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MARTIN'S PRICING STRATEGY IS LIKE WEGMANS'
NEW STORE PUSHES 'EVERYDAY LOW PRICES' AND WEEKLY SALES

A former Tops International supermarket in Amherst will reopen at 8 a.m. Friday with a new name and a new pricing structure.

Martin's Super Food Store, as the store is now called, is completing a 13-week overhaul. The pricing has also adopted an "everyday low price" format, in addition to offering pricing promotions Tops customers are accustomed to.

The store's identity has changed, but it remains part of the Ahold corporate family, which includes the Tops chain. Tops operates as a division of Giant of Carlisle, Pa., and Giant operates some stores as Martin's, mostly in other states.

The Tops-to-Martin's switch at Maple Road and North Bailey Avenue in Amherst mirrors a change that happened last year with a store in Perinton, near Rochester -- the only other Martin's in New York state. Ahold executives have been pleased with the results and hope to duplicate them at Maple-Bailey, said Max Henderson, Tops' executive vice president and general manager.

"We wanted to test how that opportunity might work in Western New York," Henderson said.

In addition to "every day low pricing," Martin's continues to offer promotions such as "buy one, get one free" offers, Bonus Buy savings, double coupons and weekly sales. Some items also come with "pre-price" discounts, as found at Martin's stores.

Experts say Martin's new pricing program positions the store to compete with rivals like Wegmans and Wal-Mart, which also use that format. Wegmans has a store across Maple Road.

Operating a store under a different banner allows Ahold to try some things that are unlike the Tops stores in the region, Henderson said.

But it also means dropping Tops' name from the chain's largest store, in a high-traffic area near the Boulevard Mall, and in a region where the Tops brand was born and the chain is the market-share leader.

"There's going to be a little bit of risk associated with it," Henderson said. But based on the results in Perinton, he said, company officials are confident about the brand's prospects for acceptance.

Tops last January said the Maple-Bailey store would reopen as "Super Tops," but later announced it would be Martin's instead.

The debut of a single Martin's in the middle of Tops' home territory has led to speculation about whether additional Tops stores will become Martin's. Henderson said no such decisions have been made about any other Tops locations in the region.

Though Martin's is new to Buffalo Niagara shoppers, Wegmans is familiar with the format from the location in Perinton, said Ann McCarthy, a Wegmans spokeswoman.

Asked about the new, "everyday low price" competitor across Maple Road, McCarthy said: "We've always felt what we offer customers is unique, and that pricing is one piece of what we offer."

Tops International opened at the Maple-Bailey location 14 years ago. As Martin's, the store will carry the same offerings, including international foods, but in expanded fashion in many cases, Henderson said.

"We had a lot of things that were working here before," he said. "We made sure we protected those and added to it."

The Maple-Bailey store's employment has doubled, to 400 people. Key Bank's branch is back, the store's cooking school will reopen April 21, and the kosher deli has also returned.

Martin's uses its own Bonus Card, and 5,000 customers have already signed up for it, Henderson said. About 20 people will be at the store Friday to sign up customers for the cards.

The interior colors are warmer than in a typical Tops store. Many aisles are laid out in a "store-within-a-store" format, with distinctive decor. An entertainment center, not found in Tops or Giant stores, will sell DVDs and CDs and develop photos.

At a media preview on Wednesday, Martin's representatives donated a total of $10,000 to 10 Amherst community organizations.

Meanwhile, Tops' Batavia store is about to get a makeover. That location opened in 1988 and was remodeled in 1994, said Stefanie Zakowicz, a Tops spokeswoman.

The Batavia store will remain open for business while the work is under way. The project is set to start next week; when finished, the store will contain many of the new features of the new Tops "prototype," and will increase in size by 2,000 square feet, to 80,000 square feet, Zakowicz said.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com