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”.