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Feature Story
 
Upscale
   
  by design
 
by Cynthia  L. McGowan



Only the best will do for Rice Epicurean Markets’ floral customers.

Rice Epicurean Markets, established in 1937, is the oldest family-owned supermarket chain in Houston. But there is nothing old-fashioned about this five-store company, which has continuously adapted to the changing marketplace and found a niche as an upscale grocery chain that has an excellent floral operation and even has its own custom event business.

The company began as Rice Boulevard Food Market, but in 1988 changed its name and focus in order to compete with the larger national chains. In an interview earlier this year, Rice Epicurean’s vice president of specialty food and wine, Scott Silverman, told the Houston Chronicle, “Our niche is an upscale, specialty and gourmet grocery store with personalized service and unique products.”

The stores are a Houston institution, and even President Bush is familiar with them. At a campaign stop in Houston in March 2004, he drew a laugh when he told members of the audience that they’d likely see his mother, Barbara Bush, “over there at the Rice Epicurean.”

SPECIALTY DEPARTMENTS
A visit last summer to the Tanglewood store in Houston’s Tony Galleria area revealed a supermarket that would delight foodies and flower lovers alike. The newly remodeled store is designed in a sleek black-and-white décor with wide, uncluttered aisles. Near the spacious entryway, a sit-down cafe with a vase of flowers on each table invites shoppers to take a break and relax with a full-course meal or a snack.

The store’s specialty departments include a “haute grill” and gourmet deli, where the chefs can prepare “Haute to Go” meals; a cheese department with more than 250 varieties; See’s Candies, available exclusively in Houston at Rice Epicurean; an olive bar with nearly two dozen types of olives or olive combinations; an extensive selection of wine and beer; a meat department—featuring signage that says “meat cutters on duty”—that offers dry-aged prime beef; and a bakery with its own pastry chef.

The floral department, in the rear of the store, greets shoppers with an irresistible array of flowers and plants in an elegant, understated setting. Products are merchandised on glass or cloth-covered tables or sleek, black merchandisers. A walk-in cooler has signage inviting customers to come in and peruse the stylish arrangements and fresh, colorful stems.

Mark Luchak, vice president of produce and floral operations, says three of the five Rice Epicurean floral departments are in the front of the stores. “The stores that have them in back would like them in the front, but in this case, it’s in the back, and it’s one of our top-volume stores,” he says.

IN WITH THE NEW
Rice Epicurean strives to offer new flowers when they come on the market and keep on top of new trends for its consumers, whom Mark Miller, director of the custom business, Epicurean Custom Floral by Mark Miller (ECF), calls “very educated about flowers.”

The chain offers a selection of blooms that will satisfy customers looking for home décor items, gifts or products “just to cheer themselves up,” says Panna Bhatia, floral manager at the Tanglewood store.

Weekly repeat customers are the norm, and some buy two to three times a week, says Mr. Miller, who declined to give sales figures for the floral operation. Many shoppers enjoy choosing from buckets of fresh flowers to make their own bouquets, and others ask the floral employees to do so. Customers often bring their own vases and ask floral employees to design arrangements in them.

Flowers available during last summer’s visit included roses from Ecuador, at $2.99 a stem or $69.99 for a dozen; gorgeous, locally grown sunflowers at $2.99 a stem; Gerberas for $1.99 a stem; birds-of-paradise at $3.99 a stem; Oriental lilies at $7.99 a stem; and cut orchids, from $2.50 to $4 a stem.

Orchid plants, ranging from $25 to $30, are a signature item for the store. The best sellers are Phalaenopses. Also popular are bromeliads, displayed in an array of bright colors; African violets; Kalanchoes; and ivies.

The chain’s floral products come from a mixture of local, national and international growers as well as wholesalers, and deliveries are made two to three times a week. Customers especially are fond of products that are homegrown. Mr. Luchak says a local produce grower recently offered to grow specialty flowers for the chain, and the result was a “Summertime Bouquet,” full of yellow, pink and orange Zinnias with accents of foliage including Eucalyptus. Customers loved the $12.99 bouquets.

Mr. Miller acknowledges Rice Epicurean’s florals can be priced higher than other grocery stores’, but he says the chain’s shoppers are willing to pay more for a high-quality product. “They understand that there are different levels of quality when it comes to flowers,” he says. “They do see the difference.”

KNOWING THE CUSTOMERS
In addition to expecting high-quality floral products, Rice customers are accustomed to a high level of service. “You’ll find people in the departments literally going up and down the aisles and seeing if customers need assistance,” Mr. Miller says. “It’s just a totally different approach from being left alone to shop.”

The company also takes a high-tech approach to customer service, using the information collected through its “E-Points” loyalty program, which rewards shoppers for purchases. As a result, the chain has increased the number of shoppers in its highest-spending threshold.

Phil Cohen, vice president of marketing, told Executive Technology magazine in August 2003, “We always knew who our customers were—you know, ‘How ya doing?’—but we know them now by first name, last name, and we can call them by name. Not only does every layer of our management team know them, our department heads know our very best customers by name.”

The customer service extends to the floral departments, where Ms. Bhatia says all floral employees are trained to acknowledge customers when they walk in and ask if they need help. Each store has an average of four floral employees, who have a range of floral experience, from learning their craft at the store level to coming to the chain as experienced designers.

The designers work with shoppers to create the right arrangements for their tastes, from contemporary to traditional. “I don’t entrust any of my likes or dislikes on the client,” Ms. Bhatia says. “I would rather let them talk to me. I say, ‘What would you like us to do?’ All of us are well trained like that.” All arrangements are made in store; none are purchased from vendors as ready-mades.

THE CUSTOM EVENT SIDE
A natural outgrowth of Rice Epicurean’s position as an upscale company is its custom event subsidiary, Epicurean Custom Floral by Mark Miller (ECF), which is part of the floral operation and has been in business for about 15 years. ECF handles large weddings (smaller ones are done at the store level), galas, large parties and other events.

In addition, ECF provides weekly flower arrangements, funded through an endowment, for The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—a prestigious assignment. It also provides Phalaenopsis orchid plants for the Chanel store at The Galleria as well as flowers for Chanel events.

ECF has a studio at the company’s corporate office. Brides and party hosts meet there to plan their events, for which ECF can provide the flowers, catering and rental items: “We do it all,” Mr. Miller says. He creates the look of the events and designs the flowers, and, he says, “we pull the best” employees from the stores to help.

Helping with events and weddings offers opportunities for the in-store floral employees to grow, he notes. “They get to participate in something that they normally don’t participate in on a daily basis, so it’s very energizing for them,” Mr. Miller says.

ECF offers other benefits for the floral departments. “The exposure is tremendous,” Mr. Miller says, “and the advertisement—you can’t put a price on it.”

ECF is a high-profile example of Rice Epicurean’s continual willingness to adapt and thrive in the competitive supermarket arena. Mr. Miller tells how the floral departments often change their looks to keep customers’ attention. “We try to keep a fresh edge since they come in so often,” he says. “We don’t want anyone to become complacent.” That philosophy could apply to the chain’s outlook as a whole.


You can reach Cynthia L. McGowan at cmcgowan@superfloralretailing.com or by phone at (800) 355-8086.


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