By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 9, 2018 | 12:30 p.m.
VIRGINIA – This time last year, the parking lot of the Colonial Square shopping center in Colonial Heights was sparsely populated as much of the space was closed off while crews worked inside the former home of Martin’s Food Store to transform it into the new home of Publix, the first location for the chain south of Chesterfield County.
Nine months later, that same parking lot that was devoid of customers as shoppers made their way to other stores during the transition has filled to levels reminiscent of the now-long-gone era of beloved local grocer Ukrop’s when they first moved into that new building in the mid-to-late 90s as customers have made the Florida-based grocer their store of choice over the course of 2018 following its opening in November of last year on the heels of the Thanksgiving season.
For Publix, previously announced plans to enter the Virginia market with stores of their own came at a seemingly opportune time for the grocer as Martin’s, owned by Royal Ahold and operators of a number of stores along the Eastern Seaboard under a slew of different names, from Giant to Stop and Shop, announced it would be closing a number of stores as part of its parent company’s merger with Delhaize Group, operators of Food Lion. While some stores closed as part of expiring leases, others closed as part of Martin’s systematic exit from Richmond.
Nearly a year in, their store in Colonial Heights appears as neat and orderly as the day they opened in November of 2017. (Michael Campbell)
Over a dozen store were shuttered during their exodus from Richmond as required to make the merger between the two parent companies work and, in June of 2016, Publix announced its plans to move into a number of those closed or soon-to-close locations, including the store in Colonial Heights’ Colonial Square shopping center, the furthest south location acquired by Publix.
It would take another year for many of the lingering Martin’s locations to close with the Colonial Heights store remaining open until the winter of 2017, then followed by their last store in Southside Virginia at Bermuda Square shopping center in Chester during the summer.
While that Chester store remains vacant, looming over an empty slab of concrete across the parking lot that was supposed to be the new state-of-the-art home of a large Martin’s store that has now seen weeds and plant life penetrate the flattened surface, work began nearly the day Martin’s exited the Colonial Heights store to remove the bright red lettering of their name from the building and begin ushering in a new era for Publix in Southside Virginia.
Over time, some aisles were adjusted and scaled down or re-shopped to allow for additional customer experiences and access to other products. (Michael Campbell)
In a region dominated by three chains – Walmart, Food Lion, and Kroger – the renovation undertaken by Publix of their new Colonial Heights store sought to differentiate itself from the competition, the same competition shoppers would be flocking to during Publix’s million-dollar renovation of the Colonial Square store over the course of roughly eight months.
When the store opened in November, shoppers were treated to a completely different store than the one they had just been inside of earlier in the year, with the upstairs cafe area removed, the entire layout of the store being transformed from floor to ceiling, among other visual and operational changes. Over time, shoppers have remained loyal to the store and, according to Publix Media and Community and Relations Manager Kim Reynolds, customers have been drawn to the Publix way of doing grocery shopping.
“We have had a great first year,” she remarked. “Publix is known for clean stores, convenience, quality products, having products in stock, and ultimately value and the overwhelming response from shoppers in Richmond and Colonial Heights shows that our customers appreciate that. We are humbled by the response and we are grateful to have the opportunity to serve the community and we look forward to growing more.”
As of late August, Publix has grown their footprint in Central Virginia after opening nine stores in the greater Richmond area, with the most recent opening occurring in the City of Richmond along Forest Hill Avenue. While the company doesn’t have any plans to expand any further south than their current store in Colonial Heights, Reynolds said they are committed to delivering an in-store experience that they believe helps them stand out from their competitors who are only a short drive away.
“Publix is the largest employee-owned company in the nation so our associates are company owners and that’s a key for us because our associates are truly passionate about the job they do every day and serving customers, so we hang our hat on providing that legendary customer service and that’s what sets us apart,” she said. “So, when it comes to differentiating ourselves from others, it’s truly about staying true to who we are and what we have always done over the last 80-plus years, which is being great community partners and taking care of our associates and our community and customers and focusing on providing above and beyond service.”
“Being at Publix is a career, it’s not just a job. We’re delighted to have our Colonial Heights team, they’re one of the best,” she remarked.
One of the ways that’s done is through something as simple as taking a customer’s groceries to their car. Back in the heyday of Ukrop’s, the signature green shopping cart being pushed by a store associate eventually became synonymous with the store in terms of its customer service, something that was discontinued by Martin’s during their time in Richmond but has since returned under Publix. According to Reynolds, that is just an element of how they do things at the store and as a company.
“At Publix, we have always walked customers to their car and put their groceries in their car or walked customers to an item, that’s truly what we were founded on so it is great to be able to offer that and bring that service piece to Richmond and to Colonial Heights,” she said. “Those are things we know our customers truly appreciate through our conversations with them, going above and beyond and being an extension of our families. We want this to be ‘Their Publix’ and to just enjoy shopping in our stores and to have a pleasurable experience so our associates work hard to do that every day.”
While the chain continues to tailor the customer experience, officials with the chain explained they have received positive feedback overall from shoppers at the Colonial Square store. (Michael Campbell)
In addition to the store’s retail presence, Publix has also continued their philanthropic efforts following their donation of $2,500 split five ways among Colonial Heights’ five schools, as staff from the store took part in a service day at the nearby Colonial Heights Food Pantry.
“We had a number of associates out there helping to sort and to do some housekeeping around the pantry,” Reynolds remarked. “We obviously work on a larger scale with FeedMore so, in partnership with their partner agency Colonial Heights Food Pantry, pick up perishable foods from our stores and give those to families in need. On a higher level, we have just worked with schools, churches, sports teams, and anybody that reaches out to us as we love to support that is within that space of youth, education, hunger, and homelessness.”
As shoppers make their way in and out of the store on a daily basis, Reynolds said Publix couldn’t be happier to have the loyalty and support of the community as the new-to-Southside-Virginia grocer makes its new home in Colonial Heights.
“There was that loyalty before but there is that loyalty being created by our associates there at the store and [because of] them going above and beyond, we continue to meet new customers and so we enjoy being able to serve new customers and show them what we have to offer,” she said. “We want to create an experience that keeps customers coming back. The quality and variety of products, the fresh foods you can just grab and go but more importantly, for the associates that are serving them.”
“Thank you for giving us the opportunity to serve you. I know we have to work hard to earn your trust and it is a privilege and an honor to be able to serve you,” Reynolds closed.
Colonial Heights’ Publix, their most southern location within the Richmond metropolitan area, is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The store’s pharmacy is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.