APEX, N.C. — Grocery list in hand, Anne Yeager chuckled and hesitated at first when asked how long she has been shopping at Publix Super Markets.
“I hate to tell you, because that might tell my age,” she said as she walked down an aisle of a new Publix grocery store in a retail development called Publix Pointe in Apex, N.C., a suburb southwest of Raleigh.
“Fifty years, easily,” Yeager said, as her husband, Gresham Yeager, pushed the grocery cart a few steps behind her.
The Yeagers are formerly of Florida, where Publix dominates the grocery landscape, but they have called North Carolina home for the past 15 years. The Apex store, which opened Feb. 8, is the fourth Publix to open in suburban Raleigh in the past three years.
The profitable Publix chain, based in Lakeland, Fla., is expanding northward and westward, bringing its Key lime pie, crunchy fried chicken, submarine sandwiches and reputation for top-notch customer service — including courtesy clerks who take customers’ groceries to their vehicles — to new markets, including the Richmond region.
The new store in Apex, plus two in nearby Cary, offer a glimpse of what Richmonders can expect when Publix comes to a grocery market some analysts say is “over-stored” with too many supermarket options.
Publix is on track to open at least 12 stores in the Richmond area during the next few years. And the chain has said it plans to add locations aggressively here and elsewhere in Virginia.
Ten of the 12 local stores will be in former Martin’s Food Markets sites that Publix is buying and renovating.
The others are being built from the ground up.
One is under construction in the new Nuckols Place retail center at Nuckols and Twin Hickory roads in western Henrico County. The other is slated to be part of a proposed shopping center at Mechanicsville Turnpike and Brandy Creek Drive in Hanover County.
Publix has not provided specific opening dates for the Richmond-area stores, but the company’s website indicates a summer 2017 opening for stores at Nuckols Place, The Shoppes at CrossRidge, John Rolfe Commons and White Oak Village.
Anne Yeager said she has other supermarket options, including a Whole Foods Market and a Harris Teeter, but she prefers Publix because the produce is always fresh and the customer service exemplary, even if the prices are a little higher than the competition.
“I like the variety, the seafood department, the meat department, you name it,” she said. “And everybody is so helpful, not that they aren’t in the other stores, too, but they are extremely helpful here.”
Publix stores typically range from 28,000 to 61,000 square feet. The Richmond-area stores announced so far will range from 49,000 to about 67,000 square feet.
In comparison, Walmart Supercenters typically are about 182,000 square feet, while Wegmans and Kroger Marketplace stores range from 100,000 to 120,000 square feet.
Freshness is a Publix differentiator when it comes to fruit, vegetables and other produce, said Alan Steele, a 32-year Publix employee who is produce retail coordinator for the chain’s division in Charlotte, N.C.
“We get deliveries six to seven days a week,” Steele said.
“That guarantees our freshness. Right now, it’s coming out of Atlanta, because that is where our distribution is from.”
The produce is not all U.S.-grown but is “jet fresh,” he said, flown to distribution centers soon after being picked.
Any customer in doubt about whether a fruit or vegetable is at peak flavor can ask for a sample, Steele said.
“We will sample anything,” he said. “If you don’t like it, we don’t want you buying it.”
Publix does not have a customer loyalty-card program like other chains, but the stores do run weekly BOGO (buy one, get one) specials.
During opening week at the Apex store, for instance, BOGO specials included Birds Eye vegetables, Betty Crocker Suddenly Salad packaged pasta meals, Haagen-Dazs ice cream products, 24-ounce packages of large shrimp, Snack Factory pretzel crisps, French’s ketchup, Perdue chicken breasts and chicken nuggets, plus more.
The stores’ bakeries make bread daily, boasted Ashley Mayes, an eight-year employee who is bakery manager at the Apex store.
“Our Italian five-grain is probably one of the best breads we have. It’s mixed in the store, so extremely local,” she said.
Another customer favorite are the birthday cakes made in-store and topped with buttercream frosting.
“It uses real butter. We aerate it every single day, so it’s nice and light and fluffy. It’s not a heavy icing,” Mayes said.
Publix has other services designed to make mealtime easier for customers.
Hankering for one of the chain’s famous submarine sandwiches for lunch or dinner? You can avoid the wait at the deli counter by using the Publix mobile app to order the sandwich, which will be prepared a few minutes ahead of your scheduled arrival time and left in a warming tray.
Can’t decide what to make for dinner tonight? The Publix Aprons program, which started in 1999, gives consumers some help with in-store cooking demonstrations for meals that take about 30 minutes to make.
Publix also has done some of the legwork, with the items needed to make the meals conveniently stocked together in food display cases near the Aprons station.
“Our motto is, bring your family back to the table,” said Publix meals specialist Steph Arpey. “We put out two new recipe cards a week, so we are here seven days a week demonstrating so we can show folks how easy these recipes are to prepare. We also give you a chance to taste it before you buy it.”
