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A Place in the Sun.

Byline: Meg Major

It might be the first, but it certainly seems clear that it will hardly be the last - for good reason.

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To be sure, a few hours spent touring Publix Super Markets' inaugural hybrid concept store in Naples, Fla., make it vividly clear that the future fortunes of the local Lakeland, Fla.-based retailer will be closely tied to this compelling format that sleekly blends elements of its earthy-chic GreenWise Markets with its flagship traditional food/pharmacy stores.

Interestingly, despite its uniqueness, the new store's nondescript exterior - which belies the splendor within - provides little indication that the store is any different from any other Publix. But once inside, the design and merchandising elements of the pilot concept store invoke a sense of abundance and freshness that's every bit as welcoming to the grocer's loyal base of food-savvy customers as it is to seasonal snowbirds and fleeting tourists as well.

Debuting in October 2010 in the bustling Marketplace at Pelican Bay, the 54,000-square-foot replacement supermarket stocks an outstanding assortment of conventional items and an abundant selection of earth-friendly, all-natural and organic products, including extensive GreenWise private label branded products and prepared foods that are natural, organic and/or eco-friendly, explains Shannon Patten, Publix manager of media and community relations.

"We want to provide our customers with a place to explore an array of foods and services found in our Publix GreenWise Markets" in the comfort and convenience of a traditional Publix location, says Patten, adding that the store appeals not only to its regular base of local customers, but also to those who travel from farther away because of the special items available there.

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Functioning as a test lab as a result of its many unique merchandising and departmental innovations, the store quickly conveys a particular ambiance through special touches and extra services that are symmetrically staged against a distinctively different decor package that plays up the sensory experiences of color, sight and smell via sophisticated lighting and display techniques.

"It's not just a special store with a district or a region - it's special store for our entire company," says Patten, noting the abounding "exciting natural-environmental elements" that also extend to the earth-friendly tones of the uniforms sported by store associates, the majority of whom transferred to the replacement store from the original 30-year-old store #249 across the street. An additional 85 people were also hired for the concept store, all of whom were hand-selected from other area Publix stores, notes Publix veteran division manager Jeff Williams. As a result, adds Williams, "The store associates know it's a special place to be, and are proud to be a part of the great team here." Leader of the pack is talented and capable store director Steve Micheli, who joined the company seven years ago.

"While the store's overall environment, decor and product presentation are all beautiful and very exciting, it's the associates that definitely make it a truly special place for customers," says Patten, noting that although "our competitors - which always make us better - might try to mimic our store design and product mix, one thing they cannot beat us on is our customer service. We treat our customers exactly as they want to be treated."

Food-savvy Mecca

The 1,034-store Publix, which has become the dominant market leader in its home state and which has gained a steady loyal following in the northern neighboring states of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee, picked Naples, Fla., to launch the hybrid store because of its strong base of food-savvy customers, explains Patten. With this in mind, the concept store includes every department offered in a traditional Publix, in combination with additional special products.

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For instance, the bakery department features an assortment of chocolate-dipped items and products made with all-natural ingredients, and the full-service deli features an international selection of olives and antipasti. The produce department, meanwhile, has also been expanded with more exotic fruits, vegetables and organic items, as well as local seasonal specialties sourced from local farmers.

Another highlight of the store is a wide selection of freshly prepared appetizers, entrees and side dishes created by in-house chefs for to-go or on-site consumption in the store's Wi-Fi-equipped cafe. As "a great stop for lunch or dinner," the store also features a vast array of other culinary choices at the salad bar, which offers more than 20 fresh selections; a soup bar, which offers four gourmet soups daily; and the Pacific Wok station that features a medley of pan-Asian favorites, says Patten. Additionally, an expanded sushi counter includes selections made with brown rice, while coffees, espressos, lattes, teas, gelato, gelato smoothies and assorted pastries beckon from the full-service beverage bar.

Two recipes each week are spotlighted in the Apron's Simple Meals section, where live cooking demonstrations occur in the built-in kitchen area on a daily basis. All of the ingredients for the recipes are available in a super-convenient Apron's Simple Meals case adjacent to the kitchen. High-quality cookware is also located strategically nearby so customers can find the right tools to make full use of their freshly minted culinary expertise.

Other store features include the company's top-ranked event-planning center, says Patten, adding that specialists "assist customers with planning every detail of their special occasion, large or small," with one-stop shopping and ordering for deli platters, bakery cakes and floral from the expansive full-service department.

Raise a Glass

The store's extraordinary wine department, which sells a variety of premium and specialty selections, including varieties made with organic grapes, and many sulfite-free selections as well, is a real showstopper, largely as a result of its warm and knowledgeable wine specialist, Laura Sager, who frequently hears favorable customer feedback about the new store and its extra services. "The enthusiasm from our customers has been amazing," says Sager, noting how impressed - and gratified - they are by the spacious setting, personal services, and array of offerings that includes a staggering variety of conventional, premium and specialty wines from around the globe.

Describing Sager as just one of the store's "many great people," Patten says, "it's people like Laura, who treat our customers like kings and queens, that help make this store so special. They want to come back to see Laura because she is at their store, which they have claimed as their own."

For Sager's part, her admiration for her store mirrors her appreciation for the expanding role she has grown to cherish, which also extends to helping customers match wines with their menus. "I love my job," she exclaims, noting how much she enjoys interacting with customers and sharing her vast expertise to help them select just the right wine for the right occasion - be it a value-priced BOGO or a $500 bottle of French Champagne.

