Not really much of a Beatles fan though.

    I must say those interior shots remind me of a Dave's store that was built brand new sometime in the 80s in some Cleveland suburb. I don't recall where exactly but I know it was the mid to late 80s. Neon gallore! Mettalic tile. I actually thought that looked good.

  11. Kim - I know, and same here! (Over thirty years now for me! Yikes.)The cool thing about the 80's music is we experienced it as it happened.

    Didi - I've never heard of my namesake chain, Dave's. Sounds like they had the look, though.

  12. LOL, Dave. Dave's a small Cleveland area chain. My parents did the bulk of their Cleveland grocery shopping there with the occasional trip to Finast/Pick-N-Pay, Fazio's or Stop and Shop.

    Dave's must do a pretty decent job with keeping their stores look fresh and updated. Last time I was in the area about two years ago, they left an 70s maybe 80s-ish Euclid location and moved to a brand new one across the street that was pretty swanky and up to date. No neon though. Rats.

    Check out their website:

  13. Wow, Winn-Dixie finishes! I think the last local one was closed in the 1998-2003 era.

    Now onto Wards? I want to see where that goes, except I know the ending isn't pretty.

  14. Jonah - Hopefully soon. I've been without the use of a scanner the last two months. (And now I have to order a Vista-compatible one to go with my new laptop. Arg!)I generally have huge backlogs of material scanned and almost never have to do any scanning for a current series of posts I'm working on, but that wasn't the case with the Wards stuff.

    Also, after 10 posts or so on one company I figured people wouldn't mind a change of subject too badly. Will jump back into it soon. Thanks!

  15. When I was on a road trip and in Mississippi (or Alabama) I passed by a strip mall that had a Winn-Dixie Marketplace, only to find it was long vacant and was now a brown brick building. Bummer.

  16. Jonah - Those Marketplace units were nice stores. I don't know if WD was just too late in introducing them, or they needed to run with a price strategy instead. Either way, they didn't help in the long run. Maybe they'll pick up a decent tenant for that builidng in the near future.

  17. I am most impressed with this outstanding site of my favorite information! I love retail and since I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex where retail has the hardest time making it. I remember Winn-Dixie and Food Lion who attempted to take a stab here and both failed. Winn Dixie bought a local food chain called Buddies Super Markets that was owned by Kimball Foods and Food Lion came in with tiny stores, expensive pricing and took a nose dive within a couple of years.

    The once king in the metroplex has been Albertsons which has had many names in the past 25 years. Probably my least favorite grocery store is Wally-Mart. There is one chain who I wish could come into the metroplex HEB. Albertson's left San Antonio Lock stock and barrel because of this food giant. Granted we do have their Central markets, but unless you like to spend a fortune on special items, the mainstay HEB is what we need. I wouldn't mind on seeing the Texas Albertson's division sell out to HEB.

  18. Michael - Thanks, I'm very glad you like the site! I hadn't really thought about the difficulty retail chains experience in the Metroplex, but now that I think about it, you're right.

    Interesting about Food Lion's attempt to enter the market, something I'd only vaguely heard before. Dallas/Fort Worth should have been a winner for Albertsons, but they've been through a lot of turmoil chainwide. My understanding is that H.E.B. is slowing inching their way to Dallas - they are a true class act. Thanks again!

  19. wow, this brings back some memories! i was looking up some info on the "older" winn-dixie stores and found your blog! I worked there when i was in high school from 82-86 when they were in Texas and wore that light blue polyester uniform!! aaackk! thanks for sharing...

  20. that picture in the middle with the red striped store is on Dixie Hwy in West Palm Beach, FL. Looks JUST like that still except it is now painted yellow...that is also Palm Beach County's oldest shopping center.

  21. Awesome post, yet again! This brings back so many memories of shopping at Winn Dixie Marketplace in Watauga, Texas in the mid 1980's. I especially remember the chrome signs in the produce department and the dark wood of the cheese/gourmet food section. I remember it was the first place I ever saw caviar for sale!
    As a postscript to Michael's comments, as a Dallasite also, I remember several Food Lion locations that became abandoned after that chain's abrupt departure from the Dallas marketplace were bought up by Winn-Dixie and opened as the newer 1993 Marketplace formats. And of course, today, many are abandoned yet again-the retail merry-go round, I suppose!

  22. As a former store manager in the Atlanta area, I have to say that W/D's managment style was often brutal and autocratic from the top. I worked for 20 years 1970-1990.
    We had no say as to our sales per man hour or how to merchandise our stores. The upper managment's grip on reality was often questionable. The turnover in store managers in Atlanta approached 100%.