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Store Profile

Feeling on top at Tops Markets

New York-based grocer sparks excitement in floral with powerful merchandising.

by Cynthia L. McGowan

    It’s a time of excitement at Tops Markets LLC. Under new ownership, the 76-store, Williamsville, N.Y.-based chain is committed to opening new stores and investing $150 million in renovations, and floral is an important part of the new look.

     Tops Markets, which operates its Tops Friendly Markets banner in New York and Pennsylvania, was purchased by Morgan Stanley Private Equity from Ahold USA in 2007 for $310 million. Under Ahold, most of Tops Markets’ corporate-level functions were moved to Ahold’s Carlisle, Pa., headquarters. Today, Tops Markets is transitioning those jobs back to its Williamsville headquarters and showing customers its investment in the local economy. The commitment to Williamsville “helps stabilize this economy at a time when we really need it,” James Allen, executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency, told the Business First of Buffalo (N.Y.) newspaper in a June story. Amherst is a city that encompasses the village of Williamsville.

  tops markets llc

HEADQUARTERS Williamsville, N.Y.
OWNERSHIP Morgan Stanley Private Equity
STORES 76 Tops Friendly Markets stores, in New York and Pennsylvania
SALES $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2008, according to the Directory of Supermarket, Grocery & Convenience Store Chains
store size Averages 50,000 square feet
FLORAL DEPARTMENT size Averages 800 to 900 square feet
FLORAL EMPLOYEES Averages two to three per store
FLORAL SERVICES Full-service floral departments in 70 percent of the stores; limited service in others; full-service stores offer wedding, funeral and event services



store investment
     Tops Markets announced in December that it plans to open seven to 10 new stores in western and midstate New York and invest $150 million upgrading 60 existing locations in the next five years. CEO Frank Curci told Business First back in June, when Tops Markets was considering the expansion, “We intend to put a lot of money back into our stores.”

     Other moves are also designed to resonate with local customers. Tops Markets is putting Tim Hortons, a popular coffee-and-doughnut shop, in all stores, either as full-service restaurants or self-service facilities. In addition, the company recently signed an exclusive deal to sell the famous Buffalo, N.Y., Anchor Bar wings—the chicken wings that gave rise to the name “Buffalo wings.” Comments Kevin Coupe, founder and editor of the food-industry observer, “I love this idea ... It represents the kind of partnership that can offer Tops a differential advantage.”

     The wings are available in the stores’ self-serve hot bar, which offers convenient meals ready to go. The hot bar is part of the stores’ “Carry-Out Café,” which also has soups, a salad bar, subs and more, and can be ordered to go or eaten in the dining areas. In addition, Tops Markets have an abundant selection of fruits and vegetables in the produce department, baked-from-scratch wares in the “Baker’s Oven,” Certified Angus Beef in the “Butcher’s Block” and “fresh from the shore” seafood in the “Captain’s Choice” department.

in-your-face floral merchandising
     Floral, confirms Shawn Oliver-Zobrist, floral buyer/merchandiser, is “a definite image department for our company.” The floral departments are at the front of many of Tops Markets’ current stores,
and to underscore the company’s belief in the power of flowers, floral will continue to occupy that prominent floor space in the new and renovated stores. “We make sure the merchandising is right when our customers walk in,” Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist says.

     That strong floral presence is part of what she calls the company’s “in-your-face” merchandising strategy. The floral departments get their share of call-in orders, but impulse sales are the largest source of revenue, Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist acknowledges. To capture customers’ attention and their sales, “It’s up to us to make sure that the quality’s right, the price point’s right and the merchandising’s fantastic; otherwise,” she says, “they walk right on by.”

     To that end, the 800- to 900-square-foot floral departments are always brimming with seasonal selections of fresh, inviting florals. A large refrigerated case filled with consumer bunches takes center stage in most departments. Surrounding that island are display cases of rose and mixed bouquets, blooming and foliage plants, and balloons and other hard goods.

     The floral departments utilize “color-wheel merchandising,” with fresh florals arranged according to their placement on the color wheel, Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist shares. “Color is everything,” she says, and merchandising flowers in this way makes the colors pop and draws customers in.

     The floral operation also sparks impulse sales by changing the look of the departments to correspond with the weekly ad promotions. And just moving products to a new spot in the department can spark sales, Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist says. A little bit of change “creates excitement at store level,” she comments.

     Cross-merchandising is another key to impulse sales. “We get space everywhere” including the bakery department, the card aisle, the front registers and the entrance during seasonal promotions, Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist remarks, and that space “shows how important we are to Tops Markets.”

