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Publix Super Markets will open its third GreenWise Market this Thursday, in St. Petersburg, joining the two existing units in Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, two more are slated to open in converted Albertsons locations in Tallahassee and Winter Park, with a hybrid version – called Publix – to open in Naples.

The story suggests that “the curious should bring an appetite. And extra cash. That's unless they can withstand the temptations of over-the-top displays, flashy exhibition cooking and tantalizing scents of an array of freshly prepared foods made to be eaten at a 45-seat patio or more likely taken home and microwaved for five minutes …

“If this seems a bad time to unveil a supermarket stuffed with premium-priced organics, natural foods and top-of-the-line gourmet fare, welcome to the club. After all, studies show that most Americans hold the line on food spending as a percentage of their income even in this time of soaring prices. Whether those committed to foods made without artificial color, preservatives, pesticides or antibiotics stick to their guns as the economy and their discretionary income goes south remains to be seen. Already, sales and profit at chains like Whole Foods Natural Markets have softened dramatically. GreenWise Market, however, is Publix's competitive answer to Whole Foods and others like Fresh Market that moved into its home state to skim the cream in top income neighborhoods.”

KC's View:
I have to admit to being a little conflicted about how to respond to this story.

One the one hand, Publix’s numbers came out yesterday, and net profit is down 18 percent at the same time as the nation – especially Florida – is enduring a serious economic downturn.

On the other hand, I believe in always pushing one’s differential advantage…and that a retailer should never lose touch with the values that serve as its foundation. Even – especially – in tough times.

Is this the best time to open new GreenWise Markets. The short-term logic would say no. But Publix is and always has been a long-term company that thinks strategically rather than tactically.

Maybe I’m wimping out on this one, but I’ll bet on Publix’s logic. With some reservations.

Because the thing that determines whether GreenWise is successful long term may be whether it is perceived as primarily “green” or “luxury.” And to what extent consumers can afford the luxuries.