If you’re planning a special birthday or graduation party and want to get your cake and trays of finger food all in the same place, the Publix Aprons event planning service can handle the catering.
The stores’ full-service pharmacies have a program that provides certain medications free to customers with a doctor’s prescription. The drugs available through that program include some commonly prescribed blood pressure medications; antibiotics; metformin, which is used to treat Type 2 diabetes; and Montelukast, an asthma drug.
One way Publix has kept its customer service culture through the years of expansion beyond its Florida roots is through the chain’s employees and managers.
The only way to become a store manager is to already work for the company.
And Publix is the largest majority employee-owned company in the U.S., according to the National Center for Employee Ownership.
Store manager Denny Pena stood in the vestibule of the Publix store in Apex with outstretched arms as he welcomed a steady stream of customers on the Feb. 8 opening day.
Pena started with Publix in Hialeah, Fla., when he was 17. He was a bagger and front-end service clerk.
He has been with the company 28 years, including 10 years as a store manager. The Apex store was his first time opening a new store.
“I remember my bosses always talking to me about all the benefits Publix had and the opportunities that we all had to be anything that we wanted to be,” Pena said.
“They molded us. They mentored us,” he said. “That’s exactly what Mr. George wanted to do with every single associate.
“In order for me to move up, he invested in me. ... It’s our culture — to promote from within. Publix doesn’t hire anybody from outside to be a manager. It’s something that is earned.”
“Mr. George” is George W. Jenkins, who founded Publix in 1930. Jenkins worked for the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain before leaving to open his own store.
Jenkins, who died in 1996, was known for his emphasis on customer service, a legacy the chain continues. The 10-member board includes three Jenkins family members and a fourth by marriage.
When Pena says “our culture,” he also is speaking as an owner.
He is one of the estimated 179,000 employees who hold shares in the company, as of Feb. 7. The chain has about 191,000 workers. Employees who have been employed with Publix continuously for a year are eligible to buy company stock.
By giving employees ownership, Jenkins fostered a sense that everyone had a stake in seeing that the customer experience was superior.
Today, the company is run by President and CEO Randall Todd Jones Sr., who took over last year when former CEO Ed Crenshaw retired after 42 years, including serving as CEO since 2008. Jones was named president in 2008.
“Publix is one of the most respected and one of the most successful retail chains in the whole country,” said Jeffrey Metzger, publisher of Food World, a trade publication that follows the supermarket industry in the Mid-Atlantic.
“They have dominated Florida for almost 80 years and continue to expand their market share there. ... Over the past 20 years, they have also moved northward at a slow pace,” Metzger said.
Clearly, Publix is going to make a presence in the Richmond marketplace, Metzger said.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how they compete in a very over-stored market,” he said.
In the Richmond market, Publix will face competition on price and convenience from operators and market leaders Kroger and Walmart, both of which have more locations and offer online grocery ordering with at-store drive-up pickup.
Publix also will face market newcomers: no-frills Aldi, which has opened nine stores in the Richmond area since April 2015; and Lidl, on track to open a handful of stores in the region this summer.
Where Publix excels is customer service, said Steven P. Kirn, a lecturer in the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He teaches retailing management and has been a Publix customer.
Publix has registered its “Where Shopping is a Pleasure” slogan with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“On the service side of things, not on price, they kind of own the market. They certainly own the Florida market,” Kirn said.
“Service and loyalty, cleanliness, staffing. They are a good operation,” he said.
“If you buy a 59-ounce cardboard box of orange juice, there’s somebody there bagging it for you and saying, ‘Do you want me to take this out to the car for you?’... It’s that level of service,” Kirn said.
“Or it’s the thing that when you go through the store, look at the shelf facings,” he said. “You won’t find a lot of holes. All the canned goods, pasta, what have you, are all pulled forward so that all the shelves are nice and neat and stocked.
“The floor is sparkling. Cleanliness is huge in terms of how people feel about groceries,” Kirn said.
Can Publix re-create that kind of company loyalty in a competitive market such as Richmond?
“They think they can,” Kirn said.
“I would think the Richmond market has a kind of southeastern sensibility where that sort of loyalty can be very powerful,” he said.
But in the supermarket world, location is key, he added.
“It’s the number one reason why people choose to shop at a particular store,” Kirn said.
“They basically have kind of saturated Florida where they have almost 800 stores,” he said. “If I want to go to a Winn-Dixie, I have to drive past three Publix stores to get there.”
Jones, the Publix CEO, has his work cut out for him, said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of New York City-based consulting group Strategic Resource Group.
“He inherited a company that has been competitively complacent, because Publix in its legacy state of Florida has faced less capable, under-capitalized competitors like Winn-Dixie,” Flickinger said.
In the Richmond market, Publix will face a food fight probably unlike any it has ever experienced, Flickinger said.
“The outcome for Richmond consumers is they’ll get the best of the best from the chains and, at the same time, they will have unprecedented price wars.”