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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 10 months ago

Going Publix

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The grocery giant has big plans for fending off fierce competition.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Why it matters: With $34.1 billion in sales in 2016, Lakeland-based Publix sits at the top of the food chain in the grocery business. But decades of dominance have made it a prime target for competitors. How will it stay fresh?

Brian West, an oft-quoted and top spokesman for Publix, insists the Lakeland-based grocery leader doesn't spent too much time worrying about its competition. It's a long and growing list, which, in addition to a stalwart like Winn-Dixie, includes Sprouts, Aldi, Trader Joe's, Walmart Neighborhood Grocery and Amazon-backed Whole Foods Market.

“The best thing about competition is that at the end of the day, the customer is going to win, because it forces everyone to be on their best game,” says West. “We are always looking for innovative ways to bring new products, new services and more convenience to our customers, and competition certainly spurs that on.”

The new year will bring some major innovations from Publix, in business for nearly 90 years. Its partnership with area health care firm Baycare will continue to build momentum, with stores in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties getting BayCare HealthHubs — self-serve kiosks that will allow shoppers to obtain free health information and transmit that data to their physician. That move was preceded by Publix retail pharmacies opening in five Tampa Bay area Baycare facilities.

Including the pending arrival of Baycare telehealth clinics, which West says could be coming within two years, the end goal is to eliminate a customer pain point: standing around. “No one likes to spend their life waiting in line,” he says, “whether you are at the doctor's office or the deli counter.”

West also says in 2018 Publix will continue its aggressive real estate strategy to buy, rather than lease, some buildings it occupies. In the past four years, Publix has acquired 119 stores, building its portfolio to more than 300.

In 2017, the company spent $68.7 million for shopping centers it occupies in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties. “We're fortunate that we have no long-term debt and have cash on hand to invest that way,” says West. “So when those opportunities come about, if it makes sense for us, we're gonna do it.”

— Brian Hartz

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