Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Expanding the Publix Domain

Our final look at Publix, for now. In the nearly 30 years since Publix celebrated its golden anniversary in 1980, it has not only continued to be one of the most respected companies in the supermarket business, but also has become one of the largest. Much of this can be credited to the carefully cultivated reputation for service the company has successfully maintained through the years. Another reason would be the innovations Publix has embraced in the last three decades, especially in the area of technology – they were one of the strongest proponents for scanning technology at their checkout counters, well ahead of some much larger supermarket firms, and Publix was also an early adopter of in-store ATM’s. Still another factor was the reversal of two long-standing company policies during this period.

From the company’s founding, Publix stores were closed on Sundays. As mentioned, the company made good use of this fact in their advertising, citing the need for a regular day off for employees. According to the “Fifty Years of Pleasure” book, this wasn’t merely an advertising ploy but rather a firmly held belief. It was also a point of pride for George Jenkins, that “a Publix manager could do as good a job in six days as any of his competitors could in seven”. By 1982, however, with the influx of newer competition such as Albertsons and a more aggressive posture by a Winn-Dixie eager to stem the loss of ground to Publix, it became clear that the competitive landscape had changed. That year, the long-held policy was dropped – Publix would now operate on Sundays as well. For a while, even the famous slogan was appended – “Publix - Where Shopping is a Pleasure 7 Days a Week”.

More significant was Publix’s momentous decision to open stores outside of Florida for the very first time. For decades, Publix resisted outside overtures or internal pressure to push outside the Sunshine State’s borders, a fact that was still very much the case in 1980, as recorded in the “Fifty Years” book – “So great is Florida’s projected population growth that it is expected to support continued expansion of the chain. This would rule out what south Georgians who travel down to Tallahassee for the pleasure of shopping in Publix stores would like to see. There is no thought, (Publix real estate VP and future chairman) Charles Jenkins, Jr. and others said, of territorial expansion outside of Florida or even into the panhandle part of the state…George Jenkins gave (another) reason for staying close to home: The people of Publix thoroughly understand their Florida customers. They might not ones in other climes”.

Just over ten years down the road, with 435 stores in Florida, Publix was now willing to give those “other climes” a shot. In 1991, the company opened their first store in Savannah, Georgia. Four years later, by late 1995, there were 46 Publix stores in the state of Georgia, 28 of those in the greater Atlanta area, pulling a 17% share of the market in that remarkably short time. Their enviable reputation preceding them, the company had no trouble drumming up interest on the part of developers, as one attested in a 1995 Restaurant News article - "Publix attracts a lot of attention…They're great for us developers and for the retail business in general. They're upscale, well-run, and about 25,000-35,000 people pass through each week." The article goes on to say that “although the company always seeks equally successful vendors to include in its shopping centers, Publix is generally ‘the bell cow that draws the customers in’”. In 1996, Publix entered Alabama and soon after that, South Carolina as well. In 2002, Publix got a jumpstart in another new market - Nashville, Tennessee, when Albertsons sold off their seven stores in the area. Most of the Albertsons units had originally opened in the 1990’s as Foodmax stores, a division of Birmingham-based Bruno’s. Soon Publix would begin building new stores from scratch in the area. (We were living in Nashville at the time, and of course we moved away a year and half after Publix moved in. I miss them. They had the best stores! And they had the best help…wait, I’ve gone into all of that before, haven’t I?)

In early 1990, ill health forced Publix founder George Jenkins to step down as head of the company, turning over the reins to his son Howard, a company veteran himself. On April 8, 1996, at the age of 89, George Jenkins passed away, leaving a legacy that is still widely remembered and respected today. In 2000, Howard Jenkins resigned as CEO, staying on as board chairman, and his cousin Charles Jenkins, Jr. (son of Charles Jenkins Sr., longtime Publix chairman, who passed away in 2005) took over. In March 2008, Ed Crenshaw assumed the CEO position upon Charles Jenkins, Jr.’s retirement. Crenshaw is George Jenkins’ grandson by his adopted daughter. In these respects Publix has proven somewhat unique, not only because the second generation of leadership has demonstrated the ability to drive the company to exciting new heights, but also as an example of an uncommonly harmonious series of leadership transfers between branches of the family. These things are far from a given in most high-profile businesses.

