Thursday, September 10, 2009

Publix - Shopping Pleasure in the 70's

Three decades removed, opinions are divided about the styles of the 1970’s. Some call it “the decade that taste forgot”, while others appear determined, consciously or unconsciously, to duplicate the 70’s look with every single outfit they wear. One thing I’m sure of based upon my memories of that time and on seeing these pictures (and other 70’s stuff on this site and elsewhere) today - the color and pattern combinations could hardly have been wilder. Plaids, stripes, flowered patterns, you name it – it was all there and could usually be seen in the same room, or even the same outfit! Funny thing is, they almost look interchangeable today – the plaid on the lady’s suit would’ve worked as a wallpaper pattern, and the green stripes on the deli wall would have made a cool outfit for her. (Yikes!)And don’t even get me started on the men’s ties. In any event, whatever “style” was or wasn’t back then, Publix seemed to have lots of it.

The 70’s were a period of strong growth for Publix despite the challenges affecting their industry at the time – massive fuel and other energy cost increases, food shortages, pressure from consumer advocacy groups and other factors. The company wrapped up the year 1972 with 174 stores and $678 million in sales. Ten years later, in 1982, Publix had 262 stores, racking up a very impressive $2.5 billion in sales for the year.

Part of this growth came from the addition of a large new market area for Publix. In 1971, the company reentered the Jacksonville area, some 12 years after a short lived single-store experiment there. This time they were here to stay, and within a year three stores were opened. The deepening energy crisis greatly affected the cost of shipping food from Publix’s Lakeland base to the Jacksonville stores, so it was decided to ramp up store construction there in order to gain a big enough store base to support a distribution hub, in effect making the region self-supporting. By 1974, 15 stores were in operation in the area, and that same year Publix opened its Jacksonville Distribution Center. Two years later, there were 27 stores in the division, enough to fire some loud shots across the bow of their largest competitor, Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie Stores.

A trend that impacted all supermarket chains regardless of location or size was the rise of “consumerism”, a grass-roots movement whose goal was to draw attention to high food prices and force producers and retailers to look at ways to provide consumers some relief. In response to this, many chains dropped trading stamps and adopted an “everyday low price” (discount) format. Despite the proven, continuing strength of Publix’s S&H Green Stamps program (which with every passing year was looking like more of an isolated success), the company felt compelled to respond to this growing movement. Instead of tampering with a successful formula, Publix decided instead to introduce a second line of stores under a different banner – “Food World” would be the name, and discount pricing would rule the day. No trading stamps would be issued at Food World stores. Typically, the Food World stores were former Publix units converted to the new banner.

Discounting was a new, foreign venture for Publix, as longtime Publix manager Keith Marr mentions in his autobiography, entitled “Crossroads on Nebraska Avenue”. Marr, who under the supervision of another manager was placed in charge of the new store, a former Orlando Publix unit, recalls George Jenkins’ huge vote of confidence on the eve of the first Food World grand opening in September 1970 – “I don’t have any experience in discount merchandising, so you two are going to get it for me. I am giving you two a blank check to do whatever you feel you need to do to make this store do business. You run it the way you see fit”. The store, which in its last months as a Publix averaged $30,000 a week, sold $70,000 in its first week under the new banner and was doing nearly $100,000 a week within a year. Over the next decade, Publix would add 22 more Food World units, which by and large did very well, doubtless due in part to the wise selection of the actual stores to be converted to the new format. Interestingly, a Food World unit ended up being the site of an industry milestone – Lakeland’s Lake Miriam Square Food World, which opened in November 1977 (and was Publix’s largest store, ironically, at 57,000 square feet) was the first store in the Southeastern U.S. to feature electronic barcode scanning at its checkout counters, an area in which Publix would become known for leadership.

A completely different but no less important area of leadership was the company’s advertising, which was very distinctive by normal supermarket standards. In an arena where every square inch of newspaper ad space was crammed with text, scores of food item photos and a confusing mish-mash of incompatible typefaces and clutter, Publix ads had more in common with magazine advertising – only a few products featured per page, with lots of white space and consistent, high-quality graphics. Publix ads also tended to stress individual themes, with promotions ranging from meat specials to convenience foods, a relatively new focus meant to appeal to the fast-paced Florida leisure life. The Publix ads were masterful when it came to presenting the human side of their company, particularly as it related to their long-standing policy of closing on Sundays. “Over 24,000 Publix People don’t have to drive to work on Sunday” read one ad, which stressed the company’s concern for employees and the side benefit of emptier streets for the public. Although years later Publix would reverse this policy, the ad had a very favorable impact when it ran. Also, 1972 saw the introduction of the new Publix logo, featuring the now-famous stylized “P”, which replaced the handful of block-lettered logos the company had been using. This logo, of course, is still in use today.

