Being tossed into the deep end without a life preserver, I had no idea of the reputation of the various Florida "brands." It was a matter of trial and error; for example, I was suckered into visiting Ross by the tantillizing commercials featuring happy models dancing around in gorgeous clothes while a voice-over enthused about how little they had paid. But in the store I visited, none of the clothes smooshed carelessly onto the groaning racks bore any resemblance to the outfits in the ads.
I have relatively simple tastes in clothing. My standard uniform is jeans or khakis (shorts in the summer), bright solid-colored tops, and sandals. At Ross, the clothing look like cast-offs from a Las Vegas costuming department. I wouldn't have been caught dead wearing any of their apparel in public; most of it resembled something my Polish grandma would have worn if cataracts had rendered her mostly blind and a stroke had destroyed any last vestiges of taste.
My Ross trauma kept me from visiting Bealls for quite a long time. I liked their commercials, which emphasized the Florida lifestyle of endless beaches, swaying palms, and continual fun in the fun, but I suspected that it might be a trick to lure unsuspected transplants like myself to what would turn out to be a Ross clone.
But one day, when I was stocking up on pet supplies at Petsmart, I noticed a Bealls next door. As I entered the door, I could faintly hear a choir of angels humming in the background. This was it! A store with normal clothing! A veritable rainbow of pastel shirts, acres of pants and shorts, and the cutest little seashell-studded sandals. I gave a sigh of relief...I was home.
Gasoline wasn't nearly as complicated as clothing. We bounce between Race Trak and Mobile, both of which are located just outside of Celebration and are engaged in an ongoing price war. If we're on Disney property, we might stop at one of the various Hess stations; remarkably, they don't gouge you on price just because they're onsite at Disney World.
For groceries, we selected Publix by default, since it's the closest store to Celebration. Apparently, the other two big chains are Albertson's and Winn-Dixie. While Albertson's has a Chicago connection (they purchased Jewel, the dominant Windy City chain, a few years back), I didn't feel any affinity with them. They had never rebranded Jewel, so there was no familiarity. We tried them out in Florida but we weren't too impressed; they seemed to be more expensive than Publix, as well as being out of the way.
We never tried Winn-Dixie either, and given their current ad campaign, I'm glad! They're gone through some major financial troubles, and right now they're in the middle of a big restructuring, closing underperforming stores and trying to rebrand themselves. Apparently, they had built a reputation for dirty stores and surly service. Thus, their new tagline is: "Winn-Dixie, Getting Better All The Time"...and it seems that they have a lot of room for improvement.
The commercials are funny in a Twilight Zone kind of way. For example, they promise better service and cleaner stores. Isn't that basically admitting that your service sucked before and your stores were dirty hellholes? Worse yet, many of the TV spots are capped with an obnoxious little kid spouting the tagline in a Southern accent so thick that it makes most Dixie natives sound like they were born and bred in Canada in comparison. I'm not a big fan of gratuitously cute commercials, especially ones that define "cuteness" by the inclusion of an actor under age 10 (bonus points if the kid has a speech impediment).
My husband and I were discussing this last night as we returning from our weekly grocery blow-out. We decided that Publix was missing a major opportunity for a rebuttal ad campaign. I can see it now: "Publix, We Don't Need To Get Better" or "Publix, Our Stores Are Clean Already." But alas, they've stayed out of the fray, choosing instead to focus on their 75th anniversary.
Publix isn't perfect by any means. We didn't buy chopped onions or tomatoes because they expired the next day, and occasionally I've almost grabbed dairy items that had already reached the end of their useful lifespan. But all in all, the convenient location makes up for occasional lapses.
At least they're not as bad as the ill-fated Goodings that lasted all of four months at Water Tower Place, the strip mall on Celebration's edge. I loved their salad bar, but most of their perishable items were an expiration date nightmare. Worse yet, in the first week that the store was open, I purchased some microwave carmel corn to bring to a friend's house. We noticed that a coupon in the package had expired, so we looked at the expiration date...and it was long past! They had actually stocked a brand-new store with old stock!
Still, I miss Goodings because they had a wonderful bakery and deli, and the salad bar was a grazer's lunchtime dream. Towards the end, they stopped stocking or cleaning it, and it became a mockery of the original lovely salad selection. Oh well, now the store is just another part of Celebration history and lore, and the cavernous building sits empty, with papered-over windows.
Meanwhile, it's been over a year, and I've gotten used so used to Florida brands that I feel lost when I return to Illinois. A few Midwest chains have followed me to give me a taste of my former home when I need it...for example, a Kohl's department store opened up nearby last year. Back in Chicago, I was a major Kohl's fan, even in the old days when it was known as "Mainstreet" (I'm probably the only person left alive who remembers that). But now I've become such a Floridian that I haven't even bothered to visit since it opened. I've been assimilated by the Florida lifestyle.
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