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America's Top-Rated Grocer Also Has an Incredible Employee Culture

The 4th most profitable grocer in America received a top rating for CS

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Kindra Cooper

Publix employee culture

Coincidence or not, the grocery store chain rated for best customer service in America by Newsweek also has a dazzling reputation for employee culture.

And CS is not the only superlative: Publix, a privately held supermarket chain with a presence in the southeast, is the largest employee-owned company in the US, and the fourth most profitable grocer in America.

When a customer asks an associate the whereabouts of a particular item, staff race off to locate it instead of glumly gesticulating in the general direction of the right aisle. At the fast-moving checkout line, there is a two-customer-per-line mandate enforced by proprietary predictive staffing software, and baggers carry your purchases to the parking lot - just like the good ol’ days.

Turning employees into owners

In fact, Publix’s current CEO, Todd Jones, who has been with the company for 38 years, started as a bagger during high school. By turning its cashiers, bakers, baggers and butchers into its largest corporate shareholders, the grocer not only fosters goodwill as a local wealth creator, but incentivizes staff to shore up the company’s bottom line by providing top-notch customer service.

When Fortune magazine journalist Christopher Tkaczyk went undercover for a week as a store clerk for a Publix in Lake Nona, Fla. to experience the employee culture firsthand, he was trained on how to create a “happy ever after” by “engaging the customer.”

While manning the bakery on his third day, Tkaczyk was approached by an elderly woman. “Do you call this a hard crust?” she demands, picking up a loaf and eyeing it critically. “You never have any bread with a thick crust like they do in New York.”

While testing loaves in the display case for firmness, Tkaczyk starts a conversation to keep her from walking away. Noticing her thick accent, he asks, “What part of Brooklyn are you from?”

“How did you know I’m from Brooklyn?” she asks suspiciously. A conversation ensues as she tells him about growing up in Bensonhurst, coincidentally the same town where his late grandmother was born. “As we chat, her annoyance visibly melts away,” Tkaczyk writes. “When I suggest a bag of dinner rolls that I’ve found to have the hardest crust of any baked good in the store, she’s satisfied. Mission accomplished.”

The interaction sounds so simple, but alternatively Tkaczyk could have shrugged and said, “I’m sorry ma’am, but this is all we have for today,” or retorted defensively.

Publix employee culture

An employee culture of career progression

When employees are directly impacted by the company’s bottom line – and with an 80 percent stake in the business, worth $16.6 billion they undoubtedly are – they’re incentivized to deliver the best customer service. In fact, some staffers even refer to it as a “cult” because of how strongly the culture of career planning and progression is embedded in a bid to retain workers as long as possible.

After a year of service, employees who’ve accrued more than 1,000 hours are granted shares of company stock initially valued between 8-12 percent of their annual compensation. Those who stay continue to receive an annual grant.

Meanwhile, the company’s tuition reimbursement program is open to anyone within six months of service who works at least 10 hours per week, providing up to $3,200 per year. In an industry beset by high turnover, where labor-intensive positions like stocking shelves or ringing up groceries are normally seen as stepping stones to white collar jobs, the company makes a strong case for employee loyalty.