MANATEE -- When the two Winn-Dixie -- on 14th Street and Cortez -- open this morning, they will mark the first wave of Sweetbay stores converted to its new owners.
Winn-Dixie employees started in earnest Sunday at the 14th Street store. Employees from neighboring Winn-Dixies plus a Bi-Lo Conversion Team from several states help pitched in this week to teach the new cash register system, new recipes in the deli and bakery and acquaint employees with policies and benefits through computer based training. But the faces ought to be familiar once each store opens.
"It's the Sweetbay team inside the store," said Joey Medina, regional vice president for Winn-Dixie. "Your cashier, your butcher in the meat department -- all the people stayed the same."
Full-time employees worked 10- to 12-hour days, three shifts each to convert the store, as the shelves were fairly bare in the dry goods area and the meat and produce departments were empty. A Winn-Dixie spokeswoman was unable to provide how much money Winn-Dixie invested in each store.
"We did go to great lengths to make sure there was as little change to the customers as far as the location and products," Medina said. "If you're a shopper here and the peanut butter is on aisle three, it
stayed on aisle three."
Now the shelves should be packed to the edges, neatly stacked and aligned, and the meats should be placed for sell. Both the 5802 14th St. W and 2501 Cortez Road stores are set to open at 7 a.m. today. The stores are part of a purchase by Jacksonville-based Bi-Lo, parent of Winn-Dixie, of the Sweetbay stores from the Dalhaize Group, which were headquartered in Tampa.
Winn-Dixie isn't using a uniform format for all converted Sweetbays. Instead, they are being matched up closely to each individual store's layout.
For instance, some stores had a separate organic section while others integrated the organic items throughout the store. That will remain the same based on the store, Medina said.
"We have found that it does make it a little easier for shoppers," Medina said. "But in these stores, if they had their own separate organic section, it remained."
Some changes are seen as a good trade-off. Winn-Dixie is bringing a wider variety of fresh flowers to the converted stores while Sweetbay had more stores with attached liquor stores, helping boost Winn-Dixie's place in liquor sales, Medina said.
Many features will remain the same. Some of the art for the section signs are still there but with different lettering, or in the meat area, the same colors and tapestry is used, but Winn-Dixie's The Beef People now hangs over the butcher area. Each store will retain its own store hours, too.
Here are some major changes and lingo if shoppers have not shopped at Winn-Dixie before, Medina said:
Unlike Sweetbay, Winn-Dixie has a rewards card. Purchases can count toward points for discounts on everyday items, future grocery totals or gasoline at Shell through a program called Fuel Perks.
The stores also focus to support Florida-grown food in its produce section
Dependable Deals are ones where prices are held on sale 10 to 12 weeks
Get 10 percent off when you buy four bottles of wine and liquor
Only U.S. Choice Angus beef and all natural, fresh chicken are carried in meat department
Winn-Dixie private label brands are carried instead of Sweetbay brands like Hannaford and My Essentials
Pharmacy offers $4 for a 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply of generic prescriptions
Pharmacy customers also received a sneak peek as the Winn-Dixie pharmacy opened Monday with a roped-off walkway leading to the counter. That practice will remain for the future converted stores, including 515 7th St. West in Palmetto and 5805 Manatee Ave. W, in Bradenton. Those stores will fully open April 5.
While the remaining stores are being converted, customers can still sign up for a rewards card on the spot, said Mayra Hernandez, spokeswoman for Winn-Dixie.
"That is the case at every location that begins to covert," she said. "We have a table set up in the front with the kiosk."
As for the employees, the benefits remain comparable and one perk did improve, Medina said. Employees receive one 10 percent discount on their whole grocery purchase each week throughout the year whereas Sweetbay only implemented that during the holidays, he said.
"The associates at Sweetbay have been absolutely wonderful and their reception of us and the enthusiasm for joining Winn-Dixie," he said. "It's been interesting because my observation has been we're very similar."
Each store was also assigned a "store buddy" from a nearby Winn-Dixie to help with the transition, Medina added.
Medina doesn't foresee larger remodels in the converted Sweetbay stores for years to come, which also means that staffing models shouldn't be changed. While some Winn-Dixie stores have a cheese steward for the expansive cheese selection, that person won't be on staff at all stores, he said.
"It's exciting for me as a Winn-Dixie associate to see our company growing, and it's been rewarding to see the enthusiasm and how we've been embraced by the Sweetbay associates," Medina said. "Very rewarding."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.