Publix, led by founder and executive committee chairman George Jenkins, his brother, Publix board chairman Charles Jenkins, and president Joe Blanton, had long since attained “most admired company” status by the eve of the company’s golden anniversary in 1980. Even bigger things were to come. Thankfully, there would be less plaid.

The first seven photos, featuring the first “post-winged” prototype and several interior views, are Publix publicity photos from 1972. I’ve nicknamed the lady behind the bakery counter in the second photo “Gram”. Even though neither of my grandmothers resembled her in the slightest, she’ll always be Gram to me. The eighth photo, with the apple cider bottles visible up front, is a Sperry and Hutchinson (S&H) promo shot from around the same time, and the ninth and tenth photos showing a checker (the blue and yellow outfit was the company’s 70’s standard) and the bag boy (Son, why are you putting my groceries under the hood?) are from 1973. The last color photo, from 1976, shows the standard prototype store with the new Publix logo and typeface. Below is a photo of the first Food World store, an Orlando former Publix unit converted in 1970, as published in “The Publix Story”, a Newcomen Society booklet transcribing a 1978 speech by George Jenkins.

17 comments:

  1. The art deco and tower Publix designs have a more distinctive look to them that the stores of the 1970's, which like so many other chains of the 70's and 80's had the exterior design dictated by the shopping center design rather than than the store. But Publix still managed to add some elements of style that were often missing from other chains. I suspect by and large the distinctive designs of the Kroger superstores of the 1970's and the greenhouse stores of the 1980's are the reason for their being the favorites of those decades.

    The interior seems to be a "sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the individual pieces" because the decor is somewhat generic to the decade, the stripes, paneling, font, etc. but combines the elements more successfully than the typical supermarkets of the era.

    As for Food World, I don't remember any of the Florida units operated by Publix, I believe most were locations that were no longer successful as a standard Publix rather than new builds, and often would be off the main roads, particularly given that most of the Florida trips my family took during the 70's were to the primary Central Florida tourist destinations. One thing for certain is the store looks very much like Bruno's Food World stores of the same decade, which were very similar in concept. Perhaps Publix could have made more use of the format, especially after the decline of Food Fair/Pantry Pride in Florida, and would have made the existence of main rival Winn-Dixie more thorny a decade sooner than had happened. But as George is quoted, discounting was not his expertise, certainly the traditional Publix was his comfort zone.

    Sorry for the long post.

    Ken

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  2. I'm solidly a Kroger fan on supermarket design in this era, but the Publix stores in the early '70s were very nice, as well as the others you've shown from earlier years with the winged design. The block lettered logo was actually a little more attractive on the early '70s stores than the stylized logo, but the latter has its own flair and works pretty well, too.

    Talk about a visual assault of color inside that store! Winn-Dixie was almost as colorful, but most of its decorations of this era weren't rendered as well as Publix. These interior details look like a department store or upscale discount store.

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  3. Dave:
    I must say that I love this blog! it is the most comprehensive most detailed salute to the Retail Industry I have ever seen Along with Groceteria (which you may be familiar with) this site deserves an award or something. Thanks for the memories and photos and keep the good stuff coming!

    now on the subject of Publix. I kind of like the uniqueness of the 70s. though I am no plaid fan. (keep it on the Scottish kilts please!)and the Deli you mentioned was akward looking. I liked a lot of the things that George and Co. were doing. I am a fan of 60's 70's and 80s look chain stores (and independents as well) and Publix always had some of the nicest stores. no matter what decade. Say what you will. I prefer the gaudiness of then to the everyone wants to be either a lookalike Costco or neo-euromarket or wannabe rustic Whole Foods Clone. there's too much of that now. it;s boring,predictable. It seems that no one takes risks now. i kinda miss the days of anything goes. Tacky? maybe but I'd be more prone to shop at a place that looks unique than a place that looks modern. Anywho. what I wonder was how did Publix manage to create stores that were only anout 20,000 square feet and have FULL SERVICE bakery and Deli dpeartments! It took too many years for stores up East to add such departments (many chains like Acme did'nt add such in most stores until the 80s! and I know to compete Food Fair must to have used a similar format for some Pantry Prides in FL and maybe if they imported that North they might still be around today) I wish I couldve witnessed those old Publixes from the 50's 60s and 70's George Jenkins was a genius!

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  4. "...what I wonder was how did Publix manage to create stores that were only anout 20,000 square feet and have FULL SERVICE bakery and Deli dpeartments!"

