Tops Working to Improve Services: Esther Smothers Joins Store’s Crew

By Nanette D. Massey

Retired legislator Betty Jean Grant started with a Facebook post in late January regarding less than ideal conditions at the 1275 Jefferson Ave. Tops supermarket. What came of that was a meeting between Tops executives and area residents on February 7th. March 21st, Tops met again with residents at a forum hosted by Grant and the group We Are Women Warriors at the Jefferson Street Merriweather library.

The Tops panel incorporated feedback they’d gotten with research of their own and came prepared to present a plan of action for satisfying customer concerns. Masten District Councilman Ulysees Wingo Sr. opened recounting the historically supportive and accommodating relationship cultivated over time with Tops and the East Side community, despite the fact that the Jefferson store operates at a loss for the franchise. This particular location is plagued by an unusually high rate of “retail shrinkage” (shoplifting) at a time when- Tops as a whole has recently filed for bankruptcy and debt restructuring.

Cheryl Colbert, Director of Customer Experience, discussed two employee events that served the purpose of solidifying employees as a team, introducing new and existing incentive and reward opportunities, and impressing “the ripple impact of wanting to come to work on other employees and the community.” The store will be using a new sales tracking software that will help forecast more accurately for staffing at peak hours, days, and times of the month. Store manager David Christopher reported that many problem employees have been identified and removed, some twenty new employees have been hired, and reiterated his intent to instill “a new sense of urgency and accountability.” David has also joined the Jefferson Avenue Business Association. While he’s been with Tops for eighteen years, he’s only been at the helm of this locale since January.

When questioned about his potential longevity, he assured the assembly that he will remain “for as long as you’ll have me.” District Manager Mike Dudziak announced truck visits of perishables has increased from three to five a week, and improved produce sales numbers are already showing. The store has also initiated a provision allowing kids a free piece of fruit during each shopping visit. The store has added more ready to go meals, subs, and pre-sliced meats in order to decrease waiting time at the deli counter, many for as little as $6. They’ll also be letting more consumers know about its partnership with InstaCart. com, an online service for shopping from your computer or phone and having groceries delivered to your home the same day.

Senior shoppers cited difficulty finding convenient parking. In response the store will be reserving additional spots near the door for patrons with disabled parking permits, and security personnel will spend more time patrolling the lot for parking offenders. They’ll also be highlighting the first Tuesdays of the month, where seniors get a 6% discount on their total bill. The big story of the evening was the addition of Esther Smothers to the store’s crew. Esther served for over two years as assistant to Legislator Grant. Before that she was with HSBC Bank servicing exclusively their high end “Premier” clientele.

At the February meeting, she offered to volunteer time training Jefferson employees in the finer points of customer service. Tops executives called the following day and met her initiative with a job offer instead. Esther will be responsible for helping retain new employees by reinforcing better customer service habits, and performing some community outreach duties. Said Ms. Smothers, “I’m from the community. I have a proven record showing a real desire to enhance our community. I’m not just doing my job, I genuinely care.” Ellicott District Councilman Darius Pridgen gave Tops high marks for this move in his March 23rd Facebook post, believing that Esther will be in a unique position to present suggestions to East Buffalo young people that may be perceived with less neutrality coming from someone who doesn’t  necessarily identify with them.