Outside the southeastern United States, Publix is neither a household name, nor an everyday experience. A highly regional grocery store chain, it’s only known in the six states where it actually operates.
Among those who do know Publix, the affinity is incredibly strong. Consumers report driving vast distances to get there and making real estate decisions based on their home’s proximity to a Publix. In its home state of Florida, it’s the king of the grocery powers, to the extent that a popular question among local journalists is: Who can dethrone Publix?
So far, the answer to that question has been no one — though there have been some recent attempts. In 2015, Safeway took over three Albertsons stores and poured $30 million in bringing the West Coast brand to Publix country. It didn’t work out so well, noted Jeff Green, a partner at retail real estate firm Hoffman Strategy Group
“Safeway tried to compete on a traditional supermarket level, and it couldn’t,” he said. “The experiment crashed and burned.”
So, what makes Publix so unassailable on its home turf?
Well, according to fan, patron and local reporter Doreen Christenson, Publix lives up to its branding as the location where “shopping is delightful,” and has consistently done so for the last 88 years.
“Ever since the chain’s late founder, George Jenkins — known as Mr. George — opened his first grocery store in Winter Haven in 1930, it’s been one giant love fest,” she noted.
The secret to Publix’s success isn’t anything terribly flashy or exceptional. Its coupon program is generous, its customer service is excellent and nuanced, kids get free cookies at the bakery on every visit and babies get a free seven-inch cake with the purchase of their first birthday cake — so they can eat handfuls of it as God intended.
It also has a new low-price prescription drug program where the pharmacy stocks 90-day supplies of 29 generic medications for $7.50. The price is the same with or without insurance.
The goal is to produce an experience that never disappoints, one where the consumer consistently finds rewards.
Dominance in its home market aside, Publix is looking to expand its footprint and menu of offerings. The firm is building a new chain of standalone GreenWise Market stores, with plans to open three in Florida and one in South Carolina within a year. GreenWise stores focus on specialty, natural, organic and gourmet foods. It’s not a new brand experience — Publix offers GreenWise produce, meats and non-food items, like tissues. GreenWise as a store concept isn’t actually new, either — it has been around for a decade in Palm Beach and is already available in Tampa and Boca Raton.
However, Publix is building out the concept, according to spokesman Brian West, and looking to create a very different grocery retail experience for shoppers in that it might not involve any grocery shopping at all. These shops will hone in on prepared food offerings, such as burrito bowls, Mediterranean pizza, sushi and smoked wings. They will also be touch points for food and beverage-themed events, such as wine and cheese tastings that will give consumers a reason to be in the store and encourage them to put new types of products into their shopping carts.
Or, West noted, they can just come in and get a drink. GreenWise will offer local craft beers and kombucha on tap.
“Or you can order a wine flight and lounge in the mezzanine area with friends,” he said.
It’s a desirable concept, if not an entirely original one. While Kroger has been hesitant to take on Publix, it has been floating a different type of test balloon in the market: opening of one of its Lucky’s markets in Delray Beach. It has notably advertised itself as not only a grocery destination, but also as a possible place for consumers to consider for a date night, with a bar area, patio furniture and an indoor cafe.
The brand also focuses on organic, healthy and lifestyle products that are meant to appeal to Florida’s foodies “who want to live a healthy lifestyle at a reasonable price.”
Publix, it seems, is firing back — and hoping to keep its customer base hooked by offering similar lifestyle-enhancing extras.
Can a small, hyper-regional chain survive in a world where the biggest commerce players are lining up for a piece of the grocery pie? Just last year, Publix lost its crown as the nation’s most-loved grocery store to another player.
That title went to Wegmans — the hyper-regional, upstate New York chain that Publix had tied with for the top spot for the last few years.
The big players can move a lot of spend, but players like Publix seem to offer proof that shoppers still like a hometown hero in grocery — particularly if there’s a free cookie in it for their kids.