    Storelover: Not every Publix location had a bakery. The one I worked at--with the winged design--did not have a bakery. Deli, yes. As far as I remember, the larger stores built in the 1970s like the Palm Beach-style location previously covered here, most likely did. I know the Spanish-style Publix I later worked at had one, and it seemed *so* special after years of shopping at the other, smaller locale.

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  5. The Publix of today is beginning to emerge! Exterior, yes, interior, no.

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  6. Now THAT'S the Publix I remember as a kid. Those stores were truly remarkable, and seemed HUGE for being really about a third size smaller than a typical Publix store of today. I was actually a fan of the 70s design. Latter day stores of that era were done in a similar pattern on the exterior, but the white and stone columns were done in wood tones as the decade came to an end. New 80s stores had no consistent design. Keep up the GREAT work, Dave. Where did these amazing, vivid photos come from?

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  7. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_dLfDXJ5fg

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  8. The Brady Bunch would not have looked out place shopping here. It screams 1970's. I slightly prefer the new stylized logo that is still in use, it has a modern yet art-deco retro look to it, though on the generic store fronts it looks out of place(much like it does on the exterior of the former Albertson's in Florida).

    I believe the variety in Publix was allowed despite utilizing smaller footprints than other supermarkets was a result of the stores being less cluttered, smaller backroom warehouses, and a shallower but wider store design which allowed more aisles than the typical 20-25k sq ft stores had. The stores were always fully staffed and the shelves were always full even during high traffic times. Clerks would target areas needing filled and stock with minimal shopping interruption. It made for Publix being labor intensive, but out of stocks have always been a rarity in their stores.

    Prior to the 70's, many of the Danish Bakeries were a separate storefront adjoining Publix, rather than being an instore bakery. Delis became increasingly common in the 60s, but weren't a Publix universal until the 1970's.

    It's a shame that Publix didn't expand beyond Florida prior to the 1990's, it would been cool to see Publix go head to head with the Kroger superstores of the era.

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  9. It was less unusual to have 20K sf stores with delis and bakeries than you think. Jewel and National had urban prototypes this size that had these elements and small pharmacy departments. I used to shop one of the Jewels (which is till in business). Cleveland's Fisher Foods chain had delis in stores as small as 13K sf in the 50s. Independents in Cleveland's Bi-Rite & Stop-n-Shop co-ops often had leased Hough Bakeries, as well as their own delis even in very small stores, less than 20K sf.

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  10. Ken – No need whatsoever to apologize. I greatly appreciate your comments – they’re always insightful and well expressed, and a very valuable part of the discussion here.

    I agree that there isn’t much that’s unique here in terms of design elements (except for the terrazzo floors), but everything is so well-executed that the total feel seems unique. Kroger’s superstores and greenhouse designs were definitely among the trendsetters for their eras.

    In the late 80’s I traveled to Northern Alabama for business quite often, and can definitely see the similarities between the Bruno’s and Publix “Food World” units. So much so that I used to think they were affiliated.

    Steven – Good point on the block lettering, and I would agree with you that it looks better, probably due to heavy emphasis on rectangular shapes on that facade. The stylized logo worked better, to me, on the less boxy facades that followed. And my impression of the Publix vs. WD interiors is similar to yours. The Publix details just seemed to be of higher quality.

    Storelover – Thanks very much! I hope that I make it clear on the site that I’m a huge fan of the 60’s – 80’s look as well. It was a true golden age (or maybe a couple of golden ages). And you’re right about the rustic or “neo-euromarket” designs, although I’d have to say I prefer them over many chains’ incredibly bland standard interior packages.

    And that’s interesting that some of the major Northeast chains such as Acme didn’t have delis before then. Where I grew up, delis were pretty much standard in any major chain grocery store built from the mid-60’s on, as the last commenter notes. Seems really ironic considering the fantastic reputation for delicatessens that the many locales in the Northeast have enjoyed. I think it’s a good assumption that the Florida Food Fair/Pantry Pride units probably had to ramp up these departments, at least where they were head-to-head with Publix.

    Dexter – Definitely true about the Publix “Danish Bakery” departments. The information I have shows that nearly half the Publix stores had them by 1976 - 93 Danish Bakeries in a total of 202 stores. I would certainly think that any Publix unit in the last 20 years or so would have them, though. I wonder if they still use the “Danish Bakery” name?

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  11. Jonah – Definitely getting there, I agree!

