Case Study: Stop & Shop polishes image with Top Banana customers

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How do you thank your best grocery store customers without showering them with coupons?

At New England's Stop & Shop, you make them Top Bananas. The grocery chain is focusing the new Top Banana loyalty program, aimed at its top tier of customers, on better service instead of extra store discounts.

"It doesn't have a lot of hard benefits," said Dierdre Girard, president of PreVision Marketing, Lincoln, Mass., which handles relationship marketing for Stop & Shop. "It is really rewarding the top-spending customers."

The program, which features a cartoon banana in sunglasses and tropical shirt as its mascot, also was designed as a way to get customer feedback and help engage local store employees in a dialogue with shoppers.

Customers are encouraged to get a free cup of coffee every time they visit the store, give cards to employees who are particularly helpful and provide input regarding how specific stores are operated.

The program was piloted at a handful of Stop & Shop stores last year and now is rolling out in the 200-plus Stop & Shop units in New England and New York.

Other divisions of Stop & Shop parent Royal Ahold also have expressed interest in the program. Ahold also owns Giant Foods and Tops, and recently purchased 51% of online grocer Peapod.

In addition to providing store managers with valuable feedback, the program has managed to enhance customers' image of the Stop & Shop brand. A customer survey several months after the first Top Banana mailing found more than 80% remembered getting the piece and more than 70% became active in the program. Almost 80% of Top Bananas said they had a more favorable impression of the Stop & Shop name as a result of the program.

"It's very soft, and it's been an astronomical success," Ms. Girard said. "The recognition for this program -- I've never seen anything like it."

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