With the rise of specialty grocers like Sprouts, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market, hometown favorite Publix Supermarkets has spent nearly a decade trying to build brand awareness around its own organic chain known as GreenWise Markets.
But now the Florida grocer is abandoning that route and instead will focus on bringing some of those GreenWise perks into traditional stores. Publix chose a store in Tampa to be the prototype going forward.
I visited this new store to see how and where “shopping is a pleasure” is evolving.
I pulled into the Gandy Shopping Center parking lot in Tampa and there it was: the redeveloped Publix that opened in March. The outside of the 61,000-square-foot store had naturalistic tones from the gray bricks to the mahogany-brown wood paneling behind it. It’s a similar color aesthetic to the Whole Foods at Countryside Mall across the bay in Clearwater.
This new prototype store is larger than the average Publix, said spokesperson Hannah Herring. Inside, there’s the usual staple departments like dairy, frozen food, seafood, meat, fresh produce, a deli, pharmacy and full-service bakery. But there’s also extra space for features like a cafe and bar, upstairs and outside seating, and burrito, pizza and pasta stations.
One of the main features Publix carried over from GreenWise Markets is the Pours cafe and bar — which I darted to first. Here, shoppers are encouraged to have a glass of wine while they shop.
I ordered myself a mocktail craft soda called a Citrus Mule (because technically, I’m on the clock reporting this story, boo) and grabbed a basket to do some quick shopping.
To the right of the cafe, there’s an open area for fresh produce, the deli, bakery and a pizza station. In the back corner, there was a popcorn machine surrounded by shelves of bagged cheddar popcorn and sweet kettle corn.
I passed by the pizza station, where guests could grab their own slice and put in a to-go box. Some slices had whipped ricotta on top. Next to it, there was an olive bar with an assortment of options.
The experience felt a lot like Whole Foods — where the act of shopping is slowed down and gives consumers time to browse, taste and explore rather than just running in and out. I could see people eating in the upstairs lounge over the checkout lanes or working on their laptops.
There’s been a growing trend in grocery stores abroad that’s catching on in the U.S., said University of South Florida marketing professor Dipayan Biswas.
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“In the U.S., historically we like getting the job done in the fastest, easiest way,” Biswas said. “Whereas, in many other parts of the world, they try to slow down and take it easy.”
In the last few years, Publix’s GreenWise Markets, like the one in Water Street Tampa, focused on that experience factor. They were about half the size of a typical Publix store and featured more restaurant-type features, like the Pours cafe and grab-and-go food that can be eaten within the store.
When Publix announced it was dropping the GreenWise name off those stores, Herring said that customers liked features of the specialty stores but preferred them in their own Publix locations.
It makes sense, Biswas said. Experiential shopping is becoming essential for brick-and-mortar stores to compete against online retailers. And, in Publix’s case, the dominant Florida grocer is facing steep competition from the fast-growing Aldi and others.
“It’s certain to be tough to compete with them on price,” Biswas said of Aldi. “But Publix can differentiate themselves based on experience.”
It is where shopping is a pleasure, after all. The experience has always been part of the brand.
“But what is pleasure?” Biswas asked. “It changes over time.”
As I walked through the Publix, I could see the evolution of what that brand has become. On one side of the store, there’s the traditional row of aisles with plenty of brand options to choose from — now with many more marked organic products on shelves. Conveniently at eye level, I should add.
Back in the 1990s, Biswas said “shopping is a pleasure” meant getting everything in one place. But today, it’s about having a more enjoyable trip. While Publix focused on one aspect and GreenWise Markets focused on the other, it seems the retailer now sees value in doing both.
Industry analysts told me the move to drop GreenWise will help Publix compete against Whole Foods and other specialty supermarkets under its own banner rather than trying to spend energy on another brand. And this Tampa prototype store is the first showing that.
It was nice to sip a mocktail through the giant store and forget I was doing something as mundane as my weekly grocery trip. It was tedious, though, to open the fridge door with a drink and basket in hand, and grab the butter I needed for a tasty TikTok trend that hooked its claws into me. Good thing there was a lot of organic products to choose from to counterbalance that.
So how long till every Publix store looks like this?
Publix representative Herring said there’s no plans yet for where the next prototype stores will open. Future stores under this design “will be used as space and opportunities allow.”
It could be new stores or old locations that are due for remodeling like the Gandy Boulevard store, which was redeveloped at a cost of $8 million, according to plans filed with the city in 2021.
But Biswas suspects these concepts will pop up in affluent and urban neighborhoods first. The target shopper is less suburban families and more the professionals moving into the city.
“While they might get rid of GreenWise, they’ll have the premium products at stores like these new concepts,” he said. “So if there are people who are willing to pay more and have the experience, why not have a store for them?”