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Convenience Is Key Competitive Advantage For Tops

Jeff Culhane

Convenience is a competitive advantage for Tops. From its extensive network of stores, prepared foods and meal solutions to fuel stations and banking services, the chain is devoted to creating stores that offer customers a one-stop shopping experience.

“We try to be consumer-centric and create solutions throughout the store. That’s why our market share is so strong and consumers continue to point their carts in our direction,” said Jeff Culhane, SVP of merchandising. 

Culhane noted that in many rural or city locations, Tops stores serve as a hub for services. “Western Union, lottery, utility payments, check cashing – there are many services we offer that other stores have abandoned. When we aggregate those services, we become a destination for shoppers,” he said. 

The chain’s 58 fuel stations cover 75 percent of its marketing area and are a huge draw for shoppers who can earn gas discount points when they shop at Tops using their BonusPlus loyalty card.

Tops“There’s a great value synergy between our stores and our gas points fuel discounts,” said Diane Colgan, SVP of marketing and business analytics. “It’s particularly important in the current environment of high gas prices.”

Starbucks outlets can also be found in some locations and the chain was the first retailer in the country to integrate the Starbucks app into its operations. 

Providing meal solutions

Convenience also means helping consumers find quick and easy meal solutions. 

“The No. 1 question for consumers today is ‘what’s for dinner,’” said Kristen Hanson, VP of center store sales.

The company works hard to provide answers to that question. Cross merchandising offers consumers ideas by gathering all elements of a meal together in one location. For example, the team will display peppers and onions near chicken and include a QR code for a chicken fajitas recipe. 

“We work hard as a collective team to make sure that those different ideas are readily available for customers,” Hanson said.

When it comes to prepared foods, Tops sticks to items with wide market appeal – fried and rotisserie chicken and sides, pizza, sandwiches and salads. 

“We keep it manageable and consistent,” said John Persons, president. 

That consistency has made those items huge hits at the chain. Management is passionate about ensuring those products are always in stock for customers. 

“We merchandise with mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, other sides to make it easy and make sure customers always find what they are looking for,” said Karri Zwirlein, director of bakery, deli and prepared foods. 

“Customers need to be able to count on us. They know that when they walk in, prepared chicken is always going to be there. We understand that they can’t put a raincheck on the table.”

Zwirlein also expanded prepared snacking destinations. 

“The trend in snacking is toward mid-afternoon and later evening mini-meals,” she said. “It’s all about packs of salami with Laughing Cow or Baby Bel cheese or larger charcuterie boards.”

Three-compartment meals are also taking off at the chain, particularly as households in some market areas become smaller. A refreshed flower department and robust bakery department make the chain a destination for entertaining. 

“We are very proud of our bakery,” Zwirlein said. “Over the past few years, we’ve increased the quality levels and updated our cake decorating with brighter colors and different designs to attract younger customers.”


More than just prescriptions 

To help solidify its one-stop-shop positioning, Tops delivers top-notch customer service and a full menu of wellness services in the 55 stores that include pharmacy departments.

“Pharmacy is an important piece of our business,” Hanson said. “Pharmacy patients are our most loyal consumers. When that pharmacy patient is coming in for a prescription, they are most likely to shop in the store and their baskets are larger.”

Tops pharmacy has a strong vaccine program. During the pandemic, it administered thousands of vaccinations. The chain also has a clinical outreach program for diabetes care, conducts smoking cessation programs and features nutritio programs in partnership with local colleges and universities. Tops pharmacists are also authorized to administer Department of Motor Vehicles’ vision tests. 

The chain continues to pilot new programs. At its Jefferson store, Tops partnered with the Black Nurses Association on health programs and with D’Youville University on cooking classes. It also partnered with the University of Buffalo School of Dental Medicine for dental screenings at one store location. 

“It’s a peek into what’s possible going forward,” Hanson said. 

Tops is also exploring carrying hearing aids. Pharmacy and health and beauty care have long had a synergistic relationship. Hanson said stores with pharmacies have higher HBC sales. 

“Customers consistently ask their pharmacist for recommendations and as we remodel stores, we’re adding counseling rooms for vaccinations and consultations,” she said. 

The pharmacy also offers delivery service. And as delivery across the store becomes more important, Tops is prepared to respond to those evolving customer shopping patterns. 

“We partner with Instacart at almost all stores,” Hanson said. “We were already partnering with Instacart before COVID, so we were prepared for the pandemic. We believe consumers want options for delivery and pickup services and will continuing to shop in stores.”

To read the full anniversary section on the grocer presented by The Shelby Report, click here.

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