In today’s daunting retail world, where Wal-Mart has become the nation’s dominant grocer and most traditional supermarket chains are beside themselves trying to compete (and in more than a few cases, just to stay alive), Publix’s service approach and efforts to serve important niche markets have combined to produce a rare winning formula. In the last five years, the company has opened four “Publix Sabor” stores – deluxe supermarkets specifically designed to appeal to Hispanic customers – three are located in the greater Miami area and one is in Kissimmee, Florida, near Orlando. Another initiative has been the “Publix Greenwise Markets”, specializing in organic food and appealing to environmentally-minded customers. As you might expect, these three stores are located in upscale areas- Boca Raton, Palm Beach Gardens (near West Palm Beach) and the historic Hyde Park section of Tampa. In 2002, Publix invested in Crispers, a soup and sandwich chain with locations in many Publix shopping centers. There are also some gas station/convenience stores called “Pix”, but here Publix’s approach has been fairly tentative, with only 13 units in place as of now. Also, a couple of innovations inside the stores have helped immensely – the “Apron’s” take home meal departments, and Publix’s robust private label program, a winner of many awards and subject of its own fansite (albeit apparently no longer updated), and most importantly, excellent sales and customer loyalty.

With 1,010 stores (according to their latest website statistics) and a mind-boggling 40% share of their largest market, Florida, it looks like there’s no end in sight to Publix’s brand of shopping pleasure. And “When are we getting Publix?” continues to work its way up the list of most asked questions. If anyone’s keeping a list, that is.

All but one of these photos are 1983 Publix publicity shots. The first two photos feature very sharp-looking exteriors, showing some of the fine diversity of design the company has used since the early 1980’s. It wouldn’t be surprising to see stores like this built today, although the words “Food-Pharmacy” generally appear underneath the store name. (Like most major chains today, Publix feels the need to emphasize the obvious. Maybe they just don’t want to appear presumptuous.) The third and fourth photo, when viewed together, make a very interesting contrast to the 1972 pic from the first post in this series. The terrazzo floor is the one consistent feature. The wide shot of the interior, viewed large, shows some wonderful attention to detail on the walls. The rest of the photos show various departments. Note the frozen food cases in the last department - at that time, many supermarkets were still equipped with “reach-in” open top freezers where the chilled air was held in via “air lock”. Today, nearly all major chains use glass door-enclosed cases just like those pictured here. The view of the soft drink department is a GCC Beverages photo. A division of General Cinema Corporation, they were Florida’s largest soft drink bottler at that time, and Sunkist soda was actually a GCC proprietary brand. It’s interesting to note how the brand images and packaging have changed!

The name of this post was adapted from the title of a 1998 Progressive Grocer article, “Publix Domain”.


  1. Again Publix shows tasteful and thorough attention to detail. Using typical 80's design elements, Publix again stands head and shoulders above the crowd with the execution of the details. The common thread of the terrazzo flooring continues well past other supermarkets using terrazzo, and attention to details is still evident in the displays.

    It's been many years since I've seen the first gen NCR 1255 registers, a bit more clumsy than the 2552 series that replaced them which became synonymous with supermarket checkouts in the 80's, they're cool to see.

    I can understand Publix's reluctance to expand beyond Florida and even into the panhandle of their home state. The southermost regions of Georgia and Alabama and the Florida panhandle were very different markets from the rest of Florida. Also those areas were experiencing considerably slower growth and had lower incomes than the booming Florida markets which Publix had grown to a modern operation serving. Only when Florida entered a recession in the late 80's and early 90's did the chain reverse its Florida only policy. Booming Atlanta was close enough to feed the Publix hunger for growth. Indeed, the chain had become so profitible, that it needed to expand and spend capital or face severe tax penalties on its earnings.