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A highlight of the wine department is a WineKeeper bottled wine preservation system, which uses 100 percent nitrogen gas to preserve wines by displacing the oxygen in the bottle to prevent oxidation. Sager says the WineKeeper tap system, the likes of which are generally found in wine bars and high-end restaurants, has been extremely well received by customers, who can sip samples of different wines in a pristine state prior to purchase. "It's a very good sales tool," she adds.

Signature Cheese, Please

In close proximity to the wine depart is an extensive cheese shop housing more than 200 varieties of domestic and imported artisan product. Staffed with certified cheese specialists to help customers better understand specialty cheeses, including their basic types, uses and pairings, the full-service cheese shop provides the ideal venue to showcase Publix's signature nine-item line of domestic and imported cheeses. Publix also spreads the word about its specialty cheese program through its weekly ad, website, and FamilyStyle and Grape publications, as well as via Apron's Cooking School presentations, recipes, and in-store promotions featuring master cheesemakers and wheel-cracking events.

As might be expected, the store also features a number of energy-saving technologies throughout, while a large selection of international foods are yet another welcome addition for store guests, including traditional Mexican, Caribbean, South American, Brazilian, West Indian, Asian, kosher, Italian, British and German items.

The store additionally calls out conventional, organic, natural and earth-friendly products on its shelves to help customers locate such products quickly, says Patten. A large array of bulk foods is yet another feature, as is the store's traditional full-service pharmacy and dedicated body care section offering a wide selection of natural and conventional vitamins, minerals and supplements. Staffed by a certified personal care specialist, a HealthNotes kiosk nearby provides customers with information on health issues and available in-store solutions, which is not too far away from a selection of refrigerated supplements and probiotics.

An extensive store-within-a-store pet section accommodates a large base of pet-owning customers with a compelling one-stop-shopping experience, while the full-service meat and seafood departments wow with a range of antibiotic- and hormone-free meats and wild-caught and farm-raised seafood.

At presstime, Publix had unveiled a newly constructed second hybrid store in the Atlanta suburb of Brookhaven.

Publix Hybrid Concept Store Marketplace at Pelican Bay

8833 N Tamiami Trail, Naples, FL 34108

Grand Opening Date: October 21, 2010

Store Hours: Seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Adjacent Liquor Store: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Total Square Footage: 54,000 square feet

Number of Associates: 200

Total Weekly Sales: $1.2 million*

Number of SKUs: Approximately 40,000

Number of Checkstands: 10 total; eight regular, two Express

Store Designers: Publix Store Design Team

*Progressive Grocer estimate

A New Mode of Merchandising: Vamoose to 'Visual Noise'

Some of the most compelling aspects of Publix's first-ever hybrid concept store in Naples, Fla., is the innovative, less-is-more merchandising techniques and inviting, cascading product flows that strike a precise balance of form and function. Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten says that "the serious reduction of visual noise" is designed to impart a calming, clutter-free environment that enables "the products to stand out and sell themselves," alongside the proficient skills of the store's contingent of resident experts.

Striving to deliver "a more elegant shopping experience" with outstanding store teams and a soothing ambiance that includes, for example, contrasting warm/cool color schemes for the perimeter and center store, respectively, the merchandising approach is earning accolades from customers "who tell us that they completely enjoy the atmosphere and the knowledgeable associates we have behind the products," notes Patten.

Befitting its status as the first store in the chain dedicated to a simplified store environment that leads with tasteful, integrated product displays, "there are no handmade or vendor-supplied signs, floor standees, shelf-talkers" or related chaotic merchandising white noise, affirms Patten. Instead, she adds: "We are aiming to deliver an elegant, easy, calming environment that we can take and learn from, for the future of Publix. What we have done here will impact every store from this point on, whether it's new stores, remodels or replacement units."

Among the specific merchandising elements found in Publix's Naples hybrid store:

Customizable End Caps: These fixtures enable many complementary products to be displayed simultaneously with theme-specific graphics, such as a beach display housing a cascading array of beach towels, coolers, sunscreen, hats and related gear. Maple-finished curved or multi-tiered shelves feature clean headers and pewter powder coating.

Refrigerated End Caps: In a first-ever design strategy for Publix, many of the store's end cap displays incorporate refrigerated and dry cases that house an excellent selection of meal components for various dayparts.

Lobby Display: This features a modular fixture for maximum cross-merchandising flexibility with similar theme products.

Spot Merchandising: Drop-leaf nesting tables are used throughout the store for free-flowing merchandising that enables customers to browse and shop the entire display.

Convenience-oriented "Basics": This case houses a medley of everyday necessities such as milk, eggs, bread, condiments, and single-serve fruit and sodas, in an easy-to-access/-exit location. Industry observers estimate that the "basics" case generates roughly $930 in weekly sales.

Column Wraps: A literal pillar of the store's streamlined merchandising methods is an abundance of cascading displays, some of which are built out on columns that would normally be an obstruction on the store floor. However, the support columns are instead put to marvelous use with functional and attractive adjustable shelves.

Checkstand Merchandisers: The cascading effect continues in the front end, which, instead of the formulaic magazine/candy/gum/snack sets found in most supermarkets, features a rotating menu of convenient fresh foods by daypart. Positioned adjacent to the store's express lanes that are situated in close proximity to the store's main entrance/exit, the checkstand sets give busy customers a chance to pick up breakfast, lunch or dinner, and be on their way.
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Author:Major, Meg
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:May 1, 2011
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