Tops has Stopped: a gaping hole in Ahold?
What happened to Tops? As a kid, we were a Tops family, in the Buffalo area, there was no other supermarket. At the time, Wegmans had not yet entered the Buffalo market, A&P and Loblaws had pulled out, and the Bells and Super Duper stores were old-fashioned and dirty. Tops was the locally-owned (Buffalo folklore held that it was mob-owned, but nonetheless) chain that purveyed a consistent range of national brands and high quality (Tops and Hy-Top) in-house brands.
After Super Duper and Bells folded, and Wegmans had become an established 2nd in the Buffalo market, Tops was subsumed into the Dutch grocery conglomerate Ahold family. In the mid-1980s, the still locally-managed Tops stores growth strategy seemed a perfect match for the European giant. Perhaps driven by competition from the forward-looking Wegmans, Tops stores were renovated, moved to larger or more high profile locations, expanded, and sported a vogue, architecturally sophisticated white on white interior design. The brightly lit, clean stores quickly put an end to the local play on the “Tops Never Stops” slogan, jokingly to “Tops never mops.”
The complete turn around, however wasn’t limited only to the stores. A complete overhaul of merchandising, in-house brand labeling, and in-store signage changed the way shoppers moved through the store, and how products were featured. The aesthetic was almost Gap-like; bountiful, clean, organized, and bright. Typically messy hand lettered signage was replace by an easy-to-read “grid” design that helped to standardize both unit and display across the chain. The simplicity of the graphic design created a strong visual presence in the typically over-crowded and visually noisy POP-heavy supermarket world. This degree of consistency substantially upscaled the Tops store experience, placing it among the best supermarket experiences in the world. Shoppers seemed to follow in kind — I vividly recall packed Tops stores — parking lots so full, and lines so long, it was more like a day at the amusement park than at the supermarket.
Tops quickly became the crown jewel of the Ahold portfolio, so much so, Tops quickly became the premier and flagship brand. Capitalizing on the successful re-design, giant Tops International stores were introduced, Finast stores in Ohio were renovated and re-named Tops, and Ahold’s growing Southeast Asian grocery business was unified and branded under the Tops banner. (Visit the Tops Thailand website here.) The growth of a Buffalo born and bred company was amazing, in less than 30 years the brand had literally stretched across the Northeast, and across the globe.
Then, it hit the fan.
In the late ’90s, Ahold hit rough financial times, and began to sell off North and South American chains. Ahold consolidated North American chains, effectively merging the New England Stop-n-Shop franchise into the Maryland-based Giant-Landover franchise. Not long to follow, Tops was effectively folded into the Pennsylvania-based Giant-Carlyle franchise. The massive Tops headquarters building built in with huge local-subsidies in Amherst, NY in the mid-90s was downscaled by nearly 80%, and “redundant” departments were transferred to Carlyle.
And that’s when things really went wrong. The always Buffalo-managed Tops was now managed by outsiders. Tops had simply become an asset and ceased being a Buffalo institution. In an effort to maintain market share but cut costs, retrenched from less profitable product lines and decreased the square footage of new stores. Stores were redesigned to look and feel “warmer.” Lots of wood was added, as were kitschy farm and garden tableaus, along with lots of red — red signage, red trim. In-house labels were brought in alignment with Giant labeling (again, lots of red, along with farms, flowers, windmills, and nearly impossible-to-read script typography). Nearly overnight, the sophistication, standardization, and cleanliness were gone. The brand that had become a gem was being quickly liquidated, diluted and diffused to the point of no return.
From an outside standpoint, it’s clear that the Giant-Carlyle folks hadn’t a clue of the brand equity Tops brought to the table. If they had any sense, Giant would now be Tops. Alas, that isn’t the case, and over the years, the Tops brand continued to devolve. In 2004 Ahold reopened it’s flagship Buffalo Tops International as a Martin’s store. The rationale behind this was never clear, and the store was a tremendous flop. Within 9 months, the store reverted to the Tops brand. The once spacious and bright store is now dark, and claustrophobic, and clearly different from any other Tops store in the area.
This evening, I popped in to the Tops in Penfield, just outside of Rochester. The Penfield Tops has clearly been forgotten — it’s as if time has frozen it in 1992. It’s white, clean, bright, and spacious. The only similarity to the stores in Buffalo: it was also empty. Sadly, after shuttering a number of stores in Northern Ohio, Ahold announced that it hopes to divest the remainder Northern Ohio Tops stores, because they are “underperforming.”
Is Ahold BLIND? These stores haven’t always been underperforming, and in fact, have thrived in Kroger-controlled territory for years. Ahold couldn’t bungle the Tops brand any more if it tried to, and it’s a very a sad chapter in the life of the once proudly Buffalo-based retailer. However, I believe there is hope. My advice to Ahold: dump Carlyle. Get Tops BACK to Buffalo. Invest in cleaning up the stores, retraining associates, and offering customers a true reason (other than coupons and rebates) to shop at Tops. After Ahold divested the Thai Tops chain, the retailer took off. It rebranded its lackluster “Bonus Card” into the clever SPOT club (get it, S-P-O-T is T-O-P-S backward), pioneered “Club Mom” and the store-within-a-store drug store concept. All have been tremendous successes and dial in to the aspirant Thai market. Similar moves could be made in North American stores to emphasize service over price. In 2006 select Tops stores started to heavily discount gasoline as part of a Bonus Card premium. Even in a price conscious market like Buffalo, at a time when gas is more expensive than it has ever been, the program has gone over like a lead balloon. That’s a cue for Ahold that it’s time to start thinking differently, and out of the box it has put itself in to.