2019 Retail Pacesetters: Publix expands ‘fearlessly’ up the East Coast

Publix Super Markets has remained one of the most successful growth stories in the mass retail industry, as the company’s focus on high levels of service and well-executed retail operations had led it to become the dominant food and drug merchant in the southeast.

The Lakeland, Fla.-based operator continued to expand up the eastern seaboard in 2018, with 24 new stores in Florida, 11 in North Carolina, six in Alabama, four in Virginia, three in Tennessee, two in Georgia and one in South Carolina.

Publix operated 1,211 supermarkets at the end of 2018 and reported $36.1 billion in sales for the year, up 4.4% over 2017 results. Comparable-store sales rose 2.1% for the full year.

“They continue to have a stellar balance sheet, steady expansion, great in-store service, and an aggressive emphasis on private-label products,” said Chuck Cerankosky, an analyst at Cleveland-based Northcoast Research. “Their expansion has been steady, but you might call it fearless because they go into markets with strong competitors and steadily work their way in.”

As the company has expanded in the mid-Atlantic, it increasingly has competed against such regional powerhouse retailers as Wegmans and Harris Teeter, for example, along with a host of other traditional supermarket operators and discounters.

The company recently announced that it would expand its newly relaunched specialty and organic format, called Greenwise, with new locations planned for Florida and South Carolina.

“We’re creating a community gathering place where high quality natural and organic products are the center of what we offer,” Publix president Kevin Murphy said in a statement about the Greenwise expansion plans. “And we’re helping our customers support their healthy lifestyle with convenient in house prepared meals and grab-and-go options made from organic and antibiotic-free ingredients.”

Publix often cites its 202,000 employees, many of whom are part of its Employee Stock Ownership Plan, as the driving force behind its success. The company recently earned top honors as the No. 1 supermarket for customer service on Newsweek’s “America’s Best Customer Service 2019” list; and for the past 22 years, the company has ranked as one of Fortune magazine’s 100 best places to work in America. This year, Publix also came in atop Fortune’s “Best Big Companies to Work For” list for companies with more than 100,000 employees.

“Publix continues to perform at a high level from a retail standpoint, driven by great execution and customer service,” said Neil Stern, senior partner at Chicago-based consulting firm McMillanDoolittle.

Publix also has a strong reputation for the food service in its delis, as well as for its promotion of home cooking through such programs as its Aprons cooking classes and demonstrations. It recently launched an online version of its Aprons cooking classes that began airing on its YouTube channel in January.

The company also has stepped up its efforts around pharmacy and health care, including through its recent partnership with Flagler Health+ to place three of that company’s telehealth diagnostic sites at three Publix locations in the St. Johns County, Fla., community and one at an on-site Publix Pharmacy at Flagler Hospital.

“Todd Jones, to his credit, as CEO has turned pharmacy into a real consumer advantage for Publix,” said Burt Flickinger, managing director at New York-based Strategic Resource Group.

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