When Publix announced in February of 2016 that it would enter the Mid-Atlantic, the furthest up the map its reach extended was North Carolina.
By year’s end, the Lakeland, Florida-based retailer will have opened eight locations in the greater Richmond, Virginia area, highlighting a strong push in what is considered a fertile market.
“This is a market we’re committed to and one that we’ve said we want to grow aggressively in,” Publix spokesperson Kimberly Reynolds said during a store opening event in Colonial Heights, Virginia — about 20 miles south of Richmond — in early November. “We look forward to continuing to grow here.”
Richmond has a wide range of supermarket retailers, from Kroger to Save-a-Lot to Food Lion to Aldi and Walmart Neighborhood Market. It’s also attracting newcomers like Publix and German discount retailer Lidl, which selected the city as one of its first landing spots in the United States.
“One thing is, Richmonders love their food and love their supermarkets. There’s a strong interest here,” Reynolds says. “For Publix there is a lot of density in the market, but there is a lot of growth that’s happening. That, to us, provided the perfect opportunity to come and serve this community.”
‘We had something different to offer’
The Colonial Heights location was the seventh Publix to open in the Richmond area this year, with the first six opening in Henrico County, north of the city. The eighth, in Midlothian, opened that next weekend. Publix has announced 14 total locations in the region, the rest set to open in the next two years. Reynolds says the company expects more announcements to come.
The density and growth, combined with Publix’s renowned foodservice and customer service, Reynolds says, makes the area a prime retail target.
“We still felt we had something different to offer,” she says. “While there is a lot of competition in town, we still felt that with what makes Publix great — our associates, our premier service and our quality — we can bring something unique to the market.”
In July of 2016, Publix announced the purchase of 10 Martin’s locations — themselves former Ukrop’s supermarket locations. They were closed, completely gutted, redesigned and rebuilt, and then reopened as Publix stores. The Colonial Heights location was among them.
The first customers in line for the reopening arrived at 4 a.m. By the time the store opened, a few hundred customers had formed a line that stretched around the block.
“Really, our store openings to date have exceeded our expectations,” Reynolds says. “The communities have really embraced Publix and it has been great.”
She attributes that to a mix of Publix’s reputation from its decades of success in the Southeast and a general curiosity to see what the store is all about.
“It’s our loyal customers who have shopped with us elsewhere and people who have heard about us and have heard good things about us,” she says. “But at the same time it’s also those customers who have never stepped inside a Publix and are excited to see who the new supermarket is in town. Our job is to make sure we earn the trust and satisfaction of those customers. Our associates are working hard to provide that experience that we tout, that convenience, quality, enjoyable experience.”
As is the case with most retailers, a substantial portion of that customer experience revolves around the fresh and prepared side of the store. And with Publix’s Virginia stores, some subtle design changes were made to test customer interaction and enjoyment with the foodservice departments.
At the Colonial Heights location, customers enter the 63,000-square-foot store directly into a new-look deli. In fact, they enter the store between the delis, if you will.
Instead of one large deli that includes the sliced meats and cheeses and the prepared foods, the main throughway is flanked on either side by a deli. On the left is sliced meats and cheeses and the ever-popular Publix subs and hoagies — which could command a story of their own. On the right is the prepared foods side of the deli, with entrees, sushi and a hot bar. Between them is a salad bar.
“It’s a new concept for us,” Reynolds says. “Normally you’ll see all the deli offering on one side, on the exterior wall. This is really designed with the customer in mind. We brought the deli to the front so it’s more convenient for the customers, especially those who just want to grab and go, whether it’s the prepared foods or the Publix subs.”
The sushi department — operated by a third-party supplier —is usually in the back of the store, near the seafood. Here it is next to the hot bar, allowing customers another quick lunch option, or the ability to order a custom roll, pay for it at a dedicated express checkout nearby, and leave.
As for the prepared food itself, Reynolds says the focus is providing variety, quality, convenience and value. She points to the Chef’s Selection offerings in the hot bar as an example.
The Chef’s Selections case expands variety with entrees like cedar plank salmon, Asian barbecue drumsticks, limited-time-only salads, meatloafs and more. Any entrée marked with a red tag can be combined with two sides for a $6 meal. Blue tags indicate a $10 price point for the entrée and two sides.
“You have to have that value and variety,” Reynolds says. “While we’re still really known for our fried chicken and our subs, the Chef’s Selections provides many more offerings ... maybe things customers don’t want to make at home every night, but still enjoy eating. It’s all made fresh in-house every single day.”
Convenience is targeted by offering consumers the option to eat the meal right there in the café or take it home for a quick heat-and-eat meal. “They want more convenient options,” Reynolds says. “And sometimes they may still want to cook at home, but they don’t necessarily want to cook from scratch, so they want things that help them serve a healthy, quality meal without a bunch of cooking. But it all has to be quality and it has to be a great value.”
