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Tops Markets to shut down Orchard Fresh in Orchard Park

Tops Markets is closing its Orchard Fresh store in Orchard Park, ending the supermarket chain's seven-year experiment to push into the higher-end grocery market and cash in on the growing popularity of organic food.

Tops said Tuesday it would shut down the store, which opened in 2013 with hopes that it would turn into a concept that the grocery store chain then could roll out across the Buffalo Niagara region and its other markets.

"The decision was not made lightly and is in no way a reflection of the performance or dedication of our associates at this location," Tops said in a statement. "Since opening the concept store in 2013, a number of initiatives and programs have been developed and tested there that are now being incorporated into our recent and future Tops store remodels."

Tops said it expects the store to close by April 4. All of the store's roughly 100 workers will be offered jobs at other Tops supermarkets, the company said. Catering, cake and entertaining operations through the store will continue until all orders are filled.

The idea was to come up with a store concept that would appeal to the same type of shoppers who were flocking to Whole Foods in other markets and buying natural and organic foods at Tops and its local competitors, including Wegmans.

But the concept never caught on as Tops executives had hoped. Tops itself has made a big push to add many more organic and natural products at its own supermarkets. Other supermarkets did the same, making organic products more readily available at neighborhood stores. At the same time, Tops struggled to find its niche. Tops executives tinkered with its product offerings to find the right mix for local consumers.

Plans to roll out the Orchard Fresh concept at other locations never came to pass, even as Whole Foods opened its first area store in Amherst. Tops executives had planned to open a second location in the Northtowns, but scaled back those expansion prospects after the grocery chain entered bankruptcy reorganization.

Supermarket analysts said Orchard Fresh was a cash drain on Tops, not only because of its struggles to find its niche in the market, but also because it was the lone store operating under the brand concept, never allowing the chain to develop economies of scale.

"It might have been a success if Tops had the capital to open five or 10 more," said Burt Flickinger III, the Buffalo native who is the managing director at retail consultant Strategic Resource Group in New York City.

Flickinger said the decision to close Orchard Fresh was a good one that will free up resources to allow Tops to invest in its network of more than 150 supermarkets. Tops has been investing in its stores again, announcing $40 million in upgrades last year after spending nothing on improvements in 2018 and $24 million in 2017 as its finances pushed the chain into bankruptcy.

"It's a real smart strategic move and a real credit to the company's leadership to close it," Flickinger said.

"Tops, to its credit, gave Orchard Fresh seven good years," he said. "It gives Tops the opportunity to recommit capital from a significant, but money-losing store."

What lies ahead for Tops' Orchard Fresh concept?

With organic offerings now more widely available, it steadily became more challenging to develop a store that focused on higher-end and organic products.

Located on North Buffalo Street in Orchard Park in a retail plaza that is down a small hill from the road and lacked other big retailers to attract customers, Orchard Fresh relied on consumers who were willing to make a special trip to shop there.

"Orchard Fresh was a special destination store, but more and more of those consumer needs were available at other stores," Flickinger said.

"It didn't have a strong destination or anchor retailers," he said. "It was easier for someone to go to a retail power center with a Tops in it than it was Orchard Fresh."

Tops isn't alone in backing away from stores that focused on fresh and organic products. Tops' former owner, Ahold, has closed some of its Bfresh stores, smaller neighborhood locations that targeted millennials with a product mix that included bulk grains and a heavy focus on natural and organic products. Lucky's Market, a Kroger-backed niche grocery chain that markets itself as "organic for the 99%," filed for bankruptcy protection in January.

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