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Expanding grocery titans Publix and Wegmans are about to battle it out in Virginia

Wegmans grocery store, based in upstate New York, is moving south while Florida-based Publix moves north. They are starting to square off in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Wegmans.
Wegmans grocery store, based in upstate New York, is moving south while Florida-based Publix moves north. They are starting to square off in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Wegmans.
Published Jul. 19, 2016

FREDERICKSBURG, VA. — In a Virginia suburb not far from where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant to end the Civil War, a 21st century clash of a different kind of superpowers is looming.

Two of the nation's most highly touted supermarkets are about to meet and fight for supremacy in Virginia.

From upstate New York, the highly regarded Wegmans chain of grocery stores is pushing south with a seriously loyal following. And from Florida, the much touted Publix, the Sunshine State's dominant supermarket chain, is spreading into Virginia after successfully expanding and taking on all comers in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and South and North Carolina.

And now Virginia.

Visiting area family this month, I spied a Wegmans store near Fredericksburg and insisted to my wife that we take a peek to see what all the hype about this grocery chain was really about.

Wow.

Publix, consider your past market conquests as warm-ups. You are about to have your competitive work cut out for you this time.

This store is one of Wegmans' flagships, among the biggest of the chain at 149,000 square feet. Much larger than a traditional Publix, it can best be described to Tampa Bay readers in this formula:

Wegmans = Publix + Fresh Market + Sam's Club (or Costco) + Mazzaro's.

The vast 7-year-old store is broken into large sections featuring an upscale presentation of an extensive array of fresh produce that, for example, included at least six different types of mushrooms and an array of Asian vegetables. The store also has areas dedicated to wide ranges of cheeses, meats, seafood, a bakery and wines.

A large space is allocated to self-service prepared foods for takeout, from Asian and barbecue to vegetarian. There are places to sit and order fresh seafood that is prepared on the spot and can be eaten cafe-style at counter stools or tables. At least two dozen checkout lanes and four self-serve lanes are visible, though on this visit fewer than half are open since the store at midday is busy but not crowded.

This Wegmans, like most Publix stores I have visited, is obsessively clean. Its shelves are well stocked.

I mentioned to one Wegmans employee busy putting out fresh blueberries (large pack, $5.99) and strawberries (large pack, $2.99) that we are from Florida where Publix rules and visiting our first Wegmans.

"We're heading your way," she volunteered cheerfully. Wegmans already is moving in to North Carolina with its first planned locations.

But first, these two top-tier chains ranked by many among the very best supermarkets in America will start to duke it out in Virginia. That clash will come soon now that Publix this month says it will buy 10 Martin's Food Markets store locations in the greater Richmond area of Virginia.

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Wegmans and Publix are a lot alike. They are both privately owned businesses with extremely successful cultures. Their food prices appear similar.

What would become Wegmans was founded in 1916 in upstate New York by John and Walter Wegman as the Rochester Fruit and Vegetable Co. Wegmans is headquartered in the Rochester suburb of Gates. Danny Wegman is CEO.

The first Publix was opened in Winter Haven in 1930 by founder George Jenkins. That family still helps run what has become one of Florida's biggest private and employee-owned businesses, now based in Lakeland. New CEO Todd Jones this spring succeeded Ed Crenshaw, grandson of the founder.

The two companies dominate any number of "best business" rankings.

This spring, Wegmans was ranked the nation's best grocery chain, followed by Publix and Trader Joe's, according to a survey of more than 10,000 consumers conducted by Market Force Information. "Its focus on employee training to ensure customers have the best experience has been a winning strategy that creates superfans eager for a new location to open near their home," Market Force said of Wegmans.

As quality places to work, both chains are on the rise.

Fortune magazine ranks Wegmans No. 4 on its 2016 "Best Companies To Work For" list, the highest spot for a retailer and up from No. 7 last year. Publix appears on the same list at a still highly commendable No. 67 and up from No. 81 the year before.

And Forbes, in its latest annual rankings of best companies, places Wegmans at No. 4 (behind Costco) and Publix at No. 17.

Though younger than Wegmans by 14 years, Publix is far bigger, employing more than 175,000 and ranking as the nation's ninth-largest private company. Its $32.4 billion in sales last year is more than four times as large as Wegmans, which employs more than 44,000 and is ranked 46th in size among private businesses.

Publix operates more than 1,120 stores in six states with Virginia on the way. Wegmans has 89 stores spread over six states. That means Publix and Wegmans may have a similar geographic reach but Publix is far ahead in sheer density of stores with nearly 13 times the number of locations as Wegmans. Yet Wegmans generates roughly three times the sales per larger location than does Publix.

Publix has honed its skills statewide in highly populated Florida and pushed rapidly into other Southeastern states that have enjoyed far greater growth in population than Wegmans' turf in New York state and the Northeast.

Other prominent players — including Kroger, Walmart, Food Lion, Aldi and Trader Joe's — are also fighting for market share in Virginia.

But what will happen when these hotshots Publix and Wegmans meet head to head?

Both chains clearly savor competitive battle and taking market share from lesser grocery stores.

Much alike, perhaps they will learn from one another. But it will be the consumer, with more choices from such top organizations, that should be the ultimate winner.

In the end, this may become a contest of customer loyalty.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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