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High-quality convenience at Food City

The floral operation helps this Virginia-based company meet its goal of one-stop shopping.


by Cynthia L. McGowan

     At Food City, a 105-store supermarket chain based in Abingdon, Va., floral plays a key role in the company’s strategy to provide convenient one-stop shopping. The highly trained florists specialize in meeting customers’ needs, whether they are decorating skybox suites for NASCAR fans or providing flowers to comfort grieving families.
     “Our goal is to offer excellent customer service to all our valued customers,” confirms Mike Tipton, director of produce and floral operations. That’s why the company offers full-service florals in 87 stores, has enlarged the departments in new stores and staffs them seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.—with extended hours in larger locations and on holidays.

staying ahead of trends
     Food City is a banner of the privately owned K-VA-T Food Stores Inc., which was founded by Jack C. Smith in 1955 and has stores in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. As part of its one-stop shopping philosophy, the stores offer video departments, pharmacies and fuel centers in addition to sit-down cafés; bakery and deli departments; and abundant selections of fresh meat, seafood and produce. “Operating the best store in town,” Mr. Tipton says, is the company’s goal.
     New stores, he shares, are built to state-of-the-art specifications. A 66,000-square-foot store under construction in Bristol, Tenn., for example, will have a demonstration kitchen, a 100-seat community room and eco-friendly features including energy-efficient glass cooler doors and LED lighting. Staying on top of consumer trends in store design, Mr. Tipton remarks, “allows us to operate effectively in a fast and changing society.”

giving floral the space it needs
     The new stores also have larger floral departments than previous versions, averaging 400 square feet, further demonstrating the company’s commitment to floral. “The Smith family always has been big on floral and wants to give it the space it needs,” Mr. Tipton describes.
     The departments, known as “Food City Floral Boutiques,” are at the front of the stores and provide an inviting, welcoming atmosphere to customers. In newer stores, the departments are situated as islands, a configuration that Mr. Tipton says makes them easier to access and offers a greater opportunity to generate impulse sales.
     Also helping to spur sales are the departments’ tantalizing selections of bouquets, arrangements and giftware, all arrayed by color and product on attractive nesting tables and wooden crates and in wagons and coolers. Displays change monthly and seasonally to keep consumers’ interest high, and the staff keeps the departments full and fresh at all times, Mr. Tipton shares. For example, bouquets have sell-by dates, and anything past the date is pulled from the sales floor.

corporate support
     In addition to Mr. Tipton, the floral operation at the corporate level includes a category manager, who does most of the purchasing, and five field supervisors/trainers who are responsible for 18 to 26 stores each. “They work with the floral managers in training, merchandising, and sales and profits,” Mr. Tipton remarks.
     The supervisors also help make sure that programs designed at the corporate level are executed in the stores. Programs are first tested in several stores to ensure their effectiveness before companywide rollouts, and then the supervisors visit each store to educate all floral associates about the changes.

floral certification
     The field supervisors/trainers also train all floral associates. Floral education takes place at designated stores and can last from six weeks to two months, depending on the employee’s previous training and knowledge of the industry.
     At the end of the training period, the employee takes a floral certification test, created by Food City, to make sure he or she knows all aspects and expectations of the floral operation. “Training new associates is very important” to Food City, Mr. Tipton confirms.

meeting customer needs
     The attention to training ensures the floral managers and associates can provide a full range of services, from custom designs while customers shop to weddings and funerals. “A customer can come in at any time, and there will be somebody who can help,” Mr. Tipton says. “Having a fully staffed department allows us to meet all our customer needs with one-stop shopping.”
    The operation has found a lucrative niche with free daily delivery to local businesses, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, churches and funeral homes. That service helps the department stand out from its competitors and generates good sales, Mr. Tipton shares. The operation gets the word out about the delivery service through in-store signage and word-of-mouth.
     Sympathy services also are important to the floral operation. “We do a lot of funeral work,” Mr. Tipton expresses. Referrals often come from funeral homes, he says, and “some funeral homes strictly use us.”
     The floral managers spend time meeting with the families to find out their preferences for the funeral flowers. Mr. Tipton says the intensive floral training helps prepare the staff for those conversations. Stressing the importance of sympathy work, the field supervisors/trainers often will be at the meetings and later help with the flowers.
     The families often want personalized expressions for their sympathy flowers. Coal mining is an important industry in the region, so the departments frequently are asked to incorporate mementoes commemorating the profession. They also are asked to tuck ceramic churches into foliage plants or to incorporate Bible verses into the flowers, using plaques and throws.
     The departments’ wedding business ranges from last-minute, simple nuptials to ones requiring setup at the venue. For consultations, the floral staff meets with brides in the departments or in the cafés, going over a planning guide with information on flowers, colors and pricing. The floral managers give the guides to the brides at the end of the consultations, and “everybody knows both parties are on the same page,” Mr. Tipton explains.

racing to success
     A unique way the department showcases its services is through the company’s sponsorship of a premier NASCAR event. The Food City 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn., historically is one of the toughest tickets to get in all of major sports. Each spring, 160,000 people fill the speedway for the race, and Food City’s floral departments get in on the action.
     “Floral plays a big part at the track with decorations for the suites,” Mr. Tipton shares. Attendees place the orders in advance, and the floral staff delivers flowers to the suites. “It’s a big event” for the floral business, he remarks.
     The floral operation also is involved in a related event, the Miss Food City Pageant. Miss Food City represents the company at the raceway as well as at store openings and community events. The floral staff decorates the pageant stage and provides flowers for the winner.

favorite products
     Having the right products on hand is crucial to ensuring the departments meet customers’ needs. The operation’s category manager purchases most of the cut flowers and plants direct from growers, who ship them to the company’s 1.1-million-square-foot distribution center in Abingdon, Va. From there, deliveries are made to the stores twice a week. The field supervisors/trainers also can purchase from local vendors to meet store needs.
     Fresh arrangements, both grab-and-go from the cooler and custom made, are the operation’s biggest seller. Each department dedicates a cooler shelf to popular rose designs, including single-, triple- and dozen-stem arrangements. The floral managers can devote the rest of the cooler space to designs of their choosing, showcasing their creative flair and tailoring the selections to their area’s clientele.
     Bouquets also are big sellers. The company’s signature Chantilly Rose Bouquet, featuring a dozen stems of premium roses, is especially popular. Bouquet styles change twice a month to help spur impulse sales and repeat business.
     “Blooming plants are really big,” Mr. Tipton describes, especially miniature roses, African violets and chrysanthemums. The operation has a thriving outdoor operation in the spring, offering bedding plants, hanging baskets and more.
     Balloons, plush and giftware also are important to the floral department’s sales. Food City is an exclusive retailer in the area for Swan Creek Candle Co., and its soy candles have been a big draw. “That’s been a real plus for our department,” Mr. Tipton remarks.

motivated staffers
     To ensure the staff stays up to date on new products and design techniques, the floral operation offers an annual meeting for all the floral managers. There, they meet with suppliers, learn new design skills and receive care-and-handling training.
     At the meeting, the winners of the company’s yearlong floral rewards program also are announced. In that program, stores are organized into several teams and receive points throughout the year based on sales or profits. The winning team receives cash prizes or trips.
     The company also keeps employees motivated with short-term sales contests as well as continual recognition for outstanding work. For example, a mother of a bride recently sent an email to Mr. Tipton lauding the florists who helped her daughter:
     “The flowers were incredibly fresh. Your staff was wonderful about preparing in advance and getting input every step of the way. I saw them the night before; they were professional, courteous and dealt with the concerns of the bride with confidence and reassured her everything would be taken care of. A wonderful experience, and I would recommend it to others.”
     Mr. Tipton says such comments result in the floral department receiving a certificate of acknowledgement to display for all to see. It’s important to recognize employees’ outstanding efforts, Mr. Tipton shares. After all, he remarks, “Motivated associates are the key success points in our operation.” 

  food city  

OWNERSHIP Privately owned by the Smith family
STORES 105 (95 Food City stores, 10 Super Dollar Discount Foods stores) in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee
SALES $1.9 billion (estimated) in fiscal year 2010, according to Supermarket News’ “Top 75 North American Retailers and Wholesalers for 2011”
STORE SIZE Averages 45,000 square feet
FLORAL DEPARTMENT SIZE Averages 400 square feet
FLORAL EMPLOYEES One to four per store, full and part time
FLORAL SERVICES Full-service florals in 87 stores, including custom designs; weddings; sympathy; and delivery to businesses, churches and funeral homes


keys to success


FLORAL COMMITMENT Food City’s full-service Floral Boutiques are important to the company’s commitment to providing one-stop shopping convenience.
EMPLOYEES The company has a formal training program for new floral employees, including a certification test; has five field supervisors/trainers to work in the stores; and offers ongoing motivational tools including sales contests, a rewards program and continual recognition.
GETTING THE WORD OUT The floral operation publicizes its products in the company’s weekly newspaper ad, on television commercials, through specials announced on the company’s in-store audio system, and at booths at local bridal fairs and bazaars. Food City also is updating its website to allow online ordering.



promoting valentine’s day


     Themed merchandising and pre-ordering incentives help ensure sales success during Valentine’s Day at Food City, the company’s No. 1 holiday, shares Mike Tipton, director of produce and floral operations.
     Food City encourages early orders by offering complimentary foil balloons. “We usually start taking orders the first week of February,” Mr. Tipton reveals. Closer to the holiday, the departments offer extended hours. “In some locations, our departments will be staffed from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily and be prepared to stay until midnight on the 14th.”
     The departments usually are merchandised for Valentine’s Day a month before Feb. 14. The floral managers are free to be creative with their themes as long as they incorporate the company’s key selling items.
     For example, La’Donna Daniels, floral manager at a Food City in Crossville, Tenn., chose a “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” theme last year. She decided to heavily promote tulips, offering potted tulips, mostly red, and multicolored tulip bouquets, in addition to roses, other blooming plants, mixed bouquets, giftware and plush.
     To draw attention to the display, Ms. Daniels put up large bulb posters and banners provided by Sally Ferguson of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. Large tulip balloons also drew attention as well as sales—“I bought a dozen and sold every one of them,” Ms. Daniels shares.
     Music including Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” played during the promotion, and “people got a kick out of that,” she recalls. They also got a kick out of the promotion, and Ms. Daniels shares that sales were up 44 percent from the previous year.

Photos: Food City

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