You may think of Publix Super Markets as a highly successful grocery store chain, but to people inside the business, it is something else: a personality that carefully grooms itself and constantly works to stay ahead of its rivals.
That was the message two of its executives delivered recently as they explained how Publix has grown into one of the 10 largest supermarket chains in the country.
Speaking at a Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Dwaine Stevens and Clayton Hollis explained how the company has thrived over the last 81 years, starting with friendly and efficient customer service.
Maintaining the crisp, welcoming culture comes naturally, says Stevens, who heads media and community relations for the Jacksonville division.
“Service has always been a big word with us,” he says. “We serve, serve, serve.”
Keeping the spirit of customer service alive is simple, he says. “It kind of happens. It’s magical. It’s woven into our fabric.”
Of course, it helps that the company is employee-owned. That keeps people committed to the company’s motto, “Where Shopping is a Pleasure,” says Hollis, Publix’ vice president for public affairs.
What’s more challenging for Publix is keeping ahead of the competition, because some things work, and some things don’t, Stevens says. He cited several examples of flops, including:
“Publix Direct,” an online shopping service the company launched in 2003. It never caught on and was abandoned.
The company sold Crispers, a salad-oriented restaurant chain, in May, just four years after buying it, in order to focus on its core business.
A test launch of health clinics in 40 supermarkets didn’t pan out and was abandoned in the middle of 2011.
Although those ideas didn’t succeed, Publix is committed to trying new ventures because that helps the business stay relevant in a world where competition is intense, Stevens says.
It’s also pervasive. While Wal-Mart’s expansion into groceries is providing strong competition, any place that sells food, including CVS, McDonald’s and Subway, is a competitor, Hollis says.
As part of the campaign to counter competition, each of the more than 1,000 Publix stores adapts constantly to its neighborhood, both in product mix and layout, he says.
For example, the chain is catering to heavily Hispanic neighborhoods with Publix Sabor stores, featuring Latin cuisine, Stevens says. It’s also responding to competition from stores such as Fresh Market with Publix GreenWise Markets.
Publix is taking another look at a form of online shopping, Stevens says. And, it’s testing curbside service, which allows customers to order online and pick up their merchandise from their car for a fee of $8.
Staying relevant also has meant changing the business in ways that conflict with some of its values, Hollis says. When George Jenkins founded Publix in 1930, he adopted a policy of never opening on Sunday. However, when faced with losing customers because Albertsons was open on Sunday, company officials relented in 1982 and decided to open seven days a week, Hollis says.
“It was a hard decision because people think of us differently,” he says.
The grocery chain still has strong commitments to helping its customers and improving the community. One example is Publix’s commitment to fighting obesity, Hollis says. The chain educates shoppers about healthy eating and offering healthy food that’s easy to prepare, he says.
Hollis believes that keeping customers healthy is good business. “If you live longer, you shop longer,” he says.
Here in Gainesville, Publix continues community involvement that goes back to the opening of its Main Street store in 1958, Hollis says. That involvement includes a recent donation by Publix Super Markets Charities to the local Boys & Girls Club and YMCA, Hollis says.
These gifts are in keeping with founder George Jenkins’ longstanding commitment to charity as a way to maintain customer support, Hollis says.
“He was asked how much more he would be worth if he hadn’t given away so much money, and he replied ‘probably nothing,’” Hollis says.