Publix enters crowded Triangle grocery market with Cary store

dbracken@newsobserver.com akenney@newsobserver.comAugust 2, 2013 

  • Publix at a glance

    Headquarters: Lakeland, Fla.

    History: Founded in 1930 by the late George W. Jenkins. Publix is the largest employee-owned supermarket chain in the United States, and one of the 10 largest in terms of sales.

    Sales: 2012 sales: $27.5 billion

    Stores: 1,072 in five states

    Employees: 160,500

Editor's note: A story Saturday about Publix opening a new grocery store in Cary incorrectly described a shopper's car as a BMW Kompressor. Mercedes-Benz uses the "Kompressor" designation on several models.

The Triangle’s already hypercompetitive grocery market will add a formidable new player next year.

Publix Super Markets, the Florida chain that has been scouting locations in the region for months, announced Friday that it will open a store in Cary in late 2014.

The company plans to build a store in the Bradford shopping center, a retail and residential development under construction at the corner of Davis Drive and High House Road.

Publix had previously announced three stores in Charlotte, but the company has made clear its intentions to aggressively move across the state. The company also announced plans for an Asheville store Friday.

Publix competes at the upper end of the grocery market, and word of its first Triangle store comes less than a month after Kroger disclosed plans to acquire Matthews-based Harris Teeter for $2.4 billion. Publix and Harris Teeter, which has 36 stores in the Triangle, are likely to go head-to-head for many of the same customers in the coming years.

Publix’s arrival in west Cary will make that area of the Triangle the front lines of the supermarket wars. There are already six stores selling groceries within a 2-mile radius of Bradford, including a Harris Teeter and a Lowes Foods that are within a half-mile of the center.

And Publix will offer the region’s consumers one more brand to choose from at a time when the competitive landscape for the grocery business is shifting. Higher-end grocers are being challenged by discount stores, such as Walmart, Aldi and Food Lion, while many retail chains that traditionally just sold merchandise are getting into the grocery business.

“The lines between traditional channels of food, drug and mass merchandise are really starting to get fuzzy,” said Roger Beahm, a professor of marketing at the Wake Forest University Schools of Business in Winston-Salem.

Beahm said many grocers have realized that simply competing with the likes of Walmart on price isn’t sustainable. They need to differentiate themselves in other ways if they’re to remain profitable and competitive.

“I think you’re going to see a strong emphasis to try to build customer loyalty. To put a little more margin into the bottom line for retailers,” Beahm said. “And they’ll do that through unique products, special service, quality environment and rewards for customer loyalty.”

No loyalty program

Customer loyalty programs offered by the likes of Harris Teeter, Kroger and Lowes Foods have become popular with Triangle shoppers.

Publix doesn’t offer such a program. When it first entered the Georgia market, the company ran a marketing campaign with the tagline: “No forms. No cards. No hassles.”

“I think that’s going to be the interesting thing to look at to see how Publix is able to build consumer loyalty in the face of some of these programs that other competitors have,” Beahm said.

Maria Brous, Publix’s media and communications director, said the company’s philosophy is simple.

“We believe that every customer deserves the same service and the same pricing,” she said.

Brous added that Publix evaluates all of its business decisions when it moves into a new market.

“I can tell you what we do today. I can’t tell you what we’ll do tomorrow,” she said.

Emotional connections

Although Publix may be new to North Carolina, plenty of the state’s residents are familiar with the brand given its large presence throughout the Southeast. Publix operates more than a thousand stores in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.

Mary McCabe, a Cary mother of three, is intrigued by the newcomer. She visited a Publix in Orlando, Fla., – it was clean, she said, with good prices.

But it will take something special for the new store to get her full attention.

“I shop everywhere,” she said, leaning on a cartload of Cokes outside the Lowes Foods in west Cary.

She has to juggle a family’s worth of preferences, from the kids’ sodas to her husband’s taste for high-end nuts. “There isn’t one place that does everything for me.”

The new arrival won’t entice Aaron Alen to change allegiances.

“We’ve been going to this Harris Teeter for eight years. We’ll keep coming,” the Cary local said while loading craft beer into his car at the Harris Teeter nearest to the just-announced Publix.

Beahm, the marketing professor, said establishing that emotional attachment with the customer has become the holy grail for grocers.

“You’re going to see continued attempts to develop an emotional connection with consumers on the basis of the brand, and go beyond the bottom line and the price,” he said.

Bracken: 919-829-4548

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