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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 1 year ago

Veggie Tales: Behind the scenes of the new Publix store prototype

Changes at Publix go beyond the produce.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

There’s nothing like a Publix grand opening.

That’s what Publix's media and community relations manager, Brian West, says. The supermarket chain spokesman has been to his fair share of Publix openings, where the celebratory atmosphere includes customers lining up at the door and waiting for the official ribbon-cutting before streaming through the doors.

Statewide and beyond, new Publix stores bring out a kind of rabid fandom in its customers. West says he often hears customers refer to the specific store where they shop as “my Publix.”

Residents of Palmetto in north Manatee County experienced a grand opening of their own Sept. 26 for the newly built Publix at 9520 Buffalo Road. But this is no ordinary Publix. The Palmetto store is one of fewer than 10 prototype stores Publix has opened recently with a new layout and features. West says the prototype is the first new splash Publix has made in quite a while with its stores.

Lori Sax. Upstairs at the prototype store, there’s a mezzanine with seating for about 50 people, with couches, tables and Wi-Fi.

The company has been growing rapidly in recent years; it now operates more than 1,200 stores in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. At times, the growth comes so fast that it can be hard to keep up with Publix’s expansion. In response to a question about the number of stores it has, a Publix official recently wrote in an email, “We currently have 1,229 stores; however, it will be 1,230 by the end of this week.”

For a company like Publix, which reported $36.3 billion in 2018 revenue, a key question when considering the new prototype stores is a simple one: Why?

Lori Sax. The produce area in the store has been expanded and has a prominent place near the front of the store.

The Lakeland-based grocery giant founded by George Jenkins in 1930 prides itself on customer service, and its new prototypes aim to keep up with that tradition with changes to make shopping trips more convenient. “You’ve got to keep things fresh,” West says. “The grocery industry is very competitive. We’re constantly looking at how to serve customers better. Refreshing the layout is one of those things.”

Change of scene

Loyal Publix customers will see some key differences in the new prototype store in Palmetto.

An average Publix store is about 45,000 square feet. The Palmetto store is slightly bigger, about 48,000 square feet.

Beyond size, a noted difference is that the produce area in the store has been expanded and has a prominent place near the front of the store.

But the biggest change West thinks customers will notice is the layout of the deli. It’s fully on the sales floor — not against a wall. Deli employees are now completely in view of the customer, and products are displayed all around the deli, including a large cheese selection and olive bar. “You’re hitting everything fresh the moment you walk through the door,” West says.

Lori Sax. One of the biggest changes in the prototype store is the layout of the deli. It’s fully on the sales floor, not against a wall, and deli employees are completely in view of the customer.

One fresh food department that didn’t make it to the front of the prototype store is the bakery, which is toward the back because, West says, they ran out of space.

The deli and other areas of the store emphasize prepared foods, an effort to provide customers with another form of convenience. Publix sells an increasing variety of grab-and-go items and meals. It also offers online ordering and grocery delivery options. “We want to take care of the customer in every way possible,” West says.  

The prototype store has a dedicated area where customers can pick up Publix’s Aprons Meal Kits. The kits are created in stores and include ingredients and preparation instructions customers need to make the meals at home.

Throughout the prototype store, there’s a new color scheme on display. The Palmetto store is the first with the scheme that uses the color gray, for one, to make items on the shelves pop. It showcases the items customers are looking for, West says, and makes it all about the products for sale.

Lori Sax. The prototype store has a dedicated area where customers can pick up Aprons Meal Kits.

In the produce section, large-scale, close-up photographs in shades of green punctuate the gray and feature fruit, vegetables and herbs. Elsewhere in the store, customers will find additional large-scale photos of subjects including eggs and dishes of food.

Upstairs at the prototype store, there’s a mezzanine where customers can sit and eat food they have purchased. It has seating for about 50 people, with couches, tables and Wi-Fi. West says the mezzanine concept is part of the new prototype, and all stores built using the floor plan of the Palmetto store should have a mezzanine. (With the mezzanine area and Wi-Fi, Publix is somewhat playing off a smaller competitor, Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, where comfy seating areas have been a key feature for years. A 100-store chain that's recently expanded south into Virginia and North Carolina — while Publix marches north — Wegmans and Publix often both rank high in national brand recognition and customer satisfaction surveys.)

When Publix customers are done shopping, they can take their items to the handful of self-checkout lanes at the store. The concept is not new to Publix — West says the chain tried self-checkout as early as the late 1990s. Some stores have self-checkout now, West says, but self-checkout should be in all prototype stores moving forward.

Prototype power

The day before Publix held a ribbon cutting for the new Palmetto prototype, employees put finishing touches on the store.

As the team awaited the first customers, items stood arranged in perfect rows, from oranges and corn on the cob to wine bottles and boxes of cereal. That’s no small feat, considering Publix has 40,000 to 60,000 types of items in each store on average. It’s all part of creating a good first impression when customers walk through the doors.

For future Publix locations built from the ground up like the Palmetto store, the first choice will be to use the prototype model, West says. If the company is remodeling a store, whether it uses the prototype concept will depend on space available.

Publix decided on the specifics about what to change for the prototype through research. “We’re fortunate to have a lot of marketing data,” West says. Because a handful of other prototype stores opened before the Palmetto store, it’s somewhat of a proven concept. “We already know it’s successful,” he says.  

For Publix, the goal of its prototypes is clear: Keep things refreshed, and give customers what they’re looking for, particularly convenience. West says, “It’s about meeting the expectations of the customers.”

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