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(Carl Cronan is editor of Real EstateFlorida.)

ORLANDO, FL-When Aldi Group began its expansion into Florida earlier this year, starting with 25 stores and a distribution center near Interstate 4, the German grocery chain wasn’t trying to time it with the current economic downturn. Yet its new stores stand to gain instantly from shoppers looking to stretch dollars on food and other necessities, as well as the availability of quality locations vacated by other supermarkets.

Ten of Aldi’s new stores are former locations of Albertson’s, Winn-Dixie and U-Save, all of which have scaled down or sold off stores in response to the tougher sales climate. Aldi plans to build another ten stores around the state, with five more opening in new shopping centers.

The existing stores are located in larger metropolitan markets such as Orlando and the Tampa Bay area, as well as smaller cities like Daytona Beach, Palm Bay and Merritt Island. The locations are also larger than Aldi’s usual locations, which are around 20,000 sf, allowing for either more aisles and shelves or subleasing to other retailers.

Converting existing stores to Aldi is roughly $1.5 million less expensive than original construction, with buildout taking about four months versus six for a brand new store, says David Behm, vice president of Aldi’s Florida division, based in Orlando.

“We do things in a first-class manner, even when we elect to take second-generation space,” Behm tells GlobeSt.com. “We do a lot of work on the canopies and the exterior. We’re not simply screwing our sign to the front of a building.”

Behm points out that many of the existing stores are already at strong intersections, allowing Aldi to take a pragmatic approach to brand building. All 25 Florida stores are scheduled to open this fall as part of Aldi’s goal to open at least 100 stores nationwide this year, he says.

The weakening economy presents a good time for Aldi to introduce itself to consumers in Florida, where Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets Inc. has long maintained grocery dominance and 40% market share. One of Aldi’s first new stores will open on US 98 in Lakeland, while its 500,000-sf distribution center is being built on the opposite side of Polk County in Haines City.

Rather than trying to lure shoppers away from Publix, Behm says Aldi is simply trying to capture its fair share of those who are looking for similar quality for less money. Aldi promotes pricing up to 50% less than competing grocers nationwide.

“When people are pinched and gasoline is over $4 a gallon, they are looking to save any way they can,” Behm says, adding that Aldi lately is able to attract customers nationwide that may not normally stop into its stores. “They’ve been pleasantly surprised—thrilled, actually—with the prices we have,” he says.

Retail brokers in Florida say Aldi enjoys a strong reputation in the grocery business as an upscale discounter, similar to what Kohl’s is with clothing. They note that Aldi has an instant advantage in securing some of Albertson’s well-placed stores.

“People are focused on saving money, and Aldi is perceived as good value,” observes Patrick Berman, senior director, retail brokerage with Cushman & Wakefield of Florida Inc. in Tampa. Positioning and pricing may combine to help Aldi more than other grocers in those same locations, he says.

While those grocers have filed bankruptcy and closed dozens of Florida stores over the last three years, Aldi says it will create 400 jobs with its first round of stores this year and attempt to expand beyond Central Florida in years to come. Behm says he expects some skepticism initially, especially from shoppers who aren’t familiar with Aldi, but he pledges that the new stores will be here to stay.

“Once people see the way we operate our stores and the success of our stores, it never really comes up anymore,” he says. “We’ve never pulled out of a single market in the United States.”

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