Sickles Market cultivates its deep roots in the community while setting trends in floral and the garden center.
by Cynthia L. McGowan
At Sickles Market, customer satisfaction is the top priority. It’s what has grown this Little Silver, N.J., family business from its beginnings as a farm stand in 1908 to an innovative gourmet market with an upscale florist and thriving garden center.
“That’s the No. 1 goal in everything we do here,” shares Nancy Malone, floral buyer. That philosophy has served the company well, with Sickles Market earning numerous awards and honors, including New Jersey Monthly’s 2011 Best Florist, Best Garden Center, Best Gift Shop and Best Gourmet Shop, as well as runner-up for Best Butcher.
Although the farm stand began more than 100 years ago, selling fruits and vegetables that the Sickles family grew, the store’s roots are even deeper in the community. Sickles Market is located on family property in northern New Jersey that dates back to a king of England land grant in 1663.
Third-generation owner Bob Sickles tends to those community roots while constantly innovating and finding new ways to reach today’s customers. “Bob is very active in giving back to the community,” remarks Natale Siclare, the store’s assistant manager for garden, floral and gifts. Sickles Market is known for donating products, hosting fundraisers and sponsoring local sports teams.
The community has responded by making Sickles Market a destination, with 1,000 people a day visiting the 20,000-square-foot store, greenhouse and outdoor nursery. The business can get so busy, in fact, that Sickles Market at times hires people for traffic control in the parking lot.
Those customers are drawn to Sickles Market’s high-quality offerings, exceptional service and inviting in-store experience. The store’s amenities include gourmet grocery items, artisanal cheeses and a “cheese of the month club,” a full menu of prepared foods, fresh-baked breads and pastries, a full-service floral department and a garden center that delights outdoor lovers. The produce department is famous for blackberries and raspberries that Mr. Sickles’ father, Bob Sickles Sr., still grows on the family land.
Sickles Market tempts customers with “dozens and dozens” of food tastings and demonstrations every week, both formal and informal, Mr. Siclare shares. “Everything we sell, the client is able to taste and experience,” he elaborates. “If you were interested in a $75 bottle of olive oil, we would open that bottle for you, and you could taste it.”
The store also encourages customers to experience the products in the gorgeous floral department, which is at the front of the store. “Everything is accessible so customers can touch and feel and pick things up,” explains Ms. Malone.
On a typical day, shoppers in the 220-square-foot department will find buckets brimming with Sickles Market’s signature hand-tied, store-made bouquets, as well as flowers by the stem and in bunches. Glass shelving units showcase elegant arrangements for customers to grab and go. An end-cap display near the front door offers seasonal flowers, such as spring tulips grown in Virginia and local field-grown flowers in the summer.
The floral staff, consisting of four to five designers, most of whom are full time, do the bulk of their work on the sales floor. “We find that that’s important because it increases our customer contact,” Ms. Malone reveals.
Such interaction is important in the customer-centric store, where Mr. Sickles emphasizes the importance of service during hiring, in ongoing training and in everyday store operations. “We speak about customer service before we speak about dollars and volumes and figures,” shares Mr. Siclare.
The training empowers employees to help customers and solve problems if they can without having to get permission from a manager. “Anybody at any level within the company can help a customer with a problem and make them leave smiling,” he remarks.
The customer service emphasis includes employee relationships. “You treat your fellow employees the same way you would treat a customer—with the same level of respect and working together to accomplish a common goal,” Ms. Malone says.
Those values help attract well-qualified, highly skilled employees, who in turn give customers topnotch service. “Happy employees make happy customers,” Ms. Malone confirms.
a one-stop shop
Floral services include custom designs, weddings, events and delivery. In addition, “We do a lot of ‘while you shop’ arranging,” Ms. Malone shares. “Customers will come in with their vases, and while they’re shopping, we’ll fill their vases, and they can pick them up as they leave.
“We like providing that service because we like to think of Sickles as a one-stop shop,” she continues. “They can get everything from soup to nuts to flowers and be out the door in an hour and have everything they need.”
The floral department serves up to 20 weddings a year. Consultations take place in the store, usually lasting about an hour, and are free.
sourcing locally and globally
Flowers are delivered to the department five days a week, and more often during busy times. In the garden center, plants are delivered every day during the outdoor season and twice a week during slower times. “We’re a small location, and we do a huge volume, so we need to have deliveries on a regular basis,” explains Jody Nachman, who manages the garden center.
Flowers are sourced locally and globally from suppliers who follow cold-chain protocols. “We’re looking for as fresh a product as we can get, so we do a lot of buyer direct to farms all over the place, whether it be South America, California or Holland,” Ms. Malone shares. The department procures local flowers seasonally and makes sure to indicate in signage when products are from nearby growers. Wholesalers also provide flowers regularly.
Customers appreciate the attention to freshness, Ms. Malone assures. “They say they love us for the freshness, the longlastingness of our flowers,” she confides.
During transactions, the floral staff educates customers on home care of their flowers to ensure they get lasting value. Those discussions take away their “fear of failure,” Ms. Malone explains. Since instituting this practice, returns of products for quality issues have completely stopped. “Once we educate them on how to care for the product, their confidence in buying and arranging it themselves increases,” Ms. Malone remarks. “That’s how we get a lot of our repeat business.”
arrangements sell best
Custom arrangements, the top-selling floral item, also keep customers coming back. Sickles Market attracts a middle class to affluent clientele, including residents who work in New York City, and they favor modern, elegant arrangements, paying an average of $75 to $100 per custom order. Most of the designs on the shelves for grab-and-go customers sell for $50 to $60.
