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Sweetbay to close one-third of its stores by mid-February

Tampa, FL-based Sweetbay Supermarket said Jan. 16 that it will close about one-third of its 105 stores by mid-February. All the outlets earmarked for closure are designated as "underperforming" by Sweetbay's Belgian parent company Delhaize Group, and many face in-house competition from newer, bigger Sweetbay stores in the same neighborhoods.

Of the 35 stores to be closed, 18 are in Sweetbay's home territory of Tampa Bay. Some have leases coming up for renewal while others have been made obsolete by openings of new Sweetbay markets.

For example, in New Tampa, a tony enclave north of the city, the existing Sweetbay was a remodel of a 15-year-old Kash N' Karry store. When Sweetbay opened a mammoth, state-of-the-art market less than two miles from its original New Tampa location two years ago, traffic at the old store plummeted.

Delhaize owned the Kash N' Karry banner, but poor performance and public perception led the company to drop that name and relaunch the chain as Sweetbay in the mid-2000s. The move has been successful, and Sweetbay has become a well-known brand throughout the state, sponsoring professional sporting teams and other events.

According to company officials, the closings are more part of a corporate reorganization designed to improve Delhaize's U.S. profits than a reflection of Sweetbay's strength in Florida.

"They are simply underperforming stores," said Sweetbay spokeswoman Nicole LeBeau."Seventy two Sweetbay stores will remain operating in Florida and, specifically, in our communities. We look forward to continue to be actively engaged in the communities where we exist."

About 2,000 workers will lose their jobs as part of the closures.

Over the last two years, Delhaize stock has tumbled to $42.53 at close of business Jan. 16 from $90 per share. It has risen recently as the company began internal housekeeping. Over the last two weeks, some executives were released while others have been reassigned.

Mike Vail, formerly head of the Sweetbay brand, was transferred to Delhaize's Food Lion headquarters in Salisbury, NC, while Brad Wise, former chief of human resources for Delhaize America, was named president of the Sweetbay and Hannaford brands.

Sweetbay's local operations will be directed by Eddie Garcia, vice president of retail operations.

Delhaize operates 3,400 stores in 11 countries, including 1,500 in the United States under the Food Lion, Harvey's, Sweetbay, Bottom Dollar, Reid's and Hannaford brands.

The company's largest Florida competitor, Lakeland-based Publix, operates 1,066 stores in five states.