Shoppers are obsessed with Publix and Wegmans. Here’s what it’s really like to work there.
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Over the past two years, a new genre of video has emerged on YouTube and TikTok: shoppers melting down at the grocery store.
It’s here, right alongside the produce and the deli counter, that the worst side of our collective humanity has been on display. From mask-related tirades to freak-outs over missing toilet paper—usually directed at employees—these videos have produced an almost limitless supply of content.
But last summer, a TikTok video went viral not because the customer outburst was unusually obscene, but because of the setting. “In Publix?” says the incensed narrator. “Where shopping is a pleasure? … That is Walmart behavior, that is not Publix behavior … It is truly the end of time.”
Publix, after all, is the supermarket of anti-drama. Here employees walk your groceries to your car and hand out free cookies to your kids. They arrange the peaches and cabbage by hand and make sure the Campbell’s soup cans all face outward in perfectly aligned rows. The soulless “stack it high and let it fly” retail mantra has no currency here.
Customers enjoy shopping at Publix in large part because employees seem to actually enjoy working there—so much so that the chain, based in Lakeland, Fla., has landed on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list every year since the ranking’s inception 25 years ago. It is one of just four companies to hold the distinction, alongside Wegmans—another regional powerhouse grocery chain. (The other two are Cisco and Marriott.)
Most striking about the Publix and Wegmans streak is that supermarket jobs, already notoriously low paying, have become even more grueling over the past two years as workers put their lives at risk by showing up every day in the middle of a pandemic. Layer on the stress of dealing with disgruntled customers, and it’s clear why so many workers have reached a breaking point. In December 2021 some 786,000 retail employees quit—a record in an industry already plagued by high turnover. The sector has become the melting pot of all the big labor market issues of our time: minimum wage, the Great Resignation, a desire for remote work and flexibility, the childcare crisis.
Some companies are dealing with this diminishing pool of labor by trying to eliminate the need for it, attempting to build a fully automated future. That’s not a possible path for Publix or Wegmans. “They are still about stores and the experience,” says Simon Johnstone, senior director of retail insights at consultancy Kantar. “They are focusing on the human element of it.”
To do so, they’ve had to disprove the theory that retail work is only dead-end or low paying. That’s not just some feel-good marketing to lure in shoppers. It’s a business strategy, and one that’s essential to their very survival.
Depending on where you’re from, Wegmans is the Publix of the North, or Publix is the Wegmans of the South. Both are still reminiscent of the family-owned, family-run classic American grocery chains that dominated the late 19th and early 20th centuries but have become a rarity today.
Wegmans was founded in 1916 in Rochester, N.Y., and is still family run (CEO Colleen Wegman and her father, chairman Danny Wegman, declined to be interviewed). George Jenkins started Publix in Winter Haven, Fla., 14 years later. The Jenkins family isn’t involved in day-to-day operations anymore, but it reportedly still holds 20% of the company, with the rest owned by employees. Both chains have steadily moved up and down the East Coast, meeting for the first time when Publix opened near Richmond in 2017.
Experts tend to segment retail into four dimensions: price, convenience, assortment, and service. It’s hard to find companies that are good at more than two, says Bernstein analyst Brandon Fletcher. Dollar General, for example, hits price and convenience. At both Wegmans and Publix, it’s assortment and service—and for the latter it’s “intrinsic to have your people happy and valued,” Fletcher says.
To get to happy and valued, the answer at Wegmans and Publix is not always just to pay better. Starting wages aren’t necessarily higher than at their competitors. But what they do provide is a path to something more. “You can make a big career, and essentially a life,” says Kantar’s Johnstone. “Not many retailers can promise that.”
Investing in training helps with retention, but it’s also needed to run the kinds of stores that Wegmans and Publix have become famous for. Having employees who are actually knowledgeable about the product helps justify the cost. At Wegmans, they call this knowledge-based service, or KBS. You can’t charge $40 per pound for a cheese unless you have not only a cheesemonger, but also one who can explain why it’s the best cheese you’ve ever tasted. You also need higher-income customers. Over half of Wegmans shoppers have a household income of at least $100,000, says Johnstone.
