Publix endures, despite protests

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Publix endures, despite protests

By Lawrence Aylward - 08/08/2018

Publix Super Markets was chastised in the media last May — from mainstream news reports to tweets on Twitter — for financially supporting Florida gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, a stout supporter of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The Tampa Bay Tribune reported the Lakeland, Fla.-based grocery chain donated $670,000 in the last three years to support Putnam’s campaign. The Republican politician said last year he’s “proud” to be an “NRA sellout.”

Of course, the acronym “NRA” is a sizzling hot potato these days, especially in Florida, mainly because of the heartbreaking school shootings that have occurred throughout the country, including in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people died. Don’t forget the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where 49 people were killed.

In the mainstream media, Publix even made Time magazine, but it’s not like Publix wanted to make Time magazine. In the June 11 issue of Time, a photograph spanning two entire pages depicts a “die-in” protest at a Publix supermarket in Coral Springs, Fla., organized by David Hogg, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman shooting. A die-in is a demonstration in which people lie down as if dead. Hogg, now a gun control activist, rallied others to protest Publix’s support of Putnam.

There were calls to boycott Publix, especially in Florida where most of the retailer’s 1,188 stores are located. Opposing politicians also pounced on Publix. State Rep. Carlos G. Smith, a Democrat from Winter Park, Fla., tweeted, “How many flowers did I buy from your stores for funerals, graves, + memorials for Pulse + MSD victims? #BoycottPublix”

Publix said it was supporting Putnam for his “pro business values,” and made it clear it was donating money to Putnam, not the NRA. Realizing it had a potential public relations nightmare on its hands, Publix issued a statement saying it was suspending corporate-funded political contributions and was going to re-evaluate its giving processes. Publix also said, “We respect the students and members of the community who have chosen to express their voices on these issues. We regret our contributions have led to a divide in our community. We did not intend to put our associates and the customers they serve in the middle of a political debate.”

By most accounts, including its recent second-quarter earnings statement, Publix seems to have handled this sensitive issue well.

Last week Publix announced in a press release that sales for the three months ending June 30 were $8.8 billion, a 4 percent increase from $8.4 billion in 2017. Net earnings were $616.2 million, compared with $495.1 million a year ago.

Publix, an employee-owned company, made no mention of enduring the crisis from a sales perspective in the earnings press release. For Publix, this was never about winning or even taking sides in the matter.

When protesters showed up at the die-ins at several stores, Publix let them protest. And even Hogg commended Publix for doing so — at one die-in, Hogg asked for a big round of applause for Publix for allowing them to protest.

Publix best store brand is arguably its positive image. People — from customers to employees — adore the chain. “Publix is a cult,” David Livingston of DJL Research told the Orlando Sentinel. “Everyone knows they are a standup company.”

Livingston even predicted that “Publix will probably have a positive reaction” to the protests. He was right.

But nobody should be cheering Publix’s second-quarter earnings and calling it a victory over the gun haters. Publix surely is not.

A mass boycott of Publix didn’t happen. I’m guessing that most of the Publix customers who were disappointed in the retailer’s support of Putnam were happy with the way the retailer handled the situation, even if they believe that grocery retailers in general should not be dabbling in politics.

Publix is highly regarded for the many altruistic deeds it does in the communities it serves. If there’s a hurricane or other natural disaster in Florida, you can count on Publix to be one of the first businesses there with people and product to help those in need. Publix also donates money to house the homeless and food to feed the hungry. Publix is often commended by third-party studies for its customer service and regularly appears on “Best Companies to Work For” lists.

I’m not taking stands on this issue, although it’s clear that grocery retailers and politics don’t mix in this partisan world.

I give credit to the protesters for taking a stand. I give credit to Publix for not challenging them for taking a stand. I also give credit to people for not mass boycotting Publix.

Nobody can argue that Publix does a lot of good.


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