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Drive-through Publix?

CITRUS PARK

Alysa Gomez pulled into the Publix parking lot and sat in her car as rain drops splattered across the windshield. Yes, the mother of two needed groceries, but she had no intention of unloading her children and heading inside. Instead, she waited — with trunk open — for the groceries to come to her.

Gomez is a customer of Publix Curbside, a trial program that allows users to shop for their groceries online then pick them up outside the store.

The Gunn Highway location is the only Publix in Florida that offers the service, which was launched last fall. A second store in Atlanta also offers the curbside program. It's free the first time, after that it's $7.99 each trip.

Once the yearlong trial is over, Publix will determine whether it should implement the service at other locations.

So far, Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said, it's exceeding expectations.

"The majority of customers are repeat customers, they have come back over and over and over again," Patten said.

Gomez, who uses the service every week, is one of them.

"I love it," she said as employees packed the groceries into her trunk.

"It eliminates the whole step of having to come and go grocery shopping."

To use the service, customers log onto the company's website where they can browse through items and sales, adding the desired groceries to their virtual cart. Every item available in the store is available online.

Notes can be added to customize purchases, such as how thin to slice the deli meat or whether green bananas are preferred.

Then customers reserve a half hour time slot for pickup at least four hours after the order is placed.

Meanwhile, at the store, personal shoppers do the hard work — pushing carts down aisles, loading them with the selected items as they go.

When customers arrive, they pull into one of three designated parking spots, hit the call button on the intercom next to them and let employees know they've arrived.

Within minutes, a personal shopper brings out the bill, then collects coupons and payment, which can be in the form of cash, check or credit card. Customers using debit cards or buying alcohol must go inside the store to pay.

The service is a blessing for Emily Ley who, nearly nine months into her pregnancy, was in no mood to shop on a recent afternoon.

"The idea of trampling through the store sounded horrible today," she said as she waited for employees to load groceries into her car.

Using the service for the first time, Ley of Citrus Park said she scoured the Internet for recipes first then added the ingredients to her shopping list. Since she wasn't familiar with a lot of them, she was grateful that she didn't have to search the aisles.

"It's awesome and super convenient," she said.

Employees even called her before she arrived to let her know they didn't have the 10 ounce bottle of soy sauce that she requested but could substitute it with two 5 ounce bottles for the same price.

For Tricia Rohlf, also of Citrus Park, using the service helps her avoid an unappealing weekly task: "I hate grocery shopping," she said.

Rohlf, who was using the service for the second time, said the service saves her time and money, despite the extra fee.

"I spend less than when I actually go in the store," she said.

Patten, the spokeswoman, said the program can be helpful for budgeting families.

"If you have only $150 to spend on groceries, then you can see before you get to the store what your total will be," she said. "It's easier to stick to a budget that way."

And Publix Curbside has attracted customers outside the store's usual area, Patten said.

"A lot of folks who are ordering are outside the ZIP code of where the store is located," she said. "They are ordering from work or for friends. They are using it from all over."

Gomez of Tampa previously shopped at a Publix location closer to home. But after trying the service, she didn't hesitate to change.

It takes her about five minutes more to get to the Citrus Park location, she said.

"I would drive farther, though," she said.

This isn't the first foray Publix has taken toward a personal shopping service.

Publix Direct, a venture launched several years ago in South Florida, offered online ordering and home delivery for $7.99. The company invested in a warehouse and truck fleet for home delivery, but the program was scrapped in 2003 after losing $30 million in two years.

The outlook for Publix Curbside, however, is positive, Patten said. "Now customers come to us," she said. "It's a better fit."

Fast facts

Publix Curbside

Where: Citrus Park, 7835 Gunn Highway

How: Go to publix.com/curbside to shop and place an order online

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

Cost: $7.99 each use (first time is free)

Drive-through Publix? 01/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 2:34pm]

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