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Grocery shopping in Western New York will offer greater values, better selection and more convenience in the year ahead as food retailers increase efforts to win customers.

Top Markets Inc., the Buffalo market's No. 1 source of groceries and general merchandise, leads the pack with major new initiatives to attract new shoppers and deepen relationships with its existing customer base.

"We look forward to introducing new products and services that match the busy lifestyles of the families who shop our stores," said Tops spokeswoman Stephanie Zakowicz. "This is going to be a very exciting year for us."

Front and center in its efforts is the Tops BonusCard program, which starts today at Tops Friendly Markets supermarkets.

The new frequent shopper program promises to reward customer loyalty with a variety of money-saving perks. Chief among the incentives of making Tops the prime food source for shoppers is a 5 percent savings on the next cartful of groceries each time a customer rings up $250 in purchases.

Tops customers have been lining up at the company's supermarkets the past two weeks to get their plastic BonusCards and bar-coded key fobs. And as of today, they can begin using the new savings tools.

Supermarket industry consultant Burt Flickinger III said those shiny white cards with the red apple on them are extremely powerful marketing weapons.

"They are the latest weapon in Tops' assault on the competition," Flickinger said. "With those little cards, Tops is announcing that it will take no prisoners in its battle plan to remain No. 1 and get even stronger."

Tops is the second area supermarket chain to join the growing ranks of food retailers nationwide that use loyalty card programs to boost sales volume. Wegmans Markets started a frequent-shopper program in 1991 in the Buffalo market.

The BonusCard program is being teamed with a new look for Tops. There's a new ad campaign, updated uniforms for store employees, the introduction of in-store child care and Blockbuster Video rentals, the new private-label food line "Sensations," and a chainwide effort to put ready-to-eat and easy-to-fix foods in more convenient locations.

Tops will also launch new programs linking its offerings with healthy lifestyle goals.

"You'll be seeing one of the country's best food retailers getting even better," Flickinger said. "This can only be good for consumers."

Tops also hopes to settle construction issues that stand in the way of replacement stores in East Aurora and along Niagara Street in Buffalo, while building stores in Depew and Alden.

Plans for a new Thruway Plaza supermarket, and possibly a market on Buffalo's East Side are also expected to be finalized for a 2000 debut. At least two area Tops will see remodeling.

Tops Markets will also complete the sale of its Vix Deep Discount stores to Ohio-based Drug Emporium and the area will see construction of four new Wilson Farms convenience stores.

For Rochester-based Wegmans Markets, the No. 2 food retailer in Western New York, 1999 will bring the debut of its first store in Niagara County.

"Any time you move into a new market, it's an exciting experience. But to move in where residents are already familiar with you, makes it all the more fun," said Wegmans spokeswoman Ann McCarthy.

Wegmans has been drawing Niagara County residents to its Erie County stores for years, according to Mrs. McCarthy, and those shopping trips have led to thousands of requests for a Wegmans in their own back yard.

They will get their wish Feb. 14 when the new store opens at 1575 Military Road in the Town of Niagara. And while Wegmans expects to attract more than a few Canadian customers, the retailer is well aware that the weak Canadian dollar will keep others at home.

"Times have changed in terms of the cross-border shopping climate. We know we'll get international traffic, but we're not planning to build a business around it," she said.

With a new state-of-the-art store on Alberta Drive in Amherst and its first City of Buffalo store now a year old, Wegmans plans to spend the next 12 months fine-tuning its Western New York operations.

"We're always looking for ways to make life easier for our customers. They see that every day through our ready-to-make and ready-to-take foods and all the other things we do to deliver convenience and quality," Mrs. McCarthy added.

Wegmans will also continue to employ its new spokesman, Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie, to deliver its message. The personable Flutie, who made his Wegmans debut in holiday spots for the grocer, will be back in the studio during the off-season recording a variety of new ads for the chain.

Meanwhile, more than a few of today's Super Bowl parties will be flush with Wegmans fare, thanks to Flutie's ads touting the retailer's selection of football-watching foods.

For the Jubilee Foods chain, today marks the completion of an ambitious three-year effort to expand and upgrade its Buffalo-area supermarkets. A ribbon-cutting is set today on a $1 million renovation of the Jubilee store at 3870 Harlem Road in Cheektowaga.

"We've now completed our cycle of remodels in metro Buffalo, which has been very well received," said John MacIntyre, president of Fleming Companies Inc.'s New York Retail Group, parent company of the Jubilee chain.

According to MacIntyre, Jubilee is pleased with its niche as the No. 3 food chain in the Buffalo area.

"We have no aspirations to be first or second. We're finding success as an alternative to the big, inconvenient Tops and Wegmans supermarkets," he said. "Like our ads say, we offer 'fresh food, friendly folks and we're close to home.' A lot of people really prefer our approach."

While Tops, Wegmans and Jubilee all start 1999 on a positive note, Quality Markets, the area's No. 4 chain, has seen its sales erode over the past few years and has a darkening financial cloud hanging over it.

Quality's parent, Syracuse-based Penn Traffic, recently announced a debt restructuring strategy that is viewed as a last-ditch effort to avoid bankruptcy.

The food company, which posted a $41 million loss in its third quarter and sagging same-store sales at all its retail chains, will convert a substantial portion of its hefty debt load to stock. The move would reduce Penn Traffic's interest expenses and free up more money to fund its struggling grocery and wholesaling operations.

Earlier this month, the company announced the closure of its East Aurora Quality Market, the sixth local supermarket it has closed in the past few years. Rumors abound that more of its underperforming stores will close in coming months.

Supermarket consultant Flickinger said he doubts the Quality chain will survive in its current form through 1999.

"I expect to see (Penn Traffic Chairman) Gary Hirsch sell off everything he can to focus his efforts on his Big Bear and P & C chains. In a sale scenario, I think Fleming will buy up Quality and solidify its position in Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania."

Penn Traffic's decision brings the company's store count in Erie County down to nine.

As the four large supermarket chains plot their strategies for 1999, newcomers Save-A-Lot and Aldi Foods, both limited-assortment food retailers, continue to open stores in Western New York. Save-A-Lot staked out new territory in Buffalo's Broadway Market in 1998, while Aldi opened a new deep discount market at 4259 Transit Road in Williamsville.

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