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A 2013 Buzzfeed article that went viral is titled “Publix Subs Are The Most Delicious Thing To Ever Happen On Earth.” Publix subs have their own Facebook page. A quick search of Twitter reveals a nearly constant Publix sub love fest.
“Needless to say, our subs have been a very popular item for a very long time,” Reynolds says. So while the layout of the deli may have changed, nothing has when it comes to the subs and other sandwiches.
They’re still made with Boar’s Head meats and cheeses, sliced freshly on Bizerba slicers, and built on bread that is baked daily at the nearby instore bakery. “We use the finest meats and cheeses we can offer and we’re not bringing our bread in from somewhere else after it had been baked,” Reynolds says. “I think those two things really make our subs stand out.”
That interdepartmental cooperation, Reynolds says, is a key differentiator for Publix. “It’s something that our customers really appreciate, especially in a new market, where they’re still getting to know us,” she says. “You’ll find that quality and freshness here at Publix and all our departments working together to provide that.”
A popular option is putting the store’s fried chicken tenders on a roll for a chicken tender sub. Publix also offers numerous other hot and cold sub options, as well as LTO sandwiches. The hot subs are warmed in TurboChef Bullet rapid-cook ovens. Mettler Toledo scales weigh out the product right in front of the customer.
During the Colonial Heights store opening in November, customers could order a holiday sub with turkey, cranberry relish, bacon and smoked gouda cheese.
“We’re always evaluating our limited-time offerings and always introducing new things and bringing back things that were very popular with customers. If they’re popular enough, we sometimes make them a staple in the store. It’s important to keep it exciting and keep customers coming back for new things.”
Publix also drives sales with combo choices. A half-sub and side option, for example, sells for just $5. That can be pared with a regular salad, an LTO salad or other side items.
What’s old is new
Products with simple ingredient lists and that are made freshly every day are in demand these days. In the Publix bakery, that’s been a way of life for decades.
“Take our buttercream for example,” Reynolds says, showcasing the sweet frosting on cakes, cookies and more. “It is made every day, right here, with real butter, sugar, and not much else. And it’s been made daily for decades. It’s another thing that has always been a favorite with our customers.”
In fact, Reynolds says the instore bakery is the perfect place to showcase what Publix strives to offer throughout the store — quality food with real ingredients. Fresh bread, baked in LBC bakery ovens, has a short shelf life, offering customers the highest quality while also keeping them coming back for more.
“That’s what I think is so great about our bakery: we stay true to those things,” she says. “The things we’re founded on still exist today. Everything is minimally processed and fresh.”
What is new, specifically in Publix’s Virginia locations, are small cases on the floor outside the bakery department that hold grab-and-go cookies, croissants, muffins, turnovers and more.
“Here in Virginia we’ve been testing this, and it’s been received really well,” Reynolds says. “Customers like the convenience of just being able to grab it and go. And the variety is important. It’s not just donuts. The more variety we can offer, the better.”
One of the few items in the bakery area that are not baked in the store are Publix’s famous pies. They are produced in one of the company’s facilities in Florida or Georgia.
“Most everything is still baked in the store, but whatever isn’t is still baked by Publix associates in our manufacturing facilities,” Reynolds says. “We think that’s important.”
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Publix puts a strong emphasis on its cheese department. Just past the bakery, right before an expansive wine section begins, sits a curved cooler case that hold a few hundred varieties of cheeses — everything from Wisconsin cheese curds to a hefty wheel of private label Parmigiana Reggiano.
“This is about $2,000 worth of cheese that’s two years old. It’s some of the best Parmigiana in the world,” says cheese specialist, Mark Wylie, who is based in the Indian Land, South Carolina Publix location and was on hand to help the Colonial Heights store open. “By the time it gets to us, it’s been loved and looked after for two years. Then we process it and turn it into blocks or whatever the customer wants. We’ll cut it into any size for you.”
Wylie’s job is almost a throwback to the days of a small neighborhood supermarket. He’s the cheese expert customers come to when they want the perfect pairing for a certain wine or a cheese board for a special dinner. He helps customers with cheeses that range from pricier selections to a reasonable chunk of Gouda for $6.
“My job is to help the customer and I’m training two employees right now to do the same thing,” he says. “If you want to make a meal, we can help you set up a board of cheeses. If you want to have a game of cards with your friends, I’ll tell you what to put out for them that is perfect for snacking. We get this great opportunity to guide people around all the different cheeses.”
And that, Reynolds says, sums up what Publix strives for when it comes to customer experience.
“We talk a lot about really making the shopping experience more of a pleasure and this is a perfect example,” she says. “Cheeses may be intimidating to the average customer, so we have our expert who helps make them not intimidating, but fun. That’ s just part of the services we offer to go above and beyond.”