  2. Oh, do I want those glass pop bottles back!

    I have enjoyed your Publix posts. :)

  3. This is a great series. Having never been to a Publix, it was interesting to see what all the fuss was about. I have to say, they did a really great job with their stores and it looks like they are really well-run. Makes me want to hop in the car with a cooler and go shopping down South! LOL

    My favorite shot in this set has to be the tinted glass chandeliers over the cash registers. They look like someone stole the pole lights around a Belk-Lindsey and hung them upside down! Truly trippy. I love it!

  4. Beige cash registers? They were black until this series.

  5. Now you're talking! Now this is a store! I love the use of colors, and the fonts. It is a very bold, colorful store, very consistent with the times. I'm sure if I had walked into this store in its time and day, I would have been greatly impressed with it. Excellent!

    On another note, I remember three stores using elements of this look. Sears stores in the 1970's used a similar "three color" bar design in their stores, but with more muted colors. And, color-wise, I remember similar, rich colors in Cook United/Ontario Food Stores and in a mid-70's Tempo-Buckeye prototype they started to roll out before they closed the chain. The Publix stores were better executed and didn't look at all like the former two examples, but the rich colors used were very similar.

  6. Now THIS is the way I remember Publix all those years ago! This may as well be my local Publix circa 1982! My mom used to go grocery shopping every Wednesday, and she'd pick me up from school and we'd go to Publix together. Good times and a great store.

  7. Sorry to spam, but I actually read this article again instead of just looking at the pretty pictures, and had two more points:

    1. Sunday operation. I am impressed when anybody stands by their employees and tries to do what's right by them. I remember last Good Friday being impressed that Discount Tire (a chain) takes afternoon off on Good Friday, closes the stores, and takes the employees out to an Easter lunch. For what it's worth, I thought it was cool that someone would do this in this day in age.

    2. I chuckled when I read this comment, and this is what prompted me to respond again: "... Publix has proven somewhat unique ... as an example of an uncommonly harmonious series of leadership transfers between branches of the family. These things are far from a given in most high-profile businesses."

    In my experience, EVERYBODY ALWAYS GETS ALONG when there's plenty of money. It's when money's tight that families start bickering. Publix is successful, thus the family gets along. If it ever starts to shrink, that's when the claws come out!

  8. Publix entered Atlanta at a time when Kroger had a lock on the market, with rather weak competition from A&P, W-D, Ingles in the suburbs and the small Wayfield chain in the city. Mis management had killed off Big Star (stores sold to A&P) and the remains of Food Giant, which once had dominated the area. The upper end of the market only had the local Harry's, which was small and later bought by Whole Foods. Harris-Teeter entered the market a little later with upscale stores, but stumbled with ridiculous pricing. In the end, Publix had an entire niche largely to itself and they offered people a much better fresh foods experience than the dominant Kroger, let alone mismanaged chains like W-D and better pricing than H-T, which ultimately left. A&P made a last dictch effort to improve its stores, but wound up selling a lot of them to Publix.

    Similar dynamics were present in Nashville, where the Hill family had sold what was left of their idiocyncratic, semi-upscale chain to independent operators, and the field was largely left to Kroger and marginal operators.

  9. Bravo, Bravo, Bravo.

    An excellent tribute to a fine grocer, which excells because it listens to its customers.

    What might have been if A&P's Family Mart in the Tampa Bay area had stayed and expanded? But A&P's loss and Kroger's abandonment of the Sunshine state was Publix's gain.

    I too have fond memories of Publix during Florida family vacations.
    They were the coolest stores.

    You have to be a Publix fan,a nd there are many in FL and the Southeast. But today, customers are indeed fickle.

    They would rather shop Walmart to save a few bucks, then support a fine grocer, such as Publix.

    I am so glad to see Publix as a robust, over 1000 store chain, wishing them all the best in the years to come, and giving Kroger some grief in Atlanta.

  10. Bravo on this series. I knew you couldn't deny me a photo of the green cashier's uniforms any longer.

    Too bad Publix-brand sodas no longer have the "Pix" name on them. A charming remnant of a long-ago childhood...

  11. I have to agree with Danny, this Publix prototype interior is definately cool. I am really feeling the cube lighting at the checkstands in the fourth photo.

    This series was bittersweet for me. It is interesting to see this historial analysis and at the same time listen to a good friend's fun filled weekly shopping at her local Publix and me being left out in the cold because there are none in my town. Is it too soon to hope they will ever make it up north? I am really dying for some Publix branded Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream.

