Publix Super Markets tried for years to come up with a successful model to sell groceries online and failed.
But a new company is making its way into the Tampa Bay area and will try to do what Publix couldn't — profitably sell and deliver groceries through a mobile platform similar to the car-sharing company Uber.
Publix shoppers can order groceries from Shipt on their phones and have them delivered to their homes within an hour starting Aug. 4. Shipt, a Birmingham, Ala., mobile grocery delivery service, is expanding into the Tampa Bay market this summer. Shoppers from Pinellas County and much of Hillsborough County can participate.
All items sold at Publix are available for delivery through Shipt. Customers order, pay and ship via the company's app.
"People across the country are just as busy these days as those who live in the metro cities in the Northeast," said Bill Smith, founder of Shipt. "We think Tampa has a lot people who would be interested in our service."
There's no official partnership between Shipt and Publix, said Publix spokesman Brian West.
"There are several attempts in the market to bring the convenience of grocery delivery to customers. We are aware of Shipt and are reaching out to them," he said.
West declined to elaborate.
Shipt works exclusively with one supermarket chain in each market. They chose Publix for Florida because the company appeals to the masses, Smith said.
"Whenever we launch in a new market, we try to support Publix," he said.
Publix has experimented with online ordering over the years but never found a platform that worked. The grocer ended a short-lived online ordering and curbside pickup service at a Citrus Park location in 2012 because there wasn't enough business to justify the service after 18 months.
Publix lost millions on Publix Direct, an online ordering and delivery service it tested in South Florida that it ultimately abandoned in 2003.
But competition is mounting. Online retailer Amazon has launched an online grocery delivery service in major markets across the country, like Seattle and Los Angeles, called AmazonFresh. The service isn't available in Florida yet.
Publix does offer online ordering for custom sub sandwiches and deli items, but all orders have to be picked up in the store.
"Grocery delivery is a service that's been profitable in major metro markets and resort towns for years where the convenience of the service is key," said Steve Kirn, executive director with the David F. Miller Retailing Education and Research Center at the University of Florida. "It doesn't work well in a suburban area where a lot of driving is involved."
Smith said Shipt's business model will enable it to be more successful. The company has fewer than 30 full-time employees and has little overhead. Shipt also hires "shoppers" who will buy and deliver orders. These are contracted employees who deliver goods in their own vehicles, similar to Uber drivers.
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"We're a technology company. We are focused on demand and can deliver groceries within the next hour," Smith said. "We're expanding at a rapid pace because, unlike Amazon, we don't have to build warehouses and buy refrigerated trucks."
Shipt customers are required to sign up at shipt.com for an annual membership for $99 or a monthly fee of $14. New customers get a year of free shipping on orders over $35. Shipping costs are usually $7 per order.
Mia Baker, a mother of two with a third on the way, would gladly pay to have groceries delivered to her home. Baker, who lived in Pasco County but recently moved to Polk County, was disappointed that the service won't be coming to Lakeland.
"It's hard to find time to make it to the store. I'd love to be able to just shop online after the kids are in bed and have it delivered right to me," Baker said. "I think the fee is worth it because the deals you get from Publix would more than make up for it, but I usually don't have time to go there myself."
Kristin Gamble, a mother of a 1-year-old and former elementary school teacher in South Florida, agrees. When her daughter was born, she said she had family members shop for her.
"Ninety-nine dollars seems a little expensive. I would join for $50 a year, similar to a Costco membership," Gamble said.
Shipt began delivering groceries from Publix in Birmingham and has expanded to include Kroger in markets like Nashville and Dallas. The company chooses grocery chains based on customer interest.
"This really presents a challenge," Kirn said. "Is the Tampa/St. Pete market concentrated enough to make it work? Possibly."
Contact Justine Griffin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.