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I love Publix, but not the monotonous landscape

I bet I can guess the reaction to the new Publix, or I should say the newest Publix, scheduled to open Thursday at the Shoppes at Avalon on County Line Road.

Delight, probably, because that's the way people usually respond to Publix — me included, even though it has put a serious dent in sales of organic produce at my wife's health food stores. (Hopefully, that will suffice as full disclosure.)

I'm a Publix loyalist — love the cleanliness and wide selection, like the color scheme that manages to suggest both wholesome food and the glamour of Florida's beaches, was as tickled as anyone else that the chain had enough faith in the Brooksville market to offer upscale goodies like fresh sushi when the new store opened there in 2006.

And so what if founder George Jenkins, with his pencil mustache, always reminded me of Slim Whitman (another Floridian, by the way)? I see those old pictures of him bagging groceries and I think: This is a place that cares about customers. It has reputation for treating employees pretty well, too.

But still I wonder: Do we really need so many of its stores?

As I've already suggested, you can't just say you're going to the "new'' Publix. You might mean the one near the entrance to Glen Lakes that opened a year ago. Or the one in Brooksville. Or even the one in the Mariner Commons plaza, built in 2002.

Likewise, if you call information and ask for the telephone number of the Publix on Mariner Boulevard, you have to specify: Mariner Commons or Seven Hills Shopping Center.

And forget about saying the "Spring Hill Publix.'' The one on County Line will be the community's sixth and Hernando County's eighth.

But so far there's been none of the outrage that helped shoot down Wal-Mart's plans to build its fourth Supercenter in Hernando two years ago. And, though Publix will now have as many outlets here as Walgreens, there's been none of the resentment some of us felt when stand-alone drugstores seemed to be taking over the county.

As with Target, Publix's aggressive expansion comes with good stores and even better public relations. But it is aggressive — not much different, in fact, than Wal-Mart's much-maligned "saturation marketing'' strategy of a few years ago.

There's no problem, said Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten, "when two stores are in close proximity. You never know what is going to make people choose their favorite Publix. It might be the layout; it might be the people; it might be the side of the street. We've had great success in sustaining multiple stores in the same area.''

So, if it works for Publix and its customers, what am I complaining about?

Well, for starters, a lack of variety in our landscape and our buying options. We roll by Publix-anchored strip malls the way Fred Flintstone rolled by palm trees. With all the transplants from big Northern cities, with all the cultures represented, we should have more delis and, especially, bakeries. But who wants to compete with Publix?

A new Publix — or Wal-Mart or Target — can promote sprawl by "colonizing'' a new part of town, encouraging other stores to follow, said Stacy Mitchell, author of Big Box Swindle, who also said the amount of per-capita retail space in the United States doubled between 1990 and 2005.

Since there aren't quite enough customers to go around, some of those stores, like the site of the former Publix in Brooksville, end up empty and can ultimately lead to blighted strips that drag down property values and tax revenue.

"It's a kind of merry-go-round that chews up the landscape,'' Mitchell said.

In this county, the duplication of stores is a symptom as well as a cause of sprawl.

We are a community of 165,000, enough for a good-sized city. But our population is so spread around that, even with eight Publixes, an entire section of the county, Ridge Manor, is without one, and its reaction to getting one would probably be something even beyond delight.

So, in a way, we need a ninth Publix, which seems nuts.

I love Publix, but not the monotonous landscape 10/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 7:25pm]
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