Go to Top

How Publix and HEB are Making Customers Happy

Publix Customer Service

Image Source: Publix

With 1,098 stores across Florida and the southern United States, department chain Publix has been the top-rated grocery retailer in customer satisfaction for the past 20 years, What’s Publix’s secret?

Two words: customer service.

Any Canadian can relate to the feeling of pleasant and unexpected surprise when a Publix employee, who is busy stocking a shelf, suddenly pipes up, “Can I help you find something?” And then imagine the shock and awe of having an employee literally run over to pack your bags at the checkout and offer to help you take them to your car, with no expectation of a tip.

This is just unheard of at any Canadian supermarket. When you go to their deli where they make arguably the best in-store fried chicken, and they are running low, they will actually tell you that they will make a fresh batch and it should only take a few minutes. Canadian supermarkets? Good luck – when they’re out, they’re out.

Publix doesn’t pretend to be a low-price supermarket. Their goal is to serve their customer well, and their customers are willing to pay a premium for this. By doing so, they are meeting the consumer’s need for Connection, which is the need to feel a part of something greater than themselves. Shoppers like the sense of the friendly neighbourhood environment in Publix’s stores. Since Publix stores are employee-owned, there is skin in the game and it shows in the way they serve customers. As the store’s largest collective shareholders, Publix’s sales associates, cashiers, and managers are not just there to serve customers. They are also the brand’s biggest advocates.

Publix also serves the consumer need for Convenience. Consumers want the shortest route through a shopping experience and transaction, and Publix delivers. Publix offers expedient checkout, where several lanes are open all the time, and bagging service, so customers are ready to zip as soon as they are handed the receipt. And with associates throughout the store proactively offering to help you find what you’re looking for, Publix ensures that every minute spent in the store is purposeful.

Now compare Publix to HEB, a regional supermarket chain based in Texas, with 150 stores. Their superior private labels play on their Texan heritage (Texas-shaped tortilla chips and True Grits, anyone?), and they even offer fresh Texas BBQ to go in-store. It’s an excellent way to build on the consumer’s need for Connection. Texans feel an emotional connection when HEB shouts out its Texan pride in their product and service offerings, and in their marketing campaigns (“Made for the Love of Texans”).

In-store sampling is a planned marketing tactic across the entire chain of stores for HEB. Through their sampling program (including plenty of wine sampling), they are serving the consumer’s need for Discovery, a reason to explore beyond what’s on their shopping list and simply enjoy the experience of shopping. And if you want to experience food, HEB’s latest 91,000 square foot store in Houston includes Table 57, a farm-to-table restaurant with a full-time executive chef, serving a menu created by beloved Houston chef Randy Evans.

Many stores have staff prepping fresh guacamole and sushi in a wide-open, highly visible space, meeting yet another consumer need: Transparency. Whey they say “fresh”, they mean it and aren’t afraid to prove it. Their local produce and meat offerings are a tribute to Texas farmers. In-store signage touting Local – in true Texan style – is big and loud, drilling home the message that HEB offers only authentic Texan products to the Texan customers that demand them.

The success of Publix and HEB are good reminders for retailers to always take a customer-centric approach with their in-store experience offering. In order to truly resonate, think first about how you can uniquely meet your customers’ needs for Discovery, Convenience, Connection and Transparency.  Ultimately, delivering on these needs builds trust in your brand, and trust – while intangible and quantitatively immeasurable – leads to other important metrics such as repeat purchase, referrals, and increased baskets. We know these metrics positively impact the bottom line, and therefore, will lead to a return on investment in your customer service.

While there is no silver bullet to measuring ROI on customer service, it seems intuitive to say that providing good customer service will cost a business less than not providing it. Invest all you want into marketing, low prices and/or strong private labels, but if the customer is not happy with service, a retail business will hurt over the long run.

Customer service remains a business fundamental, even in a world of omni-channel retailing where an interaction may not be in-person. In a 2011 study by the Institute of Customer Service (ICS), companies clearly felt that an investment in employees was critical to delivering a return on investment in customer service: training, recruitment and empowerment. They also felt that metrics – and there are hundreds of them – should be determined by what your particular customer wants in their experience.


To learn more about how we can help your retail business achieve success, visit our retail services page or contact us for further information.