WILSON FARMS TIMELINE *
1960: Tops Markets is co-founded by Savino Nanula and Armand Castellani.
1969: Tops Markets opens the first Wilson Farms Neighborhood Food store in Tonawanda, N.Y., naming the store after a company-owned farm in Wilson, N.Y.
1978: Wilson Farms expands in N.Y. to Rochester and later to Syracuse.
1980s: Tops Markets is purchased by private investors; Wilson Farms falls under the umbrella of private investors.
1982: Wilson Farms’ store count grows to 39 in N.Y. statewide.
1986: Wilson Farms opens its 60th store in N.Y.
1991: Tops Markets and its holdings, including Wilson Farms stores, is acquired by Ahold USA, a U.S. subsidiary of Dutch-based Ahold.
1997: Wilson Farms celebrates its 100th store opening in New York.
2000: Wilson Farms (Ahold USA) acquires the Sugarcreek convenience store chain, which operates 87 sites throughout New York.
2005: The Nanula family, whose members include former Tops executives, purchases the Wilson Farms and Sugarcreek chains from Ahold.
2008: In addition to ambitious rebranding and remodeling programs, the Nanula family begins rebranding the Sugarcreek stores to the Wilson Farms brand.
In a landfill somewhere in western New York, that old curmudgeon, status quo, was recently buried away with bits of broken bricks and splintered white shingles.
No ceremony. No eulogy, either. Just a quiet dumping of Wilson Farms’ tired, old store design and everything it carried with it since 1969: roofing, cumbersome merchandising displays, old HVAC components and a hodge-podge of other pieces that made up the company’s collective identity.
The folks at Wilson Farms are bidding the ole’ dog adieu and welcoming his replacement, a homespun sort of guy who mixes classic charm with a contemporary carriage and forward-thinking disposition.
“This design, we feel, is going to stand the test of time,” Wilson Farms CEO Paul Nanula said of the new look pending for many of the 195 Wilson Farms stores throughout New York, 98 of which sell Mobil, Sunoco or unbranded gasoline. “We think (the old design) kind of overstayed its welcome a bit. Our challenge is to go in and rebrand all our stores.”
At face level, customers are seeing Nixon-era shingles peeled away from the edges of mansard roofs and multicolored bricks. The old look is giving way to a solid beige-and-tan exterior. Entryways are now bookmarked by pillars covered in stone veneer, while sleeker crimson-and-white store logos hover above store doorways.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, but it’s more than skin-deep.
The retailer is fine-tuning its internal machinery, using a recently developed prototype store as a template by which to gauge adjustments to the gears and pulleys in every store chainwide.
Retailing and merchandising concepts are also being refined. The company is embracing new technology, focusing on speed to market and revamping foodservice, coffee and other categories—even the coffee condiments themselves—to create an entirely new Wilson Farms concept to serve New York customers.
When Fresh Met Convenience
Wilson Farms opened its first store in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1969 as a means for parent company Tops Markets to offer a smaller-scale food store.
Nanula’s father, Savino Nanula, currently chairman and principal partner at Wilson Farms, helped found the original Tops Markets. “The whole reason for the inception of Wilson Farms into the Tops supermarket chain was for neighborhood food stores,” Paul Nanula said. “It was never titled a ‘convenience store’—not that that’s a bad word. We are convenient and we are a convenience channel, it’s just that we have a more enhanced product mix than most convenience store chains.”
When Tops’ former parent company, Ahold USA, moved to sell its non-core assets in 2003, the Nanulas were the likely buyers for Wilson Farms because of their previous experience at Tops.
It was a two-year bidding process, wrapped up by 2005 in a seamless transition that customers didn’t even notice, Nanula said. They haven’t looked back since—the customers or the Nanulas.
Following the Prototype
Early overhauls to the Wilson Farms chain played out in 2005 and 2006 with upgrades to infrastructure, HVAC and store systems. The current rebranding program began in earnest a year and a half ago, when the chain started designing a store prototype in a suburb of Buffalo.
The Wilson Farms’ stores from the bygone Tops era were about 2,800 to 3,000 square feet; some of the new stores that will be rolling out over the next two years will be up to 4,000 to 4,500 square feet, though the scope for the remodels will vary.
A store in Buffalo is doubling in size, for instance, from 2,500 square feet to 4,600 square feet, while stores in other markets are seeing a $50,000 facelift as stone facades are added to the exterior.
Dozens of smaller Sugarcreek stores, on the other hand, offer a different set of parameters for planners to work within, so a cluster of those will be rebranded to a Wilson Farms Xpress concept.
“We don’t want to have a one-size-fits-all for our consumers, because you have different expectations when you walk into a Wilson Farms because of our enhanced product mix,” Nanula said. “So we’re going to take some of our smaller Sugarcreeks and change them over to Wilson Farms Xpress. It’s either that or expand and remodel them.”
The Wilson Farms’ prototype store will still be pivotal in steering the chain’s three- to five-year rebranding process, regardless of format.