Industry watchers say private ownership has helped set the two regional players apart in a sector in which razor-thin margins are the norm. Labor isn’t viewed primarily as a cost the way it is at a public company facing the quarterly earnings grind, such as Kroger—which recently came under fire after a report found that some of its employees are homeless and have had to turn to food stamps or food banks. (Kroger says the report is “one-dimensional and does not tell the complete story.”)
Some experts point out that we only know about these conditions at Kroger because the food workers’ union commissioned the report. Store workers at neither Publix nor Wegmans are unionized. Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers, notes that being perceived as a better employer is the kinder, less ugly side of an anti-union strategy. “If you have employees feel like they have everything they would get from a union contract,” she says, “they believe there’s no reason to have one.”
Pass within a six-foot radius of Publix CEO Todd Jones in one of his stores, and a We appreciate you coming in, Have a great day, or Can I get you a buggy? is guaranteed to be lobbed in your direction. He has mastered the skill most unique to executives in the retail industry: stopping mid-sentence for some light customer chitchat before picking a conversation back up exactly where it left off.
It’s a talent Jones has honed since 1980, when he started out at Publix bagging groceries in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. Thirty-six years later, he became the first person outside the Jenkins family to be named CEO. Today he’s still quick to evoke the company’s founder—Mr. George, as he’s known around Publix.
Jones’s path at the chain is not an unusual one. Store managers have an average of 24 years at Publix, and 90% of them started out working on the floor. As he walks through one of his Lakeland stores not far from headquarters, Jones and his communications director stop to chat with the meat manager—a huddle that represents a combined 96 years of service at Publix. All started working as baggers in their teens. It’s not uncommon to retire at 65 with more than 50 years at the company.
With 230,000 employees, Publix is by far the largest worker-owned company in the U.S., and that has a lot to do with why people stick around. Employees who work at Publix for a year and at least 1,000 hours receive shares that can only be traded with the company. Just like at a startup where workers are given equity, the model entices people to stay. It’s money on top of their salaries (last year, Publix employees who qualified got the equivalent of 8% of their earnings). But Jones says Publix benefits, too. By having skin in the game, workers are invested in the company’s success. It’s an ownership structure that has turned many Publix associates into millionaires—the kind of lore that gets passed down.
The long tenures also stem from an employment strategy that’s surprisingly rare in retail: hiring young people into their first job, identifying talent, providing training, and promoting from within. The company doesn’t hire meat cutters, Jones explains. It hires associates and teaches them how to cut meat.
To make it through the past two years, store employees have often had to put aside their expertise and do whatever needs to get done as coworkers have had to quarantine or been out sick with COVID. Customers’ changing shopping habits—more purchases on fewer trips—have altered the old rhythms of the store. This heightened flexibility is now just part of the drill, what Jones calls a “store without walls.” In the Lakeland location, Jones points out that the guy working behind the seafood counter the day we visit is really the grocery manager. That, he says, “is now absolutely the new norm.”
In February, Amazon debuted just-walk-out technology in a Whole Foods. A week earlier, Kroger had launched a test of a store with only self-service checkout. Analysts estimate the supermarket giant is also spending some $1 billion on automated warehouses for fulfilling online orders.
Meanwhile, the Publix I visited in Lakeland had just four self-checkouts, and neither Publix nor Wegmans has gotten to the point where e-commerce is a primary driver of the business. (Both partner with Instacart for online orders.)
Jones says automation doesn’t provide the kind of flexibility Publix sometimes needs. He notes that the company has an automated replenishment system in some warehouses, but it just moves at one speed—no faster, no slower. It doesn’t have what he calls “burst capacity” to ramp up Christmas week the way humans do.
Devon Bush, the Lakeland manager, has been working at Publix since he was 16 and first became a store manager about 15 years ago. Since then, he’s moved around to different Publix in the district. Some customers have followed him from store to store. One now drives 20 minutes out of her way to shop at his Publix. “She is a special customer who has special requests,” Bush says, “and I always take care of her, so she follows me to wherever I am.”
What does Bush think about bringing more automation to the supermarket floor? “That’s not what Publix is all about.”
A version of this article appears in the April/May 2022 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Feed your career.”