Retailers

One-on-One With Tops' John Persons

President talks chain's $80 million investment in its stores
John Persons
Illustration by Olivier Balez

John Persons is president of Tops Friendly Markets, a Williamsville, N.Y.-based supermarket chain with 157 company-owned stores and five franchise locations in New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania.

Jennifer Strailey: Tops has recently completed a number of renovations as part of the company’s continued $40 million dollar capital improvement plan. What’s the goal of the plan? Will Tops be more competitive in its markets upon the plan’s completion?

John Persons: Over the past three years, Tops has invested nearly $80 million into our stores with a focus on what we believe is our best remodel format yet. Elements include designing a significantly warmer shopping environment, but we also took great care to emphasize the key product categories and departments that are important to consumers right now. In general, we have added space and shopping simplicity to our fresh departments throughout the store. Important center store categories such as natural and organic foods also gained space, variety and focus. 

Additionally, we added important technology updates that will improve the interaction and experience of our customers including our Shop + Scan application, which allows shoppers to use their smartphone to scan their order as they are moving through the store. Payment is quick and easy and helps them to avoid traditional registers if they desire.      

The positive consumer reaction to the recently remodeled stores gives us confidence that we have found the right format, and we do believe that we are providing a great shopping option for the markets that we serve. We are continuing the remodel program through 2021 and have no intention of slowing down in the future. 

I understand that you started as a “cart wrangler” at Tops some 30 years ago. How would you define your journey from wrangler to president? Where do you see yourself going in the company next? 

Tops has been through a number of evolutions during my 37 years here. We’ve been a family-run company, part of a large public multinational, management-owned, as well as privately-owned by financial investors.

Through all those iterations, my focus has always been to successfully serve our customers and the thousands of great associates who make our company possible. No matter what my role is in the future, I will continue to keep those two important groups as my top priorities. 

What’s the biggest challenge of being the president of a grocery chain today, and what’s the biggest reward? 

I’ll start by saying that the biggest reward—hands down—is the immense sense of pride we have in the team at Tops. Our store teams and headquarter support staff work remarkably well together, and we have a very close-knit dynamic that has manifested itself in long-term tenure of people and a great track record of results. We couldn’t ask for a better group of people to operate the organization.

The biggest challenge isn’t so much one particular thing, but rather, the overall task of keeping up in this remarkably fast-paced food retail environment. Certainly, the constant competitive pressures are a key element of that, but when you consider the increasing regulatory burdens and rapidly rising costs across the enterprise, it takes a concentrated and well-thought-out strategy to compensate. Luckily, I believe that we have the right team to meet the current challenges.

Online grocery ordering and delivery accelerated for most all grocers during the pandemic. Is Tops where you want it to be with digital? Where do you see it going in the next year and beyond? 

E-commerce is critically important to the future of Tops—both in terms of online shopping and digital engagement. One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic relative to food retail is the significant increase in online shopping activity. Early on, we realized a 600% increase in our e-commerce sales—similar to other traditional food retailers. Trends have now leveled off and we have basically catapulted ahead two to three years in our original expected timeline. In order to keep this trend continuing, we have put a great deal of effort in building up our fulfillment capabilities in-store as well as improving our engagement mechanisms. 

We recently introduced our Tops Media Network, which enables us to work with our manufacturer partners to target our shoppers on the digital platforms they use. Very soon, we will be unveiling our new e-commerce website, which will make it significantly easier for customers to build and buy their shopping baskets online.     

What do you feel in your gut is the key to Tops’ success?

Three things come to mind when I think about what makes us Tops:

1. Being the “Local Grocery Store” keeps us engaged with what our shoppers want and how we can successfully operate in a very competitive marketplace.

2. Great partnerships with our suppliers and vendors allow us to offer the best variety and services to our customers. We expend great effort to work collaboratively with our partners with an understanding that both parties need to grow. This has been our approach for years, and I feel that this certainly helped during the pandemic when many of our partners stepped up to help us.

3. Most importantly, the care that our organization takes in fostering people for growth and service in their careers is a defining characteristic at Tops. The positive impact of this effort is not only seen in our financial results, but also in the culture of the company.

Lightning Round

What are a few words of advice you’d give your cart-wrangling self about setting a course for advancement at Tops? 

Be kind, be flexible and be noticed.

One thing personally or professionally you plan to do differently post-COVID? 

Personally, I will continue stockpiling in my pantry for a long time to come!

Professionally, I would think most leaders will give more time to business continuity planning in the future and specifically, how to build in flexibility to the rigid processes that have governed us for so long. The pandemic has forced some productive changes in our industry, and we have to guard against going backward.

Best way to spend a day off? 

Day off? What’s that? Kidding aside, I love spending a relaxing day outside with my family and our energetic and crazy puppy.

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