Retailers

1-on-1 With Tops Markets CEO Frank Curci

WGB's Endcap guest on the role of hometown grocers in a changing world
Frank Curci
Illustration by Olivier Balez

Frank Curci is chairman and CEO of Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Markets, which operates 158 full-service supermarkets in New York, northern Pennsylvania and western Vermont.

Meg Major: As Buffalo, N.Y.’s longtime hometown grocer, Tops has long been a promotional retailer. But I understand that your teams have been working to streamline and enhance this strategy. How’s that going?

Frank Curci: We continue to integrate promotions into our sales strategy because shoppers continue to respond to them. This is also one of the ways that we differentiate ourselves. What we are getting better at, though, is understanding and blending this hybrid strategy of everyday value and sophisticated promotion. We are also building our knowledge of which products and categories drive shopper traffic into our stores, which ones build baskets and which ones most positively impact the shopper experience.

Tops competes in a low-growth population market against some of the most formidable forces in food retailing, namely Wegmans, Walmart and Aldi. Is it safe to call Tops the underdog?

We do not consider ourselves to be underdogs by any measure. Tops has been operating in our upstate New York markets since 1962, and we strive to be the best neighborhood grocer we can be. We may not have the financial resources that our major competitors have, but we have a better understanding of our customers and differentiate our offerings in a way that serves the variety of communities we operate in. We thrive by being different than the big-box stores and offering solutions that are relevant by store.

Tops does a great job of empowering associates and celebrating their successes—far better than many of your industry peers. What galvanized this philosophy?

Our dedicated associates are the key to our success and our greatest asset. I also consider our store managers to be the CEOs of their individual businesses. Customers who shop our stores judge us by the interactions they have at the store level, and we can only be successful through their efforts. The objective of those of us in support roles is to enable our stores to solve customers’ problems immediately, and our associates know that we will support them in their efforts to create a seamless shopping environment. With 158 stores, it is important to celebrate the successes of our associates as a way to encourage this behavior.

In addition to your CEO duties, you are also board chairman of Kaleida, the Buffalo region’s largest healthcare system. Is the job of changing hats tricky when navigating the two roles?

Not tricky at all. My primary focus will always be on Tops and our organization. Kaleida is a not-for-profit hospital group that is the largest in western New York. The board is entirely made up of volunteers, and I believe it is important for me to be involved in our communities. While Tops and Kaleida are in completely different businesses, it has been amazing to me how similar our business imperatives are. I feel like I have learned much by my involvement in Kaleida, and it has made me a better leader.

As Tops’ digital offerings evolve, has there been any “big reveals” that have caught your eye?

It’s very easy to get distracted by evolving technology and how rapidly it’s impacting the way we communicate and serve our shoppers. However, the core of our business continues to be the same. It’s still about being good neighbors and by giving our customers what they want. It’s about saving them time and saving them money. We understand that our customers are always changing, though. The new and developing digital technologies provide for immediacy, new ways to bring our offerings to life, and better ways to get and use their feedback to keep up with their needs and to improve their overall experience. However, what’s most important—and many times the most difficult—is staying focused, compiling and understanding the immense amount of data, and maintaining cohesiveness across all these channels both online and off.

Lightning Round 

Sabres or Bills?

Definitely Bills. I’m a big football fan and this is Bills country.

What is your ideal chicken wing heat level? Mild, medium, hot, inferno or other?

Very hot, and it has to be made with the traditional Buffalo hot sauce.

What is your favorite city in the world?

Florence, Italy. I am a big fan of the Renaissance period and its art and culture. No better place in the world to explore it.

Name one person you admire and tell us in one sentence why.

My dad, who worked two jobs his whole life so that his family could be successful.

Do you play a musical instrument? If yes, which one. If not, which would you most like to play?

I have never played an instrument, but would love to learn the piano.

Do you believe in fate?

No, our world is what we make it, and it is our responsibility to improve it.

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