    Jack – When we were kids, all of these stores seemed huge, whereas nearly all stores built before 1970 or so were tiny compared to those of today. Just today, in fact, my youngest son and I were in a former “marina-style”, and I was surprised how small the place seemed. I agree on the “no consistent design” for the 80’s stores, and that was no doubt purposeful. If anything, some chains have drifted back to more standardized designs in recent years, and I’m not sure that’s such a great thing.

    Most of these photos come from yearly promotional publications that Publix used to call “Progress Reports”, similar to an annual report but without financial figures in the early years. I think these were pretty much just issued to employees, since Publix, despite the name irony, has never been a publicly held company. Because of that, they are extremely hard to come by, but I’ve been fortunate to be able to buy quite a few of them. Most of these were from the 1972 edition, and I’m told that my own copy of it was from the estate of Joe Blanton, the late Publix president. I’m delighted to be able to display them on the site for everyone to enjoy.

    And that commercial is too cool! I’m guessing mid-1980’s? The comments on the video are hilarious – one commenter says “such a terrible name for a grocery store”, and the next person responded “blasphemer”!

    Ken – Or the Partridge Family! (We actually have a few seasons of that one on DVD that my kids love. I think I overdosed on the Brady Bunch back in the 70’s.)

    Interesting notes about the Publix store footprints, and regarding staff, I was amazed to read in the “Fifty Years of Pleasure” book (1980) that Publix often staffed its stores at twice the level of its competition - 90 employees per store vs. the average 45. No wonder their rep for service was so strong. I wonder if that ratio still holds today.

    Regarding the separate entrances for the Danish Bakeries, the 1958 Southgate Shopping Center view from a few posts back shows the separate entrance, shows the “Danish Bakery” logo, but it’s barely readable.

    And a Publix–Kroger head-to-head would have been interesting during the superstore era, no question about it!

    Anonymous – I agree. The Cleveland and Chicago markets really do seem to have similarities in food preferences. I’m still surprised to hear that delis in such markets as Philadelphia weren’t prevalent until so much later.

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  12. Could the top photo be this store, by chance?

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/shawnson/139450607/in/set-72057594123839928/

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  13. Jack - Good timing, I had bookmarked that Flickr page a while back and was getting ready to link it on the new post I just put up. There appear to be some slight differnces in the window configuration, but you never know - it might be the same store. Thanks!

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  14. Publix easily could have had double the staffing of its competition in 1980. It's major competition was Winn-Dixie, which minimally staffed its stores and was late to add service departments. Publix stores in Florida are known for things like taking your groceries to your car, something they will do "if you ask" outside of Florida. They also cut wages for newbies when the "Wal-Mart scare" went through the business a few years ago. Of course, Wal-Mart has probably helped Publix (their market share rose in places like Tampa after Wal-Mart entered). Wal-Mart mostly hurt low end competitors like W-D and Food Lion. Moroover, people who cherry pick for low margin commodity items like canned goods at Wal-Mart or Costco by higher margin items at a store like Publix.

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  15. I love your site and all the wonderful information it contains!

    I have a question that maybe you can help me with in regards to Publix.

    Back in the 1970's in two towns in Tennessee, Johnson City and Erwin, they had Publix grocery stores. My family shopped at both of these locations regularly and as of this writing, I have been unable to find any info on these stores.

    Publix of today denies they ever existed and that there was no way they could have had the same spelling of the store name then.

    I'm hoping that perhaps you or your readers can come up with some information on these stores and set the record straight about their existance.

    I appreciate any time and consideration you or anyone may give to this matter and I'm hoping someone has pics or info on these stores that they will share.

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  16. Tenacndn – Thanks so much – I’m very glad that you’ve enjoyed the site and found it informative. Regarding your question, the Publix stores in the Upper East Tennessee would almost certainly not been affiliated with Publix Super Markets of Lakeland, Florida, the company that most people think of as Publix.

    It does sound surprising that there would have been other Publix stores around the country as late as the 1970’s, as I’m sure Publix had quite a bit of legal backup behind its trademark by then. The “50 Years of Pleasure” anniversary book mentions that the company had to buy our some small grocery operators that also used the “Publix” name in their early days, but no mention of any stores in Tennessee. I have several official company publications that came out between the mid-50’s and the mid-80’s that mention all the stores in the chain, and none were located outside of Florida before 1980.

    So it sounds like you’re talking about a different Publix organization. I wish I could be of more help with this! We lived in Nashville for years, and I used to travel to Johnson City and Greeneville on a very frequent basis – it’s a beautiful area!

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  17. I realize that this is a very old thread, but I remember the Publix grocery stores in upper east Tennessee. There was also one in Elizabethton that I remember going to frequently as a kid. Like you I cannot not find any information regarding there legacy.

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