NAPLES — As customers trickled in and out of the Sweetbay Supermarket in Green Tree Center off Immokalee Road on Thursday, some shook their heads in disbelief, surprised to learn it will soon close for the last time.
Others, who have shopped at the store for years, said they saw it coming because business had dropped off so much in the past year.
The store — at 2482 Immokalee Road near Airport-Pulling Road — is one of three "underperforming" stores that will close in Collier County by next month.
Late Wednesday, Sweetbay's Belgian parent company, Delhaize Group, announced it would shutter 33 of the grocery stores that aren't meeting expectations in Florida. The closings — which will happen by mid-February — also include a store in nearby Punta Gorda.
"We have some great competitors in Florida and the grocery industry is very competitive and sales in these stores were lower than expected. We are a publicly held company and we have a responsibility to our shareholders," said Nicole LeBeau, a spokeswoman for Sweetbay in Tampa.
With the closings, there will be 72 Sweetbays left in Florida, the only state they operate in.
"We are going to continue to do what we can to keep those successful," LeBeau said.
Though the Sweetbay off U.S. 41 in Bonita Springs will stay open, its pharmacy will close as part of the cuts, which are part of a larger reorganization plan for the Delhaize Group designed to improve its performance in the U.S.
With the cuts, nine Sweetbay stores will still be left in Lee and Collier counties, including one at Vanderbilt Beach Road and Collier Boulevard in Mission Hills Shopping Center and another off Golden Gate Parkway.
When she stopped by Thursday, Jennifer Hynes, 44, said she'd been shopping at the Sweetbay at Green Tree for years and that she's at the store all the time as a mother of a 2-year-old, who constantly needs diapers, and a 20-year-old, who guzzles milk.
"I'm very surprised," she said of the closing. "I had no idea."
She said she'll miss the store for many reasons.
"It's clean. Everybody is very courteous. It's convenient. In general, the pricing is less than Publix," said Hynes, who lives within a few miles of the store.
When she walked up to the store a sign in the front window announced the closing and thanked customers like her for their loyalty.
The other stores closing in Collier are at 5926 Premier Way in Magnolia Square at the northeast corner of Goodlette-Frank and Pine Ridge roads, and at 4015 Santa Barbara Boulevard in the Countryside Shoppes near Radio Road.
With all the closings in the state, about 2,000 associates will lose their jobs. Eligible associates will get a severance package.
In Southwest Florida, about 200 employees will lose their jobs at four stores, including the one in Punta Gorda off U.S. 41.
On a break at the Sweetbay at Green Tree on Thursday, Armand Gouzie, 72, who works at the store part-time as a bag boy for half the year, said he wasn't too concerned about losing his job.
"I can always get a part-time job somewhere else," he said.
However, he was worried about some of his co-workers who need to work full-time to get by. He said a few companies, including Target and Sam's Club, sent representatives into the store Thursday, who handed out their cards and encouraged Sweetbay employees to apply for jobs with them.
"It's good to know people are still hiring around town," said Indy Ramkissoon, 42, an assistant customer service manager for Sweetbay, while on a smoking break outside her Green Tree store.
With car payments and a monthly mortgage to pay, she needs to find another job quickly.
"We're going to start pounding the pavement soon," she said, looking over at another co-worker on break. "We have to."The closing, she said, didn't come as a complete surprise to her.
"There's been rumors around for a while," she said. "It still hits us like a ton of bricks."
She said some of the store's customers have told her they're devastated by the closing and aren't sure where they'll shop instead. Within a few miles, there's a Wal-Mart supercenter and a Publix, both off Immokalee Road.
With Publix so close to the Sweetbay store, it made it hard to compete, Gouzie admits.
"It's hard to beat Publix," he said. "They get so many people."
"Albertsons discovered there is not room in this market to compete with Publix, and so now has Sweetbay," said commercial broker David Stevens, a principal in Naples-based Investment Properties Corp.
In 2007, Albertsons closed its 63,000-square-foot store at Immokalee and Livingston roads in North Naples. That store still sits empty after a failed attempt at turning it into an exposition center.
But Stevens has a much better outlook on the stores Sweetbay will leave behind in Collier. He expects the space will be quickly taken up by retailers this year because the stores are ideally located in populated areas.
"We are starting to see a number of retailers surveying again, sometimes with developers and sometimes just on their own, saying, 'We're ready to expand and give us information on that site,'" Stevens said.
There are many retail chains that have yet to come to Collier that might consider expanding now with an improving economy, such as Dick's Sporting Goods, Babies "R" Us, Buy Buy Baby, Hobby Lobby and the Christmas Tree Shops, he said."It's economically difficult to put something together but if you can take something that is already built and re-brand it then you could open that up this summer," Stevens said.
The stores closing in Collier County range from 49,000 square feet to 51,000 square feet, with the biggest one at Countryside Shoppes.
Commercial broker Jack Crifasi, whose company handles leasing and management at Green Tree, said he's not overly concerned about Sweetbay leaving the shopping center, which is 98 percent leased.
"Everybody seems to be doing very well," he said of the tenants. "As far as we're concerned, the best is still to come at Green Tree Center. The location has already proven itself and it will do so in the future."