Feeling on top at Tops Markets
New York-based grocer sparks excitement in floral with powerful
by Cynthia L. McGowan
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
tops markets llc
CEO AND PRESIDENT Frank Curci
OWNERSHIP Morgan Stanley Private Equity
STORES 76 Tops Friendly Markets stores, in New York
SALES $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2008, according to
the Directory of Supermarket, Grocery & Convenience Store
store size Averages 50,000 square feet
FLORAL DEPARTMENT size Averages 800 to 900 square
COMPANY EMPLOYEES 10,000
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
BIGGEST FLORAL HOLIDAY Valentine’s Day
FLORAL’S CONTRIBUTION TO TOTAL COMPANY SALES 1
FLORAL BUYER/MERCHANDISER Shawn Oliver-Zobrist
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 MorningNewsBeat.com, “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,”
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.