Anyone can open a grocery store. Anyone with vision can open a grocery store that focuses on the overall customer experience. However, creating an experience that resonates consistently for 85 years takes serious tenacity.
Back in 1930, George W. Jenkins had a little something different in mind when he decided to open a grocery store in Winter Haven, Fla., and he gained his knowledge about grocery stores by climbing the ranks with Piggly Wiggly. Mr. George, as he is affectionately called by the Publix staff, started working as a stock clerk in a Tampa Piggly Wiggly store and eventually landed a position as a manager for one of the largest and most successful of the chain’s stores in Winter Haven. The store was eventually sold to new owners.
Loaded with ideas on creating a better experience, Mr. George packed his bags and headed to the Piggly Wiggly home office in Atlanta to meet with the owners and share his vision. He did not get what he bargained for. Maria Brous, Director of Media and Community Relations for Publix, tells us that Mr. George was met with opposition.
“Upon reaching the offices, he was told that no one could meet with him and that they were in very important business meetings,” Brous said. “Mr. George could overhear them discussing their golf game.”
Instead of feeling defeated or allowing his ideas to go to waste, Mr. George returned to Florida determined and poured all of his energy into finding the perfect location for his first store. And he did — right next to the Piggly Wiggly he managed in Winter Haven. Brous told us Mr. George took the time to create a seamless experience for his customers and the new management at his old store.
“He stayed on at Piggly Wiggly to introduce the new store managers to his customers and to let them know where he would be.”
Thus began the legacy of Publix and Mr. George’s dream of a grocery store chain that treats its employees and customers like family. Or as the Publix slogan says: where shopping is a pleasure.
“Mr. George took pride in his store(s), and treating customers and associates with dignity and respect. We carry on his legacy today,” Brous said.
Publix stores and its employees are imbued with this philosophy, and it all starts with training. Brous explains that new employees spend a lot of time learning about the Publix values before they ever work on the floor.
“From the very first day an associate attends their orientation, prior to reporting to their work location, they hear the lesson and value of customer service,” Brous said. “We set clear expectations on the fact that we are in the service industry and should have a servant’s heart.”
Employee training doesn’t stop with the newbies; Publix has a continuing education program that reinforces its values and instills a sense of ownership. If fact, when we asked Brous why it seems as if their employees never seem to have a bad day, she explained it’s because everyone has a stake in the success of Publix.
“Associate ownership [gives us] skin in the game,” Brous said. “Understanding that we are responsible and accountable for our success is huge!”
If you’re thinking Brous is just another public relations professional who’s puffing up the Publix reputation, you’re wrong; Brous started her career at Publix at the age of 14 as a front service clerk and has worked her way up through the ranks. That’s loyalty and passion, and many of their associates do the same; Publix has been included on FORTUNE’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.”
It’s easy to see why Publix is such a great place to work. Their focus on the customer and their employees is apparent in every visit you make to one of its 1,100 stores. However, it goes beyond what happens inside of those walls. Publix is also extremely active within each of the communities its stores inhabit, a value Mr. George included in his vision for Publix.
“… One of the bullet points in our mission statement calls out, ‘To be responsible citizens within our communities,’” Brous said.
And boy, are they involved! They frequently work with nationally recognized organizations, such as Special Olympics, March of Dimes, Children’s Miracle Network, Food For All, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Make-A-Wish, Salvation Army, YMCA, and Scouting. They also do partnerships with local schools and smaller nonprofits. Brous pointed to a particularly successful effort they made this past year.
“We began our Publix Serves campaign where we had over 4,000 Publix associates volunteering with more than 125 nonprofit organizations all on the same day. It was incredible.”
A company that works so hard to serve its customers and its communities deserves a break. In the midst of the holiday season, we had to ask: what does a Publix holiday party look like? With more than 179,000 associates across six states, Brous said each party looks a little different — and has plenty of food.
“Each store or department is like a family and each does something a little different. Stores have holiday meals where associates bring in foods for all to partake in. Other departments host breakfast or dinner parties, and yet others plan outings. But no matter how we chose to celebrate, we’re together and Publix food is plentiful!”
When a company excels at customer service, is it even possible to have stories of above and beyond service that rise above the rest? Brous shared a story she loves of a dedicated associate, a nun and some creamer potatoes.
My favorite Publix customer service story belongs to a current store manager, but at the time he was an hourly associate. He had a nun ask him to assist an elderly neighbor named Gladys. Gladys liked creamer potatoes, but would only eat them if they were very small. Weekly, our associate, Paul, would select the smallest creamer potatoes and take them to Gladys on Fridays. One Friday, he arrived at Gladys’s house, but she did not answer.
He looked through the window and saw Gladys laying on the floor. He called the paramedics and waited for their arrival. Gladys had fallen and broken her hip. Since Paul was her only visitor, Gladys had spent five days on the floor waiting for Paul to arrive. She knew if she could just hold on, Paul would be coming soon.
Publix is a large, successful grocery store chain. So, what do they have to teach small business owners who are struggling to establish their own customer-centric culture? Plenty. Brous explained that, for service to be successful, it has to come from the heart.
“The culture of the company has to be genuine, something you believe in and can be emulated from the top down,” Brous said. “You not only have to be right, but you have to look right; people don’t care how much you know, they want to know how much you care.”
Do you have an awesome customer service story from Publix? Share it with us in the comments!