By David Rogers. April 6, 2017. BOONE, NC — With eight supermarkets already trying to carve up Watauga County’s aggregate annual grocery bill, the competition intensified this week with the launch of the new Publix mega-market in Boone. If the near constantly full parking lot at the new store dubbed “Publix at Three Creeks” (Store #1546) is any indication, the Florida-based chain may have struck paydirt in unwrapping pent-up High Country demand.
The grocery industry is, normally, intensely price competitive. Publix spokesperson Kimberly Reynolds explained to Blowing Rock News on Wednesday that the company’s strategy is to provide value, but not just on price. “High quality products, outstanding selection, and great customer service are what sets Publix apart,” Reynolds observed. “We don’t feel that we necessarily have to be the lowest price because there are other ways to add value to the shopping experience. Even still, we compare very favorably in our prices, too.”
Watauga County already has a Harris Teeter, Ingles, Earth Fare, Lowe’s, three Food Lion locations, and of course Wal-Mart’s superstore in Boone, with two more Wal-Mart “more super” stores close by in Lenoir and Ashe County. A 2013 report by Janney Capital Markets estimated that Wal-Mart commanded a 30% U.S. market share thanks to its low-price strategy, and that puts pressure on all other competitors.
The competition just got “really real.”
Publix certainly has a formula for making a splash in a new market, including giving away money. At a “sneak peek” event on Tuesday for media, civic and local government leaders, Reynolds kicked things off by introducing local store managers to give away a total of $5,000 in aggregate to the 10 Watauga County elementary, middle and high schools ($500 each). Most of the schools’ respective principals were in attendance for the photo opportunity in receiving the checks.
From the outside, the new Publix looks just like any other “big box” retailer that you might find in Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta or any other metropolitan area. An expansive parking lot with very black new asphalt and clean white lines and curbs suddenly didn’t seem quite big enough on Wednesday as customers started pouring in. More than 60 were already in line waiting for the doors to open following the ceremonial ribbon-cutting. And the parking lot continued to fill to overflowing throughout the day and evening.
Step inside and shoppers find a different sort of shopping experience than they are used to finding, at least in the High Country. On the first evening with a full parking lot, there was a good chance you’d see friends and colleagues, some of whom you may not have seen in awhile — all wanting to catch a glimpse of the new market.
By Publix standards, most of the other supermarkets in the region have “pretend” bakery, meat, seafood, produce and wine departments, not to mention aisles upon aisles of canned, packaged and frozen foods and sundry items. Add in an event planning department, an innovative “simple meals” offering, a deli, and even a place where you can sit down and eat the stuff you buy in the moment, it’s easy to see why some Publix aficionados consider their store a venue for “destination shopping.”
This is destination shopping.
And what does this 49,000 square foot mega-store have that no other grocey-focused supermarket in the High Country has? A pharmacy, with its own drive-up window. And if you want to get your prescriptions filled at Publix instead of at one of those other drug stores, just let them know and the Publix staff will make all the arrangements. You don’t even have to face your old pharmacist to say that you are taking your business elsewhere.
The “Buy Local” advocates are probably a little on edge that such a powerful Southeast U.S. supermarket chain has opened up shop in Boone, but that’s where things get a bit interesting. The “Three Creeks” Publix store is projected to have some 120 “associates” (AKA employees), from store manager to produce clerk and stocker. But the Publix chain of more than 1,140 stores in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina (and in Virginia within the next year) is privately owned and operated by its 190,000 employees.
With 120 High Country employees who are or will become owner-associates and its strong company-wide commitment to community involvement and service, Publix customers may come as closing to “buying local” as they can get in doing business with a “big box” retailer, especially if many of the store shelves are stocked with regional products.
The Publix formula seems to be working. The company reports that 2016 sales were $36 billion. That’s an average of $31.4 million per store, or $603,581 per store per week. A recent industry report by First Research notes that a typical grocery store in the U.S. now averages about 46,000 square feet, carries 38,000 items, and generates almost $470,000 weekly. In other words, Publix stores are averaging about 30% more in overall weekly sales than most others.
Whether the jam-packed interest in the new Publix store will wane with time or intensity — especially considering that seasonal residents migrate to Boone and Blowing Rock from more southern climes in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia in the weeks ahead — only time will tell. Given interesting, if complex dynamics of employee-ownership and commitment to high quality, selection, customer service, community involvement, integrated marketing, and delivering value, this Publix may be the other supermarkets’ worst nightmare because the competition just got…well, it got really real.