     But no matter where a display is, a crucial factor to its success is signage, with price points clearly visible, Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist maintains. “I’ve always taught my floral managers that the display is never complete until the sign is in place,” she shares.

  keys to success

MERCHANDISING The large floral departments, brimming with colorful selections, are at the front of most stores. Displays are designed to capture customers’ attention by using color, product placement and signage.
EMPLOYEE EXCITEMENT Merchandising contests, weekly sales planners and floral meetings help keep florists motivated to offer great service.
SERVICE Many of the stores offer custom designs and wedding services. The company has a formal training program to make sure florists have the skills they need.
PRODUCTS Tops Markets has products for every floral need, from economical home décor to more upscale gift-giving options.
SPREADING THE WORD Tops Markets publicizes its florals through weekly newspaper advertising, spot radio ads, its Web site and through word-of-mouth. It partners with local schools for flower-giving occasions and often includes fliers in shopping bags to publicize its floral services for upcoming school events.



serving customers
     About 70 percent of Tops Markets’ stores have full-service floral departments. Self-service and smaller floral departments can refer clientele to nearby “hub” stores that can handle bigger or more intricate orders such as weddings.

     Weddings are an important part of Tops Markets’ floral business. “A third of our stores average two to three weddings a weekend,” Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist confides, providing services from free consultations in the stores to delivery and setup at the venue, if the clients request that. The bakery and floral departments work together to jointly promote their wedding offerings through signage, verbal recommendations and examples in the departments.

     The full-service floral departments employ two to three associates each and are staffed about 60 hours a week, ensuring sufficient labor to handle requests for custom designs. About 10 percent to 20 percent of the floral operation’s sales come from customers who have designs made while they shop, Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist remarks. The most frequent of these types of requests are for corsages for high-school events. Customers often relax in the Tim Hortons coffee shops while they wait for their designs to be created.

     And although Tops Markets doesn’t offer local delivery, the floral operation has a partnership with Miami-based importer Falcon Farms that lets consumers send flowers nationwide. Tops advertises the service, Flowers at Your Fingertips, on its Web site and in its store signage.

training program
     A training program ensures all florists have the skills to serve their customers well. The company seeks to hire employees with floral backgrounds, but “we have worked with some who have not [had floral experience], and they’ve been just fine,” Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist acknowledges. Tops Markets is divided into eight districts, and highly qualified florists serve as trainers in each of the districts, working with the new hires one-on-one.

     Continual training for experienced employees is important as well. The company has at least three floral meetings a year, often partnering with vendors to provide florists education in the latest techniques and “to keep their skills at a higher level and to keep the excitement out there,” Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist shares. In addition, the corporate floral team, which also includes the produce/floral director and the produce/floral category manager, sends out a weekly sales planner with the upcoming ad items, tips on product placement and display ideas.

     Merchandising contests for holiday promotions also keep floral associates motivated. Stores are grouped by volume for the contests, and they are judged on their merchandising displays. Winners receive cash prizes or gift cards, and the contests are a “great incentive” to create excellent merchandising, Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist says.

best-selling florals
     Floral managers order products for their departments from a selection guide prepared at the corporate level. “We’ve got good florists out there who have a pretty good handle on what sells best,” Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist comments.

     The floral operation’s signature and best-selling item is a dozen-rose bouquet, and the company promotes it once or twice a month. Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist, who describes the stores’ clientele as “working class, middle America,” says the traditional red is the favorite rose color. And although she declines to share price points, she does say that the company sells as many as 1,500 rose bouquets in a nonholiday week.

     Mixed bouquets also sell well—averaging 1,000 a week—but they fall behind the No. 2 seller, consumer bunches. Best-sellers are six stems of spray carnations, five-stem “crazy daisy” dyed spray mums and Alstroemerias. Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist ties the consumer-bunch success to the state of the economy, saying people are staying home more and see flowers as a cost-effective way to add beauty to their living spaces.

      Floral managers are encouraged to try new styles with arrangements. “When I visit a store, I’m very happy to see some of the great imaginations and great creativity out there,” Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist comments. “They have some fun and do some different things.” The company also procures ready-made arrangements from vendors but does remind the florists that the best way to drive profits is to make designs from their on-hand inventory.

     Plant sales have slowed down recently, Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist confides. “Customers are just going for the fresh cut” lately. However, poinsettias did phenomenally for Christmas. Another good seller is foliage plants. Tops Markets has “enormous sales on foliage plants when the college [students] come back,” she marvels. “It’s amazing how much they buy to fill their dorms.” Tops Markets promotes its plants during that back-to-school season, targeting those plant-hungry students.

emphasis on freshness
     The company procures its floral products directly from growers in South America, mostly Colombia. The products, usually wetpacked, are sent to a central warehouse and then delivered to the stores, at least two or three times a week.

     To ensure customers are getting the freshest products possible, inspectors check all floral deliveries at the warehouse for quality, and the floral team and vendors are in daily contact. In addition, care-and-handling and freshness issues are important components of floral training. Shares Mrs. Oliver-Zobrist: “When we have our seminars, we’re always talking about identifying the quality, knowing when to pull product off a display and just understanding that we want to have the upmost quality for our customers.”

Reach Editor in Chief Cynthia L. McGowan at or (800) 355-8086.


Super Floral Retailing • Copyright 2009
Florists' Review Enterprises, Inc.