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LAKELAND, FL-In the highly competitive supermarket industry, experimentation could be seen as the quick path to elimination. But Publix Supermarkets is testing new chains, and even new in-store concepts, as well as beefing up its infrastructure, precisely to remain competitive.

“We’re in our 76th year, and we’ve never wavered,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Lakeland, FL-based Publix. “We provide customer service, with quality products at competitive prices.”

Publix will open slightly more than 30 stores this year, and has not yet made overall plans for 2007, she said. The company is testing Publix Sabor, a store geared more toward the Latino market. Two more stores in South Florida will join existing units in Hialeah and Kissimmee, FL in 2007. Publix has been serving the Hispanic customer for decades, Brous says, so the creation of Sabor is merely a matter of adjusting the merchandise mix.

Also next year, Publix will debut its health-chain concept. Two Health, Natural and Organic Food stores will open in Palm Beach Gardens and Boca Raton, FL. The chain clearly believes that change is healthy.

“They are always trying new things because they believe it makes them competitive,” says David J. Livingston, a Pewaukee, IL-based supermarket industry and real estate consultant. All new programs are based on substantial amounts of research, he adds, and Publix isn’t reluctant to cancel experiments, such as an Internet-based service, when they proved less than successful.

One new program is the introduction this summer of small health clinics within four stores in Atlanta, Miami, Tampa, and Orlando, FL. The 150sf clinics, subleased to the Little Clinic, will be staffed by registered nurse practitioners, who can offer basic services such as vaccinations and write prescriptions. The move is sensible, given that most people end up at a pharmacy when they’re not feeling well, anyway, Brous observes.

“Not everyone works a normal schedule, and sometimes you need a nurse practitioner on the weekend,” she says.

“We’ll see how that works,” Livingston says, noting that other chains such as Wal-Mart and HEB have failed with in-store clinics. Patients with health insurance likely get more affordable care from their doctors, and those without insurance can be treated at hospital emergency rooms, he says.

Publix also is introducing its Aprons program, with kiosks, recipes and cooking classes to help customers expand their culinary skills. Ingredients used in the recipes demonstrated will be available at the display, to speed the shopping experience.

For even more impatient customers, Publix also has sublet 1,000 sf in its Sarasota, FL, store to Carrabba’s Italian Market. The market will feature a wood-burning pizza oven and wood-fired grill. No additional units are planned right now, but Publix is clearly keeping an eye on the idea of in-store restaurants.

“Customers have always relied on us to provide food,” Brous says. “Carrabba’s is one way to do that.”

Meanwhile, Publix is in the midst of a $100-million program to outfit 400 of its 882 stores in hurricane-prone areas with new permanent or temporary generators. Storm-related losses totaled $60 million last year. The generators will allow the stores to operate at full capacity, with 500 kilowatts versus the 60-kilowatt units now in place.

Such testing must be working. Sales for the first quarter of 2006 rose 7.2% from the previous year to $5.5 billion. Comp-store sales rose 5%. Earnings for the period were $288.4 million, up 11.3% from the previous year.

“The company is set up for success,” Livingston says. “Employee morale is very high, and turnover is low. They’re a different kind of retailer.”

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