1. Business

In a crowded market, new Publix on Fourth Street stocks up on extras to lure shoppers

ST. PETERSBURG — Now that the new Publix at 3700 Fourth St. N is open, it's doubtful shoppers will still refer to the chain's other store two blocks away as "the good Publix." Many have used that term for the store at 200 37th Ave. N since the Albertsons across the street was converted to a Publix in 2008.

Making its debut this week, the new store that stands where the Albertsons-turned-Publix once did features plenty of bells and whistles, including a salad bar, hot food bar, a lot of craft beer, a wine expert and a health and beauty adviser.

It will surely lure shoppers from the older Publix across the street in the Northeast Park Shopping Center. But those same customers also will be tempted by celebrity chef Michael Mina's Locale market, opening next month in the Sundial shopping area downtown, and Trader Joe's, which debuts just a few blocks away early next year.

"If Publix is going to go up against Michael Mina, that should get really interesting," said Burt Flickinger, a director at Strategic Resource Group in New York who follows the grocery industry.

He believes, however, that Publix will hold its own. In recent research and consumer surveys, Flickinger found that Publix is considered to have the best quality in the Southeast when it comes to such products as produce and meats.

Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens said the high traffic and demographics of the area warranted the bigger store and high-end amenities, not just the competition.

"I think there is going to always be curiosity (with other brands) but customers will come back to Publix because this is home," he said.

The new 49,000-square-foot store includes a salad bar with numerous options for $7.99 a pound. A hot bar offers Pacific meatballs, ginger broccoli, Asian vegetables, bourbon chicken, egg rolls and more, also for $7.99 a pound.

A health and beauty expert is on hand 40 hours a week to help customers find the most effective treatment for a facial blemish and the best coverup to hide it. She can also educate them on organic versus natural vitamins, or on safe metabolism boosters in a health supplement section that is twice the size of an average store's.

The wine section is the size of a small shop. A "Chilla" machine can chill three bottles of wine at a time within four minutes. Forest Oliver, a full-time wine expert, can advise shoppers on which wines to pair with certain foods. A sleek cooler with wooden shelves and a lock on the door houses wines from $50 a bottle to champagne for $499 a bottle.

There's more craft beer, including three brews made by Tampa's Cigar City Brewing. A cheese expert can advise customers whether to try Gouda or goat cheese in their pasta.

The customer service area sits front and center, just inside the front door.

Though locals are eager to try Trader Joe's — and the chicken pot stickers and frozen Indian entrees they've been hearing about from friends and family in other markets — Flickinger said the attraction will even out over time.

He cited the "strong consumer connection" to Publix.

"Initially, (Trader Joe's) will have an explosive opening with record sales," Flickinger added. "Then what we've seen with Trader Joe's around the country is that Two-Buck Chuck (wine) becomes three-buck Chuck and then that becomes $3.49 buck Chuck. They've got good appetizers and frozen hors d'oeuvres, and desserts are really strong. But, conversely, the produce quality at Trader Joe's can be really inconsistent, particularly the organic."

If Publix kept up with what every other chain offered, "we'd be all over the map," Stevens said.

But earlier this year, the store did leave its comfort zone of quality and amenities with ads and in-store signs that stressed Walmart didn't always have the lowest prices.

"That was customer service," Stevens contended. "We want to always communicate with our customers."