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New Carrollwood Publix is grocer's latest effort to stay current, competitive

TAMPA — For Publix, keeping up with the times — and the competition — means ground buffalo in the butcher shop, floral arrangements by the front door and cafe seating with Wi-Fi.

It also means replacing razors and batteries by the checkout with shiny apples and trail mix, and stocking pastry cases with desserts almost too pretty to eat.

The changes are part of the newly opened Publix supermarket in Carrollwood's Village Center. The center demolished the old store last year to make way for a larger, more modern version that incorporates elements of Publix's GreenWise brand, with its large selection of freshly prepared food and organic items.

The goal was to expand offerings for existing Publix customers and woo shoppers from other grocers such as Whole Foods, which opened down the street in late 2012. Although the store lost 10 months' worth of business during construction, the improvements are expected to boost long-term sales.

The upgrade was a long time coming. The store's landlord, Regency Centers, started talking with Publix eight or nine years ago about expanding the store, which anchors a major shopping center at Dale Mabry Highway and Fletcher Avenue. Publix needed more space, and the shopping center didn't want the store to move anywhere else, said Mike Kinsella, senior vice president of Regency Centers.

"They had a need, and we had a need," he said. "The timing was right, and the opportunity was there."

The landlord paid for the new, 49,000-square-foot building and related reconfiguration of the center, which included moving the Walgreens store and adding a new access point. Publix paid for the store's interior build-out.

Neither Publix nor the shopping center would disclose the cost of the multimillion-dollar project. But as part of the deal, Publix agreed to a more expensive, 20-year lease.

The creme de la creme store will likely become a model for new and improved Publix locations but not necessarily the norm. Publix spokesman Brian West said the Lakeland-based chain continually evaluates its 1,075 stores to determine which ones need a makeover and to what degree. Although details haven't been announced, he expects the recently closed store on Fourth Street at 38th Avenue N in St. Petersburg will be more of a traditional store than the Carrollwood one.

Industrywide, supermarket chains remodel stores every eight to 10 years, said Neil Stern, senior partner with McMillan Doolittle, a retail consultancy in Chicago. Publix, a wealthy chain with a giddy following in Florida, has been particularly aggressive.

"Publix is better disciplined than most at making sure their stores are fresh and up to date. It's part of their culture of better service," he said. "They have been very successful and can afford to. Some of the other competitors can't."

Publix generally targets stores that are already profitable or are in good neighborhoods, he said. They might tear down a store that has become too small for the growing neighborhood or might spruce up the digs if a new competitor comes to town. Most likely, he said, each store has a goal for a return on its investment, and it wouldn't be unusual to set a 5 to 10 percent sales increase — a significant boost for a business that operates on a small margin.

Remodeling stores isn't risk-free. Adding more prepared food has higher labor costs. Someone has to cut the vegetables in the salad bar, bake the pizza bread and keep the olive bar tidy. Who likes to buy live lobster from a dirty tank?

Stores also face losing shoppers who are familiar with the old layouts and don't like wading through aisles of wine to find their Sutter Home. And, in the case of a teardown like the Carrollwood Publix, shoppers who go elsewhere during construction might not come back.

For longtime customers, demolishing a store can be bittersweet, as was the case last month when the Publix in Madeira Beach closed after 56 years.

"There's a lot of sentimentality for the older stores," said Dave Aldrich, who runs Pleasant Family Shopping, a blog that take a nostalgic look at chain stores. "People have been shopping at Publix for a long time."

Aldrich says Publix's focus on attractive, well-designed stores goes back to founder George W. Jenkins, who catered to housewives with boutique-like departments, pastel colors and terrazzo floors, which still exist in many stores. In the early days, Jenkins commissioned mosaic tile murals for storefronts and gave flowers to his customers. A 1954 Saturday Evening Post article called him the "grocer the girls all love."

While shoppers generally embrace the modern store features, much of the individuality of the stores has been lost, Aldrich said. Stores aren't as bold as they used to be visually and architecturally.

Stores do still have the large Toledo scales, a free perk Jenkins started as a customer service. Even the new Carrollwood Publix has one, near the sleek, new customer service counter.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.

New Carrollwood Publix is grocer's latest effort to stay current, competitive 02/21/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 21, 2014 10:25pm]
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