Bi-Lo customers might have to put "find a new grocery store" at the top of their shopping lists if Food Lion goes through with a plan to buy out the struggling Mauldin-based chain.
Some stores likely would close as a result, forcing shoppers to choose from among a dwindling list of grocery stores in the Midlands, experts said.
Food Lion and Bi-Lo have the largest number of stores in the Columbia area. The merger comes after Harris Teeter pulled out of the Columbia market in 2001 and Winn-Dixie left four years later.
But experts predicted prices would stay low because of "the Wal-Mart factor." The massive chain thrives off outpricing its competition.
Plus, Publix - which has fewer stores but a higher volume of sales than many of its competitors - could snap up some of the Bi-Lo faithful if Food Lion doesn't do more to improve its image, experts said.
Food Lion recently unveiled a new look at all its local stores and is going green with a new store under construction in Northeast Richland.
Food Lion announced Monday that it is in talks to buy Bi-Lo, which filed for bankruptcy protection in March, in a $425 million deal.
Bi-Lo said in a statement that it is keeping its options open.
Lois Shannon likes the convenience of a traditional grocery store as opposed to a massive retailer. She splits her grocery shopping between Bi-Lo and Piggly Wiggly on Garners Ferry Road, depending on who has the better specials that week. She depends on Bi-Lo to get her prescriptions filled.
"I can run right in and get it and get right back out," she said, instead of spending "half a day" in line at the Wal-Mart pharmacy.
Shannon said she is likely to take most of her business to Piggly Wiggly if her local Bi-Lo closes.
Ann Gregg said she will probably head to Publix on Rosewood for most of her shopping if the Bi-Lo on Devine Street closes. The closest Food Lion to her house would be several miles away in Five Points.
If the Devine Street Bi-Lo becomes a Food Lion, she would be willing to give it a try, she said, if they keep the produce guy.
If the deal happens, some of the Food Lion and Bi-Lo stores that are near each other likely would consolidate.
Food Lion has 24 stores in the Columbia area, and Bi-Lo has 16. Some of them are practically next door to each other, including those on St. Andrews Road in Irmo.
On Clemson Road in Northeast Richland, the Village at Sandhill was chosen four years ago for a new Super Bi-Lo model, with an older Food Lion a couple of miles away. Food Lion has a new "green" store under construction just a few miles away on Hard Scrabble Road.
Wal-Mart, which sells itself with ultra-low prices, is the leader in sales by far in South Carolina, according to The Shelby Report of the Southeast, an industry publication.
Even though it has half the number of stores of Bi-Lo and Food Lion, it claims 36 percent of the market share, The Shelby Report said.
Food Lion has the most stores in the state at 145, but gets only 13 percent of the sales. Bi-Lo, with 130 stores, gets 16 percent, the report said.
"They're not going to keep them all them open," said David J. Livingston, a Wisconsin-based grocery store expert. "They're not getting that much of an advantage."
Wal-Mart's dominant presence will keep prices low for consumers, he said. Their biggest dilemma will be choosing a grocery store.
Privately held Publix is likely to reap some benefits because they do more volume per store and, in general, are more customer-friendly, Livingston said.
Publix, with just 42 stores in the state, has 8.7 percent of the sales, only slightly lower than Food Lion, which has more than three times the number of stores, according to The Shelby Report.
"Publix is in a good spot to come in and become the conventional retailer," he said.
It will take more than just a buyout for Food Lion to increase its sales, said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry consultant.
Food Lion will have to invest in its stores and make a better connection with the customer, he said.
"You have to make it a more pleasurable shopping experience," Goldin said.
The chain already has started working on its image in the state, recently remodeling 31 stores in the Columbia and Florence regions to give the stores a "neighborhood marketplace" feel. It has new signs, decor and lighting and a bigger selection of products, such as meats, organic items, and beer and wine.
Patricia Posey, who was shopping Monday at the Bi-Lo on Devine Street, said she likes Bi-Lo because it's clean and has nice people on the staff.
Would she keep going to that store if it was a Food Lion?
The ball is in the grocer's court. "It depends on if the service stayed the same," she said.