Acquisitions, a divestiture, a management buyout – Tops Friendly Markets has seen its share of changes in the last two decades. But the company’s commitment to maintaining a strong identity for the Tops brand has never wavered from its beginnings as the go-to neighborhood store.
Fresh off a November 2021 merger with Price Chopper/Market 32 and operating under a new Northeast Grocery parent company, Tops is the 28th largest U.S. supermarket with annual sales of $3 billion.
Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the brand is positioned to enter the next decade with a defendable network of stores, widespread consumer acceptance, new store format and dedicated group of associates.
Frank Curci, CEO of Northeast Grocery Inc. (NGI), the parent company of Tops and Price Chopper, explained the merger created a company of two regional brands with strong identities that could be stronger under one umbrella.
“In today’s world, scale is important. We knew we needed scale to compete with bigger players. Combining the businesses gives us synergies that allow us to be more competitive and leverage that position to create better value for our customers,” he said.
Curci added that it was in the interest of both brands to maintain their distinct identities and customer franchises.
Despite an ever-changing marketplace, management is committed to maintaining the Tops brand positioning.
“Above all, Tops is a brand that stands for neighborhood stores. We may have 150 stores, but each store is our most important one,” said John Persons, president of Tops Markets.
The chain is dedicated to individualizing each store to its particular market and providing exceptional customer service throughout its network of locations.
National brands are the bedrock of the chain’s offerings.
“Choice is important to our customers, so we have a wider variety of branded products in our stores of any of our competitors,” Persons said. “When national brands introduce new items, we’ll be the company to feature these new items and promote them. Those relationships with national brands are very key.”
Staying laser-focused on strategies that work has allowed the brand to successfully compete with some of the best retailers in the country.
“There’s a culture of not only doing the right thing for our customers, but the right thing for the company,” Curci said. “We don’t want to be Wegmans, we don’t want to be Walmart, we want to be the best possible Tops.”
To ensure the brand is the best it can be, Tops spent $120 million over the last three years on remodels. “We’ve completed 28 remodels in 36 months,” Persons said.
Management listened to what consumers wanted and reformatted stores to offer more fresh and prepared foods.
“We’ve reallocated space to increase the capacity of prepared foods and deli departments by 35 to 40 percent,” Persons said. Fresh now contributes to 30 percent of sales.
A new décor gives stores a more open, updated look. A lighter neutral-tone palette and pale wood fixtures are enhanced by blade LED lighting fixtures. Digital screens throughout the store contribute to the refreshed and more contemporary look.
Fixtures designed specifically for the chain create a farmers market vibe for the produce department. The chain features on-trend produce and Tops educates its customers on the benefits of hot produce items.
“We moved to uprights along the wall in produce that allow us to provide more variety, more items under refrigeration and more freshness for the customer,” said Mike Patti, RVP.
The chain has also placed a greater emphasis on organic items.
“Stores now have about 4,600 organic items,” Persons said. “We’ve seen penetration and sales that are outpacing the industry average.”
Emphasis on fresh
Fresh, prepared foods also get top billing in the new stores.
“We have a sushi chef and Starbucks in some stores, but the programs we employ are very specific. We know who we are,” Persons said. “We have a big emphasis on pizza, sandwiches, salads and fried and rotisserie chicken, along with many sides.”
The deli has an updated new look with stainless steel serving bins. An adjacent expanded cheese section gives the cheese department a 40-50 percent lift in sales in locations where that section is enhanced. Bakeries offer freshly baked bread, doughnuts, pastries and desserts every day.
All new stores have robust health and beauty care and general merchandise departments.
“So many retailers have closed their doors, so GM is one category we don’t want to walk away from,” said Kristen Hansen, VP, center store sales, merchandising and pharmacy.
Holidays like Halloween, Christmas and back-to-school all offer opportunities for strong GM programs, and Hansen is making sure Tops grabs the advantage.
Technology is also a consideration in remodels. Shop + Scan has been rolled out to more than 20 locations and the chain offers Instacart home delivery at almost all locations. The chain was also the first retailer in Western New York to roll out Flash-Food.
Tops continues to find ways to stay at the forefront of environmental responsibility through energy-efficient upgrades and responsible practices. Many of its stores are now powered by solar energy. Last year, the chain recycled 139.8 tons of cooking oil, 164.4 tons of inedible food and unsaleable meat and produce and more than 14,926 tons of cardboard boxes, paper and magazines.
Growth from smaller footprint
Looking forward, Tops is focused on expanding operations and continuing to have a stronghold in its operating areas. While Tops stores come in a variety of sizes – some greater than 110,000 square feet, others less than 10,000 square feet – as the company moves forward, the chain sees plenty of growth opportunities in smaller footprint locations in key neighborhoods.
“We have stores in communities and neighborhoods that other retailers simply don’t have,” Persons said. “We want to be right there where our customers are.”
Curci added that when Tops acquired 50 Penn Traffic stores about a decade ago, it learned a lot about how to assimilate different stores.
“We have some really big stores and when those work, they’re very efficient. But we do equally well with a store that is two thirds to half the size. We learned how to leverage the format and that has allowed us to grow across the state,” he said.
For more information, visit topsmarkets.com.
To read the full anniversary section on the grocer presented by The Shelby Report, click here.