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Feature Story
 

get
the most

from company meetings
         
by Amy Bauer


Floral pros at all levels share how shows and training recharge their batteries.

Floral manager Amy Adams returned from this spring’s Associated Food Stores, Inc. (AFS) companywide Food Show and immediately boosted sales at Lee’s Marketplace in Logan, Utah, with new balloon and rose merchandising and promotion techniques. She logged a 30 percent sales increase the week she launched a $6.99-per-dozen special on 40-cm consumer rose bunches available through one of AFS’s vendors; she displayed the roses massed by color rather than randomly scattered throughout the department, as advised at the show.
Those are the types of successes companies hope to see after they have invested the time, energy and financial resources into their annual floral gatherings. Part pep rally, part rejuvenating retreat, part hands-on training and often a buyer’s marketplace, these meetings take many forms, but all are meant to inspire the troops and, ultimately, sell more flowers and plants.
“I try to come back with at least one new thing that I didn’t know before,” Ms. Adams says. “And that always happens. And also I try to come back with more of a positive attitude and just ready to rock the world.”

multiple formats, same goals
For AFS, the Food Show focuses not only on floral buying but also on the entire grocery product mix, from center-store to perishables. Owners and buyers from the company’s 580 member stores and 23 corporate-owned locations in eight Western states meet vendors at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, for three days each April.
To encourage more store owners to bring floral managers to the show, this year AFS Floral Buyer and Merchandiser Annette Egan added a half-day floral training session, with the theme “Back to the Basics.” She saw her attendance more than triple, from about 20 floral managers last year to 75 this year. And among vendors, she estimates 17 were represented in floral.
That attendance—among floral managers and vendors—also may have been boosted by the success of Ms. Egan’s annual fall meeting geared to floral only, which took place Aug. 15, 2005. “A lot of them came to that, and they were so pleased that they all wanted to come back,” she says. That daylong meeting was at the AFS warehouse in Salt Lake City and let attendees view the entire process of distributing the floral products.
At Price Chopper, a 115-store chain in six Northeastern states, a two-day fall show in mid- to late September brings store, operations and merchandising managers companywide together with suppliers. The second day features a half-day breakout session just for floral managers that includes information-sharing and design and motivational presentations.
In more recent years, Price Chopper has added a daylong floral-only meeting each January. “We were the first department at Price Chopper, I believe, to bring everyone together like that,” says Jon Strom, vice president of floral operations. January was chosen in order to gear up for Valentine’s Day, and the meeting takes place at the Price Chopper School of Learning, one of the company’s original stores in Schenectady, N.Y. This year’s attendance was about 125, including floral managers and suppliers.

Val Tisor, senior floral buyer for the Kansas City division of Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG), which serves approximately 400 stores in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, is involved in the division’s five annual floral meetings: two purchasing events, or “booking parties,” and three food shows that encompass the whole-store product mix. She calls the meetings crucial in that they allow floral managers to check out new products and network with peers. “It helps them to have a time to plan sales and plan strategy,” she says.
The booking parties—in October for Valentine’s Day and after Feb. 14 for Mother’s Day—are at corporate headquarters in Kansas City, Kan., and consist of a daylong open house. Instruction beforehand walks participants through sales projections and suggested product
mixes. For example, AWG’s fresh flower recommendations for Valentine’s Day were to stock 49 percent roses, 20 percent mixed bouquets, 15 percent blooming plants, 5 percent arrangements, and 10 percent balloons and miscellaneous. Between 100 and 110 people, many representing multiple stores, attend each open house. Food shows are in January, April and August at a Kansas City convention center, and attendance there among the floral professionals is usually about 175, Ms. Tisor says.

pumping up floral
At the most recent AFS Food Show, Ms. Egan and the company’s vendors constructed a replica of a floral department, eliminating the traditional booth structure and intermingling vendors’ products to give visitors a real sense of how items could be merchandise. “At first, I had every vendor mad at me, because ‘how am I ever going to show them my plants if they’re all over this department?’ But it actually worked out really well, and a lot of vendors were very pleased with it,” Ms. Egan relates.
At the show’s entryway, black carpeting with taped lines replicated a store parking lot, in which a tent sale was set up with produce and a greenhouse full of bedding plants. “We had a hot-dog stand; we had activities for the kids—I was in charge of a seed-spitting contest,” Ms. Egan says. “We just had all sorts of activities to show the stores what they could do to create some interest in their towns.”

