What's In Store

Longtime Carolinas grocer 'fit for growth' after emerging from bankruptcy

The Bi-Lo at 5336 Docia Crossing Road closed in Charlotte last year.
The Bi-Lo at 5336 Docia Crossing Road closed in Charlotte last year. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The parent company of Bi-Lo, a grocery chain that's been downsizing its Charlotte presence, says it is poised for growth after a recent restructuring.

In an interview with the Observer this week, Southeastern Grocers CEO Anthony Hucker said the Florida-based firm has emerged from bankruptcy "as a much stronger company." The operator of more than 575 stores across seven Southeastern states, it has reduced its overall debt levels by about $600 million, according to a statement this week.

"The transformation of the company didn’t begin with the announcement of our restructure nor will it end with our emergence," Hucker said.

"We’ve corrected the business and are now fit for growth," he added.

Southeastern Grocers, which also owns Harveys and Winn-Dixie stores, made the "difficult but necessary" decision in mid-March to voluntarily file Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As part of a restructuring, the company closed 94 under-performing stores, including six in the Charlotte area.

Before the local store closures, Bi-Lo, founded in 1961, was the No. 5 grocery chain in the Charlotte area by market share, according to sales-tracking firm Chain Store Guide. Southeastern Grocers now operates eight stores in the Charlotte metro area under the Bi-Lo or Harveys banner.

Hucker would not say whether the chain plans to open any new stores in the Charlotte region.

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The grocer is promising a number of upgrades that customers will notice in its supermarkets.

The first thing the chain is doing is remodeling its stores, Hucker said. Each store remodel will take about eight to 12 weeks, and nearly 100 store remodels are planned to be completed in 2018.

The company also will be upgrading its food selections, including offering a wider selection of fruits and vegetables. "Fresh is king," Hucker said.

Southeastern Grocers also said it will launch a loyalty program in July that lets customers redeem points for gas or groceries.

Bi-Lo went has made multiple trips to bankruptcy court, including filings in 2005 and 2009. Later, it expanded by buying Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie in 2012. In September 2013, Southeastern Grocers was created by private equity group Lone Star Funds as the new parent company of Bi-Lo, Harveys and Winn-Dixie.

Charlotte's grocery-store industry is an increasingly cutthroat one. Low-cost grocers such as Lidl are opening new stores, Amazon.com is cutting prices after buying Whole Foods Market in 2017, and chains such as Food Lion and Aldi are remodeling stores.

Amid the intensifying competition for customers' grocery-store dollars, some chains, including Charlotte-based Healthy Home Market, have opted to close stores.

Bi-Lo had been scaling back its presence in Charlotte even before its recent bankruptcy announcement. The grocer closed its stores last summer on Prosperity Church Road in Charlotte and in Fort Mill, S.C.

"It is a fiercely competitive retail market," Hucker said. "We compete every day for our customers’ patronage. But we think we’re in a strong position right now."

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta