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Sobeys Atlantic: A leader in floral innovation

This Canadian company is always on the lookout for new ways to excel.

    by Cynthia L. McGowan

     At Sobeys Atlantic, a division of Canadian grocer Sobeys Inc., constant innovation helps drive the floral operation’s success. Whether in product selection, promotions or vendor partnerships, the floral staff always seek new ways to engage customers and increase sales.
     “The Atlantic team is continuously looking for new opportunities to meet and exceed customer expectations, so innovation is ingrained right in the culture of the organization,” explains Cynthia Thompson, Sobeys Atlantic’s director of communications and corporate affairs.

serving four provinces

     With 377 stores, including convenience locations, Sobeys Atlantic encompasses four provinces in Canada: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s the easternmost division of the 1,344-store Sobeys Inc., one of two nationwide supermarket chains in Canada.
     Sobeys Inc. operates four other divisions—Sobeys Ontario, Sobeys Quebec, Sobeys West and Thrifty Foods, a 26-store banner based in British Columbia that Sobeys purchased in 2007. Each region has its own management team and programs designed to meet the needs of its unique consumer base.
     Four corporatewide values form the cultural foundation of the entire company, relates Alynn Grant, Sobeys Atlantic’s category manager for floral and garden centers. “Those values are proudly serve our community, get it done with passion and integrity, stay real, and always place the customer first,” she shares.

a focus on fresh

     The company also emphasizes its fresh offerings, and floral is important to that message. “Floral is a key part of our strategic focus on fresh,” Ms. Thompson confirms.
     And that commitment to floral is evident at Sobeys Atlantic’s 82-store full-service grocery banner, Sobeys. “It’s an integral part of our offering,” Ms. Thompson describes. “It’s something that customers have appreciated and continue to show us their appreciation for.” Floral also is offered on a seasonal basis in the two other Sobeys Atlantic grocery banners, Price Chopper and Foodland.
     Further demonstrating its commitment to floral, the company is moving the floral departments to the front of its Sobeys stores during remodels and new construction, so customers will be greeted with vibrant fresh flowers and plants when they walk in the doors. The departments, which range from 500 to 900 square feet, are filled with colorful bouquets, lush blooming and foliage plants, and coordinating vases and care supplies.

levels of service

     Ms. Grant describes most of the floral departments in Sobeys Atlantic as self-service although each has a dedicated employee, called a floral merchandiser. “They are responsible for merchandising, following through with ads and promotions, and looking after care and handling,” she explains. They also wrap customers’ fresh purchases to protect them from the cold Canadian winters.
     The company also has seven full-service departments, all located in major cities including Halifax and St. John’s. “Strategically, we’re putting the full-serves in those larger markets to service higher customer demand in those areas,” Ms. Grant explains.
     Each full-service department averages two employees. “They’re full-fledged floral designers,” Ms. Grant emphasizes. “We offer weddings, regular arrangements, funeral work—the full floral offering that you would get in any retail flower shop.”
     Customers can have designs made while they shop, and they also can call ahead for orders. The stores offer delivery, charging a fee that depends on the distance involved.
     In addition, 18 stores offer full-service garden centers featuring greenhouses in the parking lots. The garden centers are open for 11 weeks, starting in late April, and have at least two staffers to assist customers. “We offer everything for your gardening needs,” Ms. Grant describes, including a well-received soil program branded under the Sobeys private label, Compliments.
     Whether the departments are self- or full-service, the associates are skilled in engaging customers, Ms. Thompson relates. “Sobeys really does offer a great customer-service experience,” she shares.

beneficial vendor partnership

     Sobeys Atlantic has several strategies to make sure employees offer that topnotch service and can execute the company’s floral programs at the store level. A key aspect is its partnership with MacArthur’s Quality Flowers & Plants of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, for in-store merchandising and training.
     Heather White, of MacArthur’s, “coaches our employees in the stores and teaches them all about floral,” Ms. Grant describes. She also helps with new department setups and special promotions. Her work complements additional training provided by Sobeys Atlantic’s regional produce and floral specialists.
     To enhance communication, a weekly bulletin goes to all the floral merchandisers advising them on ad items, merchandising plans, best practices, new ideas, care advice and more. The corporate team also has conference calls with the stores before major holidays to ensure the floral merchandisers are prepared.
     The floral merchandisers also have a binder outlining standards and procedures for their departments. “It gets them all the information on care, handling, their equipment, their fixtures—you name it, it’s in that book,” Ms. Grant shares.

putting quality first

     Ms. Grant and Lloyd McLean, category assistant, floral and garden centers, develop the lineup of products for the stores, changing it weekly to keep customers’ interest high. To ensure the right products are reaching customers, they conduct focus groups with the floral merchandisers to get their insights into shopper trends and preferences.
     Ms. Grant orders floral products from MacArthur’s and Woodland Nurseries of St. John’s, Newfoundland, as well as local plant growers. Orders are shipped directly to the stores one to three times a week for maximum freshness.
Sometimes, though, vendors encounter transportation and weather challenges. Prince Edward Island is reachable by an 8-mile-long bridge, and Newfoundland is accessible only by plane or a six-hour ferry. If the weather is bad, ferry rides or airplane deliveries may be canceled or the bridge may be closed, which delays the shipment of floral products. Ms. Grant says vendors, store employees and customers all are accustomed to making adjustments for the weather.
     Despite those challenges, the company prides itself on its flower quality and stands behind its products with a freshness guarantee. Sobeys Atlantic guarantees its roses for five days, mixed bouquets for seven and carnations for 10. “This is something we really promote,” Ms. Grant shares, in advertising and on the bouquet sleeves. If customers have a problem, they will get their money back or product replacements. “We make it right for our customers,” she emphasizes. (To see a customer response to Sobeys Atlantic’s flowers, see “Message from a Satisfied Customer,” Page 40.)

best-selling products

     The top-selling floral item is bouquets, Ms. Grant shares. In the stores where floral has been moved to the front, Sobeys Atlantic showcases the bouquets in what it calls a “flower wall cooler,” (see photo on Page 38.) “It’s an eight-foot cooler, and it’s completely open,” Ms. Grant describes, offering customers easy access to rows of beautiful bouquets.
     A dozen roses, which comes with foliage and baby’s breath and is wrapped in a decorative sleeve, is the best-selling bouquet. It sells for $19.99 in Canadian currency ($21 U.S.D. at the late April rate). Other bouquets range in price from $7.99 to $29.99, Canadian ($8.40 to $31.53 U.S.D.).
     The stores often offer “buy one, get one” (BOGO) promotions for bouquets, Ms. Grant reveals. A five-stem spray carnation bouquet, regularly selling for $7.99, is a favorite BOGO item.
     A “Design Your Own” consumer bunch program features as many as 15 to 20 types of flowers, including Hydrangeas, Lisianthuses, snapdragons, mums, fillers and more. The bunches, which sell for three for $19.00 Canadian ($19.90 U.S.D.), come in sleeves with the “Design Your Own” slogan printed on them.
Prices for plants range from $1.99 to $29.99 Canadian ($2.09 to $31.53 U.S.D.). Poinsettias are the best-selling seasonal plant, Ms. Grant shares, and African violets and Phalaenopsis orchids do well every day. Dish gardens also are popular, selling at prices from $12.99 to $32.99 Canadian ($13.65 to $34.69 U.S.D.).


special promotions

     To build customer excitement and increase sales, the floral operation offers special promotions, often tied to other areas of the store. “We do promote cross-merchandising,” Ms. Grant confirms.
     A recent promotion featured a hot-chocolate theme, in which customers who bought a certain bouquet received a free hot chocolate with marshmallows. In March, the company partnered with Pepsi for various promotions throughout the stores; floral’s part involved offering a free soft drink with the purchase of a floral product (see photo on Page 40). Most recently, the company provided a combination deal for Mother’s Day, offering a meal from deli, an item from bakery and a floral product for a special price.
     The company enlists the help of Ms. White to ensure that all the stores are executing the promotions at the same level. She creates a mock-up of a display in one of the stores and takes photos. “We put the pictures in the bulletin to communicate to the stores that, ‘This is how you should merchandise it, this is the planogram you should use and this is where it should be displayed in the store,’” Ms. Grant reveals. (Learn about how the company promotes Valentine’s Day in “Contest Excitement,” opposite page and below.)

always trying to be better

            Despite its successes in promotions, customer satisfaction and vendor relationships, the floral team is constantly working to achieve even better results. “We’re always trying to find ways that we can be better at what we’re doing,” Ms. Grant confirms. “We’re always trying to find new ways to promote our product, get it into our customers’ homes and increase our customers’ enjoyment of it. That’s our goal.” 

  sobeys inc. / sobeys atlantic  

HEADQUARTERS Stellarton, Nova Scotia, Canada
OWNER Empire Company Limited
SALES $15.2 billion in fiscal 2010 for Sobeys Inc.
(includes Sobeys Atlantic and four other divisions)
STORES 1,344 companywide; 377 in Sobeys Atlantic
(includes drugstores and convenience stores)
GROCERY BANNERS Sobeys, Price Chopper and Foodland in the Sobeys Atlantic region
ESTABLISHED 1907 (Sobeys Inc.)
COMPANY EMPLOYEES 10,000 in Sobeys Atlantic; 85,000 in the entire company
FLORAL EMPLOYEES, SOBEYS ATLANTIC One per self-service floral department; two per full-service department
FLORAL SERVICES, SOBEYS ATLANTIC Self-service and cash-and-carry florals in most stores; full-service florals including custom designs, weddings, sympathy and delivery in seven stores


keys to success


FRESH IMAGE Sobeys Atlantic is moving floral departments to the front of its stores as part of its emphasis on fresh.
PROMOTION The floral operation offers special promotions to increase excitement about its products, often teaming up with other store departments. It also promotes florals in the company’s newspaper and radio advertisements.
EMPLOYEE DEVELOPMENT Sobeys Atlantic and one of its vendor partners team up to provide in-store training for floral associates. The staff also receives weekly bulletins from the corporate team with merchandising and product ideas.


message from a customer


In an email, a customer praised Sobeys Atlantic for its high-quality fresh florals:

     I would like to tell you that you have the most beautiful fresh flowers. I love fresh flowers, and I buy them regularly from your stores. The flowers always last two to three weeks. I do look after them; trimming the ends, changing the water etc.; however, other flowers I have bought at other places do not last as long or look as nice. Thank you for such lovely flowers, and I will continue to let everyone know what beautiful and long-lasting flowers you sell. Once again, thank you for giving me something beautiful that lasts.
     Yours truly,
     One Pleased Customer


contest excitement


    Sobeys Atlantic gets both store employees and customers excited about Valentine’s Day with a merchandising contest. “The engagementthat we get out of the stores is unbelievable,” Alynn Grant, category manager for floral and garden centers, describes.

     The company has had the contest for three years, and with the support of vendors, the prize is a trip to the International Floriculture Expo (in Miami Beach, Fla., this year). The stores also are encouraged to enter their displays in the “Merchandising Award of Excellence” contest, sponsored by Super Floral Retailing and Börgen Systems. The displays are judged on merchandising elements, sales and profitability.

     “The floral merchandisers get very excited about this contest, so they get the whole store involved,” Ms. Grant shares. They have staged mock marriage proposals and pretend weddings, brought in “Cupid” and turned a department into a 1950s-style soda shop. Customers also get excited, offering to provide props and asking who won the contest.

            The benefits of the contest last long after Valentine’s Day, shares Lloyd McLean, category assistant, floral and garden centers. “It gets all the departments working together,” he describes, and that cooperation is evident during other promotions. “We get better execution at the stores because the departments seem to be more cohesive or working better with each other.”


Reach Editor in Chief Cynthia L. McGowan at
or (800) 355-8086.