Sickles Market’s house-made, hand-tied bouquets also sell well, at $21.99 and $29.99. The staff keeps a selection in buckets but also will design bouquets for shoppers who want something different. The department also offers a $14.99 farm-made bouquet.
In stems, “We carry just about anything you can think of,” Ms. Malone remarks. Hydrangeas, at $4 each, and Gerberas, at $3, are customer favorites. Other flowers by the stem include roses for $3, lilies for $4, Dendrobium orchids for $3.50 and Hypericums for $2.
Tulips are the top-seller in bunches, at $9.99. Other favorites include spray roses at $10.95 and sunflowers at $8.95.
The department is next to the store’s gift area, where customers can find jewelry, personal care items, scarves and more. “The No. 1 category is probably tabletop,” shares Ms. Nachman, especially items customers can purchase as hostess gifts. The store’s buyers travel to gift shows in New York and Atlanta to select giftware.
unique garden products
In the garden center, which includes a 30-foot-by-75-foot greenhouse and a large outdoor nursery area, customers can find foliage and blooming potted plants, hanging baskets, and annuals and perennials for planting, many of them New Jersey-grown. The store specializes in providing products for niche gardeners—“They’re coming here for the merchandise that is rare,” Mr. Siclare declares.
That includes a full line of organic vegetables and herbs, plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies, and specialty vegetables such as heirloom tomatoes. In addition, the garden center’s designers create custom pots for landscapers, local restaurants and home owners. In a new service, a designer will go to homes for on-site custom potting. “It’s working out very well,” Ms. Nachman shares.
The garden center staff, which ranges from 25 to 50, depending on the season, also provide landscape design services and limited installation. The store attracts well-educated plant-loving employees who provide excellent care for the products and customers, Mr. Siclare shares. “Our mission is not just to sell the plant to the client but to make it thrive so the client is really happy and comes back over and over and over again,” he says.
In addition to offering high-quality products and service, the store enlists several innovative tools to build repeat business. Sickles Market’s beautifully designed website, www.sicklesmarket.com, offers a complete look at the store and its products, history and upcoming events, and it includes online ordering.
The website also includes links to Sickles Market’s YouTube channel, which offers 82 videos on a variety of subjects, from how-to instructions for gardeners to new product demonstrations. One nine-part series follows the Sickles Market team as they make over the store’s marketing manager’s lawn from one needing “serious help” to a fabulous outdoor space.
The store also reaches customers through a constantly updated Facebook page, Twitter, email blasts, and newspaper and television advertising. A “Good Stuff” loyalty program provides incentives to repeat customers.
To increase customer engagement, Sickles Market hosts events such as hands-on workshops and high-end chef-prepared dinners requiring reservations. It even has launched an “On the Road Tour,” with the first two trips to the famed Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa. Another one in October will take patrons on a tasting tour through Sicily, Italy, where they will, according to the store’s website, “meet the producers of the specialty food products found only on Sickles Market’s shelves.”
That kind of customer engagement and attention to their needs is a key reason Sickles Market has attracted a loyal clientele, who tell the staff they often come in just for the experience. Shares Ms. Malone, “People will come here on their lunch hour just to walk around the greenhouse and look at the orchids and talk to the staff and just spend a little bit of time to give themselves a boost before they go back to work.”
And they don’t keep their sentiments to themselves, Ms. Nachman shares, telling the staff, “I love this place. I love coming here!” sfr
LOCATION Little Silver, N.J.
OWNER Bob Sickles
STORE SIZE 20,000 square feet
FLORAL DEPARTMENT SIZE 220 square feet
EMPLOYEES 130, varies with the season
FLORAL EMPLOYEES 4-5, depending on the season
GARDEN CENTER EMPLOYEES 25-50, depending on the season
FLORAL SERVICES Full-service floral department, offering custom designs; delivery; and sympathy, wedding and event services
GARDEN SERVICES Custom potting, landscape design, limited installation
BIGGEST FLORAL HOLIDAY Christmas
FLORAL’S CONTRIBUTION TO STORE SALES 3.5 percent
FLORAL BUYER Nancy Malone
GARDEN CENTER MANAGER Jody Nachman
ASSISTANT MANAGER FOR GARDEN, FLORAL AND GIFTS Natale Siclare
keys to success
CUSTOMER SERVICE Sickles Market emphasizes customer service in every facet of the business. All employees undergo ongoing training on how to provide excellent service, and the store looks for those skills when hiring.
PRODUCTS In all departments, buyers seek out unique products that satisfy the tastes of the store’s discerning clientele.
GETTING THE WORD OUT Customers learn about the store through community events and support; email marketing; Facebook; Twitter; the website; and word-of-mouth, newspaper and television advertising.
EMPLOYEES Sickles Market attracts highly skilled, dedicated employees who enjoy working at the store. Many had shopped previously at the store and liked it so much they wanted to work there, too.
recognition for sickles market
• 2011 New Jersey Family Business of the Year Award
Rothman Institute for Entrepreneurship, Farleigh Dickinson University
• 2011 “Best Gourmet Shop,” “Best Florist,” “Best Garden Center,” “Best Gift Shop,” and runner-up “Best Butcher ”
NJ Monthly magazine
• 2010 Bob Sickles Voted Onto Retailer Network Council
National Association for the Specialty Food Trade
• 2007 Outstanding Specialty Food Retailer
National Association for the Specialty Food Trade
• 2006 Top 100 Revolutionary Garden Centers
Today’s Garden Center magazine
• 2004 Innovator of the Year Award
Garden Center Management & Merchandising magazine
Photos: Sickles Market
Reach Editor in Chief
Cynthia L. McGowan at
or (800) 355-8086.