Henrico County resident Stewart Futcher and his family lived in Florida for eight years and got to know the Publix Super Markets grocery chain well.

Futcher was first in line Saturday morning when Florida-based Publix opened its first Richmond area-store — and its first in Virginia — at 5400 Wyndham Forest Drive in the Nuckols Place shopping center in western Henrico County.

“I can walk or ride a bike to my Publix. This is already my Publix,” said Futcher, who lives just a few blocks away.

He arrived at the store at 3:30 a.m. Saturday to make sure he was first in line. “I just love Publix. I wanted to be the first official Publix customer in the state of Virginia,” he said.

He was the first customer in the door and cut the ceremonial ribbon, but his wife, Danalee Futcher, was the first to buy something — a bag of peanut M&M’s, she said, showing off the receipt.

Virginia marks the Lakeland, Fla.-based company’s seventh state of operation.

Publix, the nation’s largest employee-owned grocery chain, is known for its top-notch customer service, sub sandwiches and birthday cakes. National consumer surveys have ranked Publix as one of the top grocery stores in the country.

The chain is planning at least a dozen stores in the Richmond area, where for the past two years Walmart and Kroger have dominated the grocery market based on sales volume as reported by Maryland-based trade publication Food World.

Publix enters the Richmond market as the competition among grocery retailers is intensifying. New players are entering the market, and current players are expanding.

Richmond’s grocery market has been described as over-stored with too many grocery stores based on the population. Still, existing supermarket retailers have made significant investments in local operations while the region continues to attract new chains. Germany-based Lidl will open four locations on July 27 — the first of more than half a dozen stores planned for the area.

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At Publix on Saturday morning, customers streamed through the doors at 7 a.m. and were still arriving at a steady pace two hours later.

“We are overwhelmed and overjoyed with the enthusiasm the community has shown for our company this morning,” Publix store manager Chellie Peck said as she stood at the entrance greeting customers.

“It was so exciting to see people lined up around the building,” Peck said.

Shoppers crowded the deli, bakery and produce areas, where employees gave out free samples of fried chicken tenders, sushi, melons, Key lime pie and more.

“I think Food Lion is in trouble,” customer Holly Cash said as she shopped with her husband, Chris, and their daughter, Meghan. A Food Lion store is across Nuckols Road from Publix and will compete directly for customers.

“There are a lot more choices,” Chris Cash said as they looked over items in the cookie aisle.

“We are doing a lot of price comparisons right now. It’s hit-and-miss. Some things are less, and some things are more. I think that is the way it is with any store,” Holly Cash said.

Beth Hardy Morgan and Nelson Morgan drove from eastern Henrico on Saturday morning to shop at the new Publix. A Publix store scheduled to open Aug. 5 at 4591 S. Laburnum Ave. in the White Oak Village shopping center will be closer to where the Morgans live.

“My husband is originally from Key West, Florida, and he lived in Tampa, and I have a sister-in-law in Tampa,” said Beth Hardy Morgan, explaining her familiarity with the grocery chain.

“When we go down there, we go to Publix,” said Morgan, impressed with the way the store operates and the merchandise.

“They are always polite. It’s a good feeling when you come in,” she said.

“It’s a very easy store to shop,” said Nelson Morgan, praising the store’s bright lights. “A lot of grocery stores you go into, it seems like you are walking in shade.”

Beth Hardy Morgan said they normally grocery shop at multiple places, including Walmart, Kroger, BJ’s Wholesale Club and Sam’s Club.

“I can tell you this much. We probably will be more loyal to Publix than anything because of my husband having more knowledge of Publix,” she said.

Customers Brenda and Maynard Puryear attended a celebration at the store Friday night for friends and family. She said her brother Cliff Hall works at the store. When they dropped him off Saturday morning, they stayed to shop.

“The chicken tenders are to die for,” Brenda Puryear said. “And right now they’ve got some good deals,” she said.

“I like it because it’s a good, clean store,” Maynard Puryear said.

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The store has self-checkout stations for do-it-yourself customers. At the other checkout stations, video terminals close to the payment card scanner are used so customers can see what is rung up.

Publix does not have a customer loyalty card program, but does offer weekly specials and buy one, get one free specials.

For those who want it, Publix employees will take customers’ groceries to their vehicles and load them.

Employee Tamirre Colbert loaded Andrea Baker-Jones and Wayne Jones’ groceries for them Saturday morning.

“Did you give her a tip?” Baker-Jones asked her husband as Colbert walked off. “She said, ‘No tips,’” he responded.

Publix has a no-tipping policy, a store spokeswoman said. Instead, Wayne Jones was surprised to see that the thank-you card Colbert gave him included a coupon good for a half-gallon of Publix brand ice cream or frozen yogurt. The thank you cards are a limited-time promotion.

Baker-Jones also happily waved a $5 bill she received at customer service.

“They had sent me a coupon through the mail for $5 off. Once we got in the checkout, because I had all of these other coupons, I totally forgot to use that. So I went to customer service and they said, ‘How would you just like $5 cash back?’ It was great,” Baker-Jones said.

In addition to the Aug. 5 Laburnum Avenue store opening, Publix is opening a store at 7 a.m. July 29 at 10250 Staples Mill Road in the Shoppes at CrossRidge.

Additional store openings are planned.

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