encouraging interaction
Ms. Tisor says AWG keeps the number of floral vendors at its shows small in order to make the time the most useful for each of them. At all five AWG shows, just eight to 10 floral vendors are present. “That increases the opportunity for each vendor to have a large responsibility and to have increased sales,” she explains, noting that AWG brings in new vendors for a few meetings at a time to test them out before they are added to the company’s core list.
To keep participants talking, Mr. Strom and his team break the more than 100 attendees at Price Chopper’s January floral meeting into small groups by the company’s nine zones for part of the day. They use the time to talk about stores’ Valentine’s Day sales goals. Kristal Horton, manager of floral merchandising for Price Chopper, says the company’s three floral specialists also walk throughout the room during that time, using previously set goals to help keep the discussions on track.
Mr. Strom stresses the importance of preparation and a fast pace to maintain interest. “If you lose a group that big, let’s say at 11 o’clock in the morning, you’ve lost them for the whole day,” he says.
Carla Underwood, of Pacific Plant Growers, in Lehi, Utah, represented her company at the AFS Food Show and agrees that keeping things brief and active are keys to maintaining interest. For example, she was asked at the training session to collect odds and ends from around the show and build a floral display to demonstrate that merchandising can be done on a budget.
AFS’s Ms. Egan also got store floral managers talking during training at the Food Show by highlighting in a PowerPoint presentation the top displays from her Valentine’s Day merchandising contest. One of the winners, Sandi Probst, floral supervisor for Lin’s Market in St. George, Utah, says she was inspired by seeing what other stores put together. “I think competition is good, and it gives us a little more incentive to go the extra mile for our customers.” For her first-place win in her store group, she was awarded a $100 spa gift certificate. Also receiving a spa prize was Ms. Adams, of Lee’s Marketplace, who tied with Ms. Probst.

questions and answers
Ms. Probst says there’s also no substitute for the one-on-one time she gets with vendors at the shows. “To actually meet the person who has been the creator of all these wonderful things that come in, to me that was awesome,” she says. “It really helps because you can feed off what they have to say, and you can tell them what you’re looking for, and they love the feedback.”
Andrew McBride, president of AMA Floral Imports, Inc., who represents a number of growers at the AFS Food Show, says such events are golden opportunities for floral managers. “You see a lot of people, they’ll come in, spend a few minutes in the floral department, then they run out and go for the free food,” he says. “They need to come and speak to the vendors. These are the people you want to ask the questions of. Take the time and ask those people those questions, and get the answers you’re looking for.”
Ms. Egan notes that vendors can similarly gain from this interaction. For example, a vendor who supplied roses to AFS for Valentine’s Day joined her in February to tour stores and also attended the Food Show to hear from store-level employees. “He actually saw the roses from Colombia to Miami, then saw them get to the warehouse and then saw what happened when they came to the store,” she says. “It was a good follow-through for him. And he learned a lot, about our stores, about our challenges and different things.”
Her added training also allowed floral managers to ask questions that crop up from day to day, such as why a box of roses would be dated April 4 if it didn’t reach the store until April 8. Ms. Egan was then able to explain date-coding and the process by which boxes are stamped as they leave Colombia. She says others asked why they couldn’t request certain varieties of roses without making a special order, and she explained the massive quantity of roses—500 boxes a week—traveling though the AFS warehouse doors.

behind the scenes
Months of preparation go into these meetings and shows, which last at most a few days. Ms. Underwood says Pacific Plant Growers is constantly on the lookout for products it can tailor solely to its clients and highlight at such buying shows. “It’s kind of an all-year process,” she says. “It’s just ongoing. You’re always out there looking for things for your customers.”
AMA Floral Imports spends months preparing for the AFS Food Show, Mr. McBride says, working with farms and factories and getting products from overseas that will be displayed at the show. “The key is to do some prep, come up with some great unique products that the stores are going to like and do your research,” he says. “Listen to what the customers are asking, and get them what they want.”
For Ms. Tisor, of Associated Wholesale Grocers, the company is working with vendors and store owners ahead of its booking parties to establish what products will be available and what will be on advertisement before the floral managers come to buy. She says floral training topics for the three food shows are determined often by simply keeping track of the hot topics in the industry and what company floral specialists are hearing from the stores. Similarly, Ms. Egan, of Associated Food Stores, says she jots down ideas throughout the year as she reads trade journals and talks to floral managers.
Company-level managers stay in touch with attendees in between meetings in various ways. Mr. Strom has a weekly e-mail to all floral managers, and he and the Price Chopper floral specialists collect e-mailed diaries after each holiday to assess results. Ms. Egan calls her stores weekly for their orders from her warehouse and gets feedback in the process, and she also has monthly conference calls with a rotating group of 10 member stores.

measuring success
Ms. Adams, the floral manager at the Lee’s Marketplace in Logan, Utah, says in addition to her rose sales success, she’s been promoting balloons more—another technique discussed at the AFS Food Show training—by blowing up a balloon bouquet about three times a week to leave on display. The tactic was suggested to more visually show customers a store’s balloon offerings, and Ms. Adams says she has been pleasantly surprised that all of the bouquets have sold within a day as customers gravitate toward these cash-and-carry items.
While AFS’s Ms. Egan didn’t have sales results at presstime, she anticipated her April show would result in an increase in her cut flower sales. She says many of her smaller stores shy away from selling cut flowers because they don’t have floral coolers, but part of her training was devoted to showing ways to get around that hurdle. “I think if I didn’t have the show, I’d still have sales, of course, but I wouldn’t sell the same things,” she says. “Some things you just have to see to want to buy.”
Ms. Horton, of Price Chopper, says the best sign she has received that the company’s efforts were valuable came at its most recent floral meeting, in January. “One of the managers came up to me afterward and said, ‘Well, you’ve just made me want to go right back to my store and put out everything and sell it,’” she relates. “That really went to the heart of things— motivating them to feel good about the programs and want to participate in them and be enthusiastic and convey that to their customers.”

Yuo can contact Amy Bauer at abauer@superfloralretailing.com or by phone at
(800) 355-8086.


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