Pamela Riemenschneider, Retail Editor
Pamela Riemenschneider, Retail Editor

I received a lot of nominations for our Retailer of the Year this summer.

Over the past few years, we’ve gone back and forth from an individual award to an organizational award, like last year’s recognition of the Defense Commissary Agency.

This year we chose an individual, Steve Wright, director of produce and floral at Tops Friendly Markets.

Steve received an overwhelming number of nominations, but I have to admit Tops wasn’t really on my radar until I took a second look at what’s been happening at the Buffalo, N.Y.-based retailer over the past few years.

I even visited the Grand Island, N.Y., location where we met for the photo shoot during a store check trip last summer.

While I considered it an OK example of a neighborhood supermarket, I wasn’t really impressed.

What contributes to a Retailer of the Year?This time around, with a few new fixtures, custom signs and lighting improvements, the location’s produce department really had a chance to shine.

I also realize Tops has been on some unsavory lists over the past few years, including the dubious honor of being one of the “12 Worst Supermarkets in America.” This list comes out annually, published by The Fiscal Times.

Tops has quietly been making improvements, innovating in new outlets like social media, and developing successful promotions with engaged vendor partners.

They even have a new produce-focused format, Orchard Fresh, which opened its first new store this year in a Buffalo suburb, and is scheduled to expand over the next few years.

There’s something to be said for a retailer that sees its flaws and brings someone in to really shake things up as Steve has done.

They’re about 30 stores in to a produce overhaul, including at Tops’ recent acquisitions, Penn Traffic and Grand Union. Sales are up. Volume is up. Good things are happening at Tops.

And Tops has to wear many hats in the markets where it operates. As I drove around the Buffalo area after our meeting, I saw Tops stores across the street from Wegmans, Aldi, Wal-Mart and even a few farm stands.

To be able to stand proud against competition that ranges from high end to low income, and to steadily grow sales and volume, is an accomplishment.

Steve is aggressive about selling more produce, and aren’t afraid to take risks.

Hearing the applause from those gathered at the store as he walked over to the cafe area when I was leaving reinforced that this was an award not only for him, but for the entire Tops produce staff.

Take a look at Tops, and what they’ve accomplished over the past few years of pretty dramatic growth and change, and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Check out the October issue of Produce Retailer and the Packer 25 Profiles in Produce to learn more about Steve Wright, our 2013 Retailer of the Year.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.