“When you have as many stores as we have, the first thing we needed to do was develop the prototype and get what we wanted to do right,” Nanula said. “We have a new format and a new design and a very good plan in place today.”
The chain’s in-store profit drivers dictated much of the layout and design for the new format, and foodservice was critical on that front. Made-to-order and fresh-made products, fresh fruits and vegetables, hot and cold dispensed beverages and grab-and-go items were all factors.
“Over the years, we’ve outgrown the space that has been allocated not only to coffee but all foodservice,” said Rick Pajak, category manager of foodservice. “It’s one of the key elements when we’re retouching a remodel—looking at how that space will not only fit today’s needs, but tomorrow’s.”
Stores were de-cluttered, signage was removed from windows, and a more expansive area was added to the hot and cold dispensed beverages section.
“People want the opportunity to not feel crowded, not feel rushed,” said Nick Gallegos, vice president of sales and marketing. “We’ve opened up that area and allowed a lot more space within the stores.”
A Fresh Concept
Wilson Farms is taking the fresh-and-healthy concept to a level more readily seen in supermarkets.
The stores offer ingredients-based products, grab-and-go items and grocery fare: cucumbers, lemons, limes, apples, oranges, strawberries and a slew of other fresh fruits and vegetables are standard offerings in open-air cases, while endcaps showcase varieties of onions, fresh fruit, gourmet croutons, four-pack tomatoes and more.
Chopped garlic, canned red grapefruit, cheeses, olives and just about anything for home cooking is offered in sensible product layouts and floor designs.
“It has to be intuitive from the customer’s perspective” Gallegos said. “We know customers don’t spend but five minutes in our stores. We don’t want to extend that if that’s all they want to stay. We want to make their shopping experience as pleasant and efficient as we can.”
In some cases, items are priced slightly higher than similar products at other retail channels in Wilson Farms’ market, but not always. “We price very close to supermarket pricing,” Nanula said. “We still get a little convenience premium, but it’s very close and very competitive with the supermarkets.”
Sometimes, they flat out beat the supermarkets. At a Tops store in Buffalo last month, bagged lettuce was selling at two for $5; at a Wilson Farms’ store in the same market area, it was selling at two for $3.
“You have to stay competitive,” Gallegos said. “Otherwise you become irrelevant. There’s only so much you can sell a gallon of milk for.”
Keeping perishables fresh is done foremost by keeping suppliers in the game, Pajak said. “Speed to market is key in most of our distributor decisions. From our corporate office, we can virtually get to any one of our three distributors within 10 minutes.”
These fresh foods continue to be a mainstay of Wilson Farms’ in-store offerings, but they’re also enhanced with a new made-to-order sub shop and ready-made subs and sandwiches, all sold under Wilson Farms’ Fresh N Ready food brand.
The chain’s new proprietary foodservice products are gaining prominence, on par with much of the industry. The Fresh N Ready concept is applied to segments ready-made and made-to-order items, breakfast sandwiches and more, while the Wil’s and Hy-Top brand, a carryover from Tops Markets, are used on many packaged grocery, dairy and frozen items.
National brands and “fighter brands” like Malt-O-Meal are still staples to the prepackaged sections.
Self-serve kiosks for the made-to-order Fresh N Ready line have also been installed at Wilson Farms’ prototype store, and the concept is planned for rollout in future remodels.
A Culture of Growth
Marketing isn’t just about products, it’s about the people who sell them.
As a storied part of dozens of New York communities, Wilson Farms is a regular contributor to New York and Buffalo-area charities. The retailer consistently encourages staff to participate in these fundraisers and community events.
“We are a neighborhood food store concept,” Nanula said. “We really do give our consumers an outlet to contribute.”
The chain focuses much of its efforts on needs-based programs by organizations fighting hunger, homelessness and disease. “We’re not into helping art museums and such,” Gallegos said. “We’re more into addressing the needs of the community, like hospice, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Food Bank of Western New York, Meals on Wheels and The Salvation Army. It’s really trying to help some of the neediest people in the community in ways that we feel we can make a big difference.”
Nanula said the chain is selective about where it focuses its efforts. “If we’re going to put our name on something and get behind it, we’re going to make a difference.”
That grassroots mentality spills into day-to-day business practice, too, as the retailer hires not only store employees from the local community but executive personnel as well. “I’d have to say 100% of our new hires have been (from) within our geographic working area,” Nanula said, adding that an equally qualified local candidate will win out over a transplant. “The best candidate is always going to get the job, no questions asked. (But) we have some very talented people here in western New York.”
The company’s corporate consciousness places it a step above laggards in the industry in the energy conservation arena. Energy-saving measures like LED lighting, reusable bags and more efficient equipment are being added to stores. “We’re not just trying to paint or refurbish existing equipment,” Gallegos said. “If it’s not energy-efficient, we’re replacing it.”
Routes for suppliers have been optimized not just to cut down on delivery costs, but also to lessen the company’s carbon footprint. Coffee cup sleeves made from recycled materials will be added to the repertoire as well.
“We’re working in our small ways, diligently, to help in that area,” Nanula said. “We’re not 100% there yet.”