  12. "I am really dying for some Publix branded Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream."

    Didi: I bought some today! It's outrageously good! Publix also sells apple pie and egg nog-flavored ice cream, too.

  13. CK, that's twice that I have felt like I have been left out. LOL! Hope you enjoy. I have been told it was good. My friend felt sorry for me so she sent me a picture to my cell phone of the container. LOL. Sad, I know.

  14. Hijacking the thread perhaps, but getting back to Ken's comment, is there a picture of what the NCR 2552 (cash register) that he mentions looked like? I remeber the ones in the photo (though I don't remember the pole displays) as many chains had those back in those days.

  15. Ken – “Attention to detail” almost sums it up right there. Terrazzo is still a very uncommon sight in supermarkets, at least the ones I’ve been to. And the thing that strikes me about the cash registers is how huge they are!

    In think Publix was so reluctant to expand outside Florida in large part because they were afraid they might not be able to duplicate “the Publix feel” outside their home state. Some would contend they really haven’t been able to, but whatever they are doing seems to be a hit with customers. And the tax theory makes sense. Companies can be penalized by “not expanding” in many ways.

    Kim – Thanks, glad you’ve liked ‘em! And I definitely would love to see the glass bottles make a comeback also!

    Steven – Thanks very much! You need to make a roadtrip! Those chandeliers are incredibly cool and really jumped out at me as well. Where do you ever see a nice (and expensive) touch like that today?

    Danny – Beige is the new black, I guess!

    Glad this one is more to your liking! ;) I would have been very impressed as well. I’m surprised to hear that Tempo went for that kind of look (although you imply it wasn’t as well executed as Publix). I’m trying to remember if I ever saw that at Sears, or of it was more of a regional thing.

    Phil – Glad this brought it back for you! Recognize any of the checkers? I would be almost certain they were actual employees.

    Danny – Both good points. I agree with you on Sunday operation. One company I have a lot of respect for is Chick-fil-A, who has always had a “closed Sundays” policy. And I love their food! I guess Publix’s concern was if customers had to shop elsewhere on Sundays, they would be inclined to do the same on any other day of the week. I’m sure it was an agonizing decision.

    As far as corporate families getting along, what you say is probably true to some extent, but I think there’s a big difference in “getting along” and entrusting someone, family or not, with the keys to a multi-billion dollar corporation. The business decision would have to outweigh everything else, I’m afraid, and the smart family members were the ones who didn’t try to trade too much on their family standing.

    Anonymous – Thanks for that overview of the Atlanta market, great information! I remember H.G. Hill well. When I first moved there in 1988, I used to shop there for the quaint retro experience. It was like stepping into a circa 1965 grocery store, only in perfect condition and not run down in any way. At the time, the sold no liquor at all and were closed on Sundays. A few years later, they reversed both of those policies in a bid to be more competitive. Unfortunately, they must have alienated some of their base, those folks who didn’t mind paying Hill’s considerably higher prices because of their stand. Those folks probably switched to Kroger and/or eventually Walmart or Publix.

    Andy – Thanks! And you wouldn’t be any relation to “Ann Page”, would you? ;)

    Dexter – About time, right? Looks like the uniform color is an exact match for the Green Stamp dispenser.

    I think I have at least one photo of a “Pix” bottle or can, shoot me your email address and I’ll send it to you.

    Didi – The lighting is tops, no doubt. You need to hop Southwest (whom I’m not affiliated with in any way, mind you) down to Florida, depending on where she lives, to get some of that ice cream while it’s still in season! And the emailed pictures, that’s just too much!

    Dexter – That’s really rubbing it in, my friend. :)

    Anonymous – I’m never sure of these model numbers, but I will keep a lookout. Seems to be some interest in that.

