TOPS Markets: Meeting Community Needs with Innovation and Tradition

By the 1950s, Armand Castellani met Thomas Buscaglia, owner of an equipment company, and they formed a joint venture known as Niagara Frontier Services. It was under this joint venture that the partners joined forces with a number of independent grocery store owners to take advantage of the rise of the supermarket. They opened the first TOPS location in 1962, measuring 25,000 square feet and offering a modern grocery shopping experience unlike anything the region had ever seen before. The company continued to grow throughout the 1970s and 1980s, growing across western New York as well as Pennsylvania. In 1991, TOPS was purchased by a major food retail conglomerate based in the Netherlands, and TOPS continued to grow through acquisition. In 2007 TOPS Markets was sold to Morgan Stanley Private Equity, but by the fall of that same year, Curci, led the deal that returned TOPS Markets back to local operation. Today, TOPS owns and operates more than 172 full-service supermarkets with five additional franchises under the Tops banner in New York, northern Pennsylvania, western Vermont and north central Massachusetts.

As TOPS continues to cement itself as the local leader in the Northeast, Curci says the company also continues to look for ways to improve its service and better keep its promises to its customers. No matter what the future holds for TOPS, he says, customers can always count on finding the best deals on the products they want at convenient locations and with the friendliest service around. Fulfilling those promises is only possible because of the hard-working people who serve those customers. “We have a strong, dedicated team of associates who are intent on delivering quality customer service day in and day out,” Curci says. “Our associates truly believe in the business and are committed to listening to and satisfying our customers’ needs.”

Competitive Offerings

What sets TOPS supermarkets apart from the rest of the competition in the Northeast is the company’s belief in offering customers practically everything they need under one roof, rather than competing based solely on price. “We are a promotionally oriented company vs. [everyday low price] like our competitors,” Curci says. “We also offer a wide variety of national brands as well as our own private label brands for our customers to choose from. We differentiate ourselves from our competitors because our store sizes vary based on the markets we are in and the need of that market – from rural and suburban to urban. Our emphasis is on having in-store services like an in store bakery, real butchers, fresh-cut fruit in our produce area and more.”

Curci also says TOPS thrives by being able to respond to the latest trends in the supermarket sector. “We believe in being proactive versus reactive when it comes to trends in the marketplace and making sure that our management team is out in our stores and staying in contact with the business so they can see first-hand any challenges we may face,” he says.

For example, shoppers are looking for more fresh options as a healthier alternative to processed foods, and so TOPS has reacted by increasing the variety of fresh-cut fruit and vegetables in its produce section as well as offering a selection of ready-to-eat freshly prepared meals such as rotisserie chicken.

Another side to this trend is that shoppers are becoming more selective about the products they buy and the ingredients that go into them. Curci says one quarter of all consumers seek out products that contain only ingredients they recognize. TOPS has responded to this by redesigning its line of private-label products to include simpler ingredients while maintaining the same affordable price point. The company also has increased the number of certified organic products it carries by 50 percent over the last two years, and Curci says TOPS plans to continue growing that segment of its product mix. “We’re also updating our price tags to easily identify these items,” he says.

Embracing Technology

Old-fashioned customer service has been critical for TOPS’ sustained success, but Curci says the company has not been afraid to embrace the future, as well. “Technology allows us to better serve our customers, both externally and internally,” he says. “If we are doing it right, any changes, upgrades or the introduction of new technology should be positioning us to provide our customers value, improve our efficiency, and reduce our expense.”

One of the company’s most successful technological initiatives of late has been its webpage, where customers can place orders, refill prescriptions, create shopping lists and manage their TOPS BonusPlus rewards card accounts. “We have seen exceptional shopper engagement growth,” Curci says. “Over the past five years, the number of shoppers registered on has increased by more than 400 percent, and average weekly visits to the website have increased 177 percent. The page views exceed 34 million annually.”

Curci adds that technology also has improved the company’s efforts in loss prevention and inventory management by providing a centralized source of up-to-the-minute data. “Technology provides the stores and category teams the historic data required to support future promotions and ensure the correct amount of product is available to meet the customer demand,” he says.

People Focused

Technology also plays a large role in helping TOPS cope with one of its greatest challenges in recent years – finding and retaining high-quality employees. “We’ve always been fortunate to have a fairly large applicant pool at most of our locations,” Curci says. “But within the last year we implemented a new applicant tracking system that modernized the application process for potential hires and gave us a better way to manage the applicants we have in our pool; this system has greatly increased our applicant pool, allowing us to find more great associates who will provide excellent service to our customers. For some of our harder to fill positions that require specific skills, we’ll utilize some targeted advertising and recruiting, but good technology certainly helps the process.”

Recruiting and retaining high-quality people is especially crucial for TOPS, as Curci explains, because it’s through its people that TOPS is able to provide customers with the best possible shopping experience. “Employee retention is a priority,” Curci says. “We have many employees, both in the stores and the warehouse, who have been with us for decades and that shows us that this is more than just a job for them-it’s a career. Our own president and COO, John Persons, started with TOPS as a cart boy and we’ve been his sole employer ever since, so that tells you something right there.”

As TOPS looks into the future, Curci says the philosophy that has defined the company’s success for generations will continue to be the same, and that is why he believes the future looks bright. “It is essential to meet the needs of the customer and always stay ahead of the trends,” he says. “If you work hard, stay ahead of the competition and truly believe in what you’re trying to accomplish, you can make great strides.”