Publix Super Markets only officially announced its plans to enter the Charlotte region two years ago, but its potentially market-changing entry had been expected for more than a decade.
Florida’s No. 1 supermarket chain, known throughout the South for its high level of service, clean stores and other attributes, had long been rumored to be eyeing the area for expansion, a natural extension of its growth in Georgia and South Carolina.
“There’s been talk about Publix coming to the Charlotte area since the mid-’90s,” said one longtime local observer, who asked not to be identified.
In fact, Harris Teeter, now a division of Kroger and locked in a back-and-forth battle with Walmart to be the No. 1 player in Charlotte, may have begun aggressively locking down prime locations for itself when Publix was rumored to be eyeing the market nearly 20 years ago, the observer said.
Chuck Cerankosky, an analyst with Northcoast Research, Cleveland, who had followed Harris Teeter when it was an independent, publicly owned company, said the looming battle between the two regional giants will come down to a battle of real estate — who can get the best sites.
“I think they [Publix] are more likely to be methodical than trying to flood the market with Publix stores,” he told SN.
So far Publix has been methodical in its expansion in the market, opening its first stores on the far outskirts — in the South Carolina towns of Indian Land and Tega Cay — last year before making its North Carolina debut with a 56,000-square-foot store in the Ballantyne Town Center this year. It has since also opened a fourth location at the southern outskirts of the Charlotte area.
It has identified a total of 14 locations it expects to have open by the end of next year in the Charlotte division — the company’s first newly formed division in 20 years.
“We spent time in North Carolina long before our first store opened, getting to know the area, getting to know our future customers, getting to know the communities and our competition,” said Maria Brous, a Publix spokeswoman, in an interview with SN. “We’ve worked hard to become community partners, and we’ve made investments in our newest hometown. We look forward to our future growth in North Carolina.”
Asked about the particular challenges and opportunities of the market, Brous said, “We face similar opportunities to those we face in other new markets. It has been interesting in the fact that we have so many folks that have eagerly anticipated our entry into North Carolina and know Publix; they know our subs, our fried chicken, our bakery cakes — they know us as a brand, they know us as their neighbor and they know us as a good community partner.
“We also have another customer base that is just discovering us and all we have to offer. It has been very exciting to see both ends of the spectrum and to deliver on what we do best — providing premier service, quality products, products that truly differentiate us from our competitors in clean, well run stores.”
As far as site selection, Brous said the company “explores all options” for buying and building stores.
“We approach North Carolina as we do every market in which we operate — we look for the best locations to serve our customers,” she said.
Publix also is willing to work with a wide range of store sizes and layouts. At least two of its first stores in the market are former Bi-Lo stores. Publix stores run up to about 61,000 square feet.
“Our 49,000- and 56,000-square-foot locations work well,” Brous noted.
A lot of the recent supermarket development activity in Charlotte has involved smaller formats.
“There is some new ground-up construction work going on, but there are also still some existing spaces for small stores,” the observer said. “You will see people take a 40,000-square-foot space, cordon off half of it, and develop a 20,000-square-foot supermarket space.
“There is a lot of that kind of thing going on — there are still some of those boxes out there, that are on good sites, and will get developed.”