  16. Ventured into the ex Winn-Dixie turned Publix in the East Brainerd area of Chattanooga the past weekend. I hadn't really had a chance to pay close attention to the store, and assumed it was a lightly remodeled Winn-Dixie. What struck me was the detail of using floor tiles that mimicked the terrazzo flooring of their stores of old, I could barely tell they were individual tiles. All shelving, cases, refrigeration, freezers, etc appeared to be entirely new, despite the Winn-Dixe being less than a decade old at closing. The store felt and looked like Publix, only the exterior had a semblance of its origins. And for Danny the cash registers were black touchscreen, yet they nod to today's consumer by offering Self Checkout, though at least 12 full service lanes were opened, a rarity these days in a store of only 45000 sq. ft. The decor was their newest package which is reminiscent of Starbucks or Panera Bread's decor, though this rendition lacked the vintage Publix photos that are found in the two new build Publix stores in the area.

    And the baggers did carry out as part of the job, not as a request.
    I believe this would resonate well with the customers who long for the Red Food chain of old. Red Food also had the "three's a crowd" policy to open lanes if a third customer arrived, a policy I know Lucky used in California and Kroger's Atlanta and Nashville divisions had from the 70's until the late 80's. It was indeed an old fashioned experience in a modern state of the art supermarket.

  17. Danny – Beige is the new black, I guess!

    Glad this one is more to your liking! ;) I would have been very impressed as well. I’m surprised to hear that Tempo went for that kind of look (although you imply it wasn’t as well executed as Publix). I’m trying to remember if I ever saw that at Sears, or of it was more of a regional thing.

    Tempo-Buckeye's last attempt at sprucing things up was actually a neat design to my teenage eyes. They used lots of rich colors and diagonal stripes (such as aqua, cinnamon). I remember the appliance department actually had a plaid backdrop (I assume it was wallpaper). I really thought it was an attractive look. As to Sears, I'm sure you saw it, I'm just not explaining it well. Before the "Store of the Future" all the Sears stores had the same look. It was three bars of color, usually three shades of the same color, with Helvetica department signage. Mens wear (where I worked) had a reddish-brown backwall ... the rest of the store was more beige/off-white. Does this jar any memories?

  18. I really enjoyed your series on Publix, as it brought back great memories and some not-so-great ones as well. I worked as a part-time "bag boy" in a brand new store in 1979 in south Florida (exterior very similar to one of the [photos with P U B L I X in caps and the slogan "Where shopping is a pleasure" to the side.) Our store had the terrazzo floor (I remember vividly the washing, scrubbing and hand-mop waxing we did on Saturday nights after the store closed at 9 PM), the NCR registers in your most recent pictures, and a place for the UPC scanners to be added in the future! We started out with automated stamp dispensers for the S&H Green Stamps, but within a year or so converted over to the dial model shown on the 1983 promo photos. UPC scanners came on board for us in mid-1980 if I recall correctly - in fact, the nearby Winn Dixie (long since gone) had them in place before we opened the store!
    The store I worked in had a "Danish Bakery" (Publix branding for in-house scratch bakery counter - the icon of a baker can be seen in one of the 1983 photos), a deli at the back of the store by the meat counters, and the produce in the far left corner just as the '83 promo photo shows on your page.
    One unique thing about the produce was that the vast majority was shrink-wrapped in set quantities. The customer could "break" the package if desired, but since there were not scales up front at the registers (except for a free one by the door for customers to weigh themselves) the resulting quantity had be weighed and priced in the produce area!
    Most of the time, my job was to bag groceries (paper only) and then take them out to the car for the customer. We were not permitted to take tips, but as we wore these green aprons with pockets, sometimes a customer would insist (especially in December) and would "lose" a dollar in there.
    I remember the 50th anniversary celebrations well - in fact, a commercial for this was shot in our store and was played on the local ABC affiliate in Miami just after the "Miracle on Ice" game coverage during the 1980 Olympics. I recognized many of the cashiers waving in the last scene, and felt a very strong sense of pride in being part of that special time. I had the "50 years" book mentioned earlier on the site, and wish I could find what I did with it. Unfortunately, I did not hold on to my stock from the time with the company, as each vested employee received some) and I kick myself at least once a year when I look at their website and count what it would have been worth these 30 years later.
    The picture of the soda bottles brings back a memory that ties nicely to the content of that shot from GCC. One of the duties of a "bag boy" was to collect the large bin of returned bottles from the customer service area, and sort them out for the vendors in the backroom. I still remember the 8-pack 16oz. sets shown in the bottom shelves in the photo, and how they went for around $1.49 with an additional 5 cents per bottle deposit. In some manner I think we should go back to this model, as it was green before green was cool, except when the bottles broke and cut us, of course.
    Thanks for the great series on the chain, and the unique place it holds in Florida culture.

  19. Ken – Wow, I keep forgetting that Publix is in the Chattanooga area as well. Makes all the sense in the world, seeing as they are in major markets on either side of there, Atlanta and Nashville. 12 full service lanes – and carry out service? How many shoppers across the country wish they had access to that? And the Panera decor package is definitely a style to follow, in my opinion.

    Danny – We didn’t have Tempo, sorry to say. I’d love to have seen one of those stores! I may have seen the Sears version you’re talking about, but honestly it doesn’t register! Guess all that Helvetica runs together after a while! I do remember the sixties serif signage –

    and especially the cardboard “sale” signage that was everywhere you looked in the stores, which obviously came from Sears’ in-house print shop. They were always printed on either white or yellow card stock.

    Bill – Thanks so much for sharing those wonderful, detailed memories! I felt that Publix deserved expanded treatment, and I really enjoyed putting those posts together. It’s great to hear these stories from real-life customers and insiders, such as yourself, instead of just reading about it!

  20. hey that first picture has to be Meadows Square in Boynton Beach, FL at Congress Ave and Hypoluxo. That store looks exactly like that right down the bricks in the columns..and it would have opened din 1983 since thats when that area was developed.

    That store hasent changed a bit, even has its terrazzo floors still.

  21. What I want to know is where I can get my hands on one of the old uniforms. My husband and I met at Publix (I was a cashier and he was a customer). I was wearing the beloved/hated "green goddess" uniform.

  22. The pics make me chuckle. I remember when Publix looked like that. I actually worked at the only Publix in Marathon, Fl. a little over 10 yrs. ago. Oddly enough my ex-husband worked in the meat dept., one of my roommates worked in the Bakery, another roommate as a stocker, and the last roommate was in the deli. lol-I was a cashier. They really are a wonderful grocery store. I enjoyed my time with them. I prefer Publix over other stores. They always appear clean.

  23. Anonymous - Glad this brought back some memories for you! I can imagine it was a blast working there with your friends back in the day. It's rare you hear a negative word about Publix, something not many retailers can boast.

  24. So glad I stumbled upon your blog, and especially this post. I've lived in Florida for most of my 46-years, and have watched many of Publix's transformations. I worked there in 1980-1981 as a teenager (during the baby blue & yellow uniform days), one of main reasons I sought their employ was the Sunday closing! A wonderful perk for employees that sadly no longer exists. When I started in August of 1980, the scanners had just been introduced into our store and oh, my! What a big deal they were! Customers didn't trust them, we were constantly doing price checks and for a long time the stock boys continued to manually price items. I don't know when they started relying on the scanners 100% but I know it took some time.

    Elizabeth, I met my sweetie while working at Publix as well! He was home from college on spring break, picking up a few hours of work at his old store, and I was a high school junior working as a cashier. In our first encounter, he challenged me to a race: he claimed that he could bag faster than I could scan. Ha! I could scan 21 items a minute (yes, they did monitor us!) so needless to say I beat him. ;)

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

  25. Rapunzel – I’m glad you stumbled upon it too, and thanks for sharing your “Publix love story”! ;)

    Seems, from the pictures I’ve seen at least, that Publix went for bright colored uniforms regardless of color – baby blue and yellow, green or whatever.

    And I can imagine it was nice to have Sundays off!

  26. I grew up in the Tampa/St. Pete area and Publix was OUR store. It didn't matter if we were living off of pennies, we always shopped there. I do recall as a VERY little girl (this was maybe '84, '85) that they were closed Sundays or just transitioning to being open on Sundays. It's a hazy memory, but I'm glad that you've confirmed what I had always thought!

    Thanks for the memories, I've lived out of the area for some time now, and I do miss our local Publix, Safeway just isn't the same.