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Feature Story
A welcome
burst of
by Cynthia  L. McGowan

Shoppers count on Market Basket’s bedding plants to help them beat the winter doldrums.

When New Englanders are emerging from a long, cold winter, they’re eager for signs of spring. And Market Basket, a 59-store chain based in Tewksbury, Mass., fills that need with colorful outdoor garden centers that entice customers to buy high-quality products to beautify their lawns and homes.

“Bedding plants are extremely important to Market Basket,” says Jim Bielecki, the chain’s floral buyer. “Many people have been inside and can hardly wait to get outside and into their gardens.”

Making sure that Market Basket has the right garden center products for those winter-weary customers is a year-round task for Mr. Bielecki, who does the floral buying for all the stores. At the close of each garden season, which runs from about the week before Mother’s Day until the second week of June, Mr. Bielecki, store supervisors and Produce Director Mike Maguire review the sales numbers with each store and book for the next year.

Multiple factors are in play when deciding which plants to buy. Mr. Bielecki searches out the best quality, the hottest trends and good values.

The chain also reviews the weather patterns to help with planning. “The key to all this is keeping accurate records of the weather conditions,” he says. “No one can sell too many plants when you have high winds and rain for 10 days. All this must be accounted for when making your decisions for the next year. Never underestimate what Mother Nature can do to you in New England.”

Throughout the year, Mr. Bielecki is constantly educating himself on bedding plant trends to make sure the chain is ready for consumer needs when the season arrives. “Consumers have read so many gardening magazines and watched so many gardening shows that we must stay on top of new varieties, color trends and easy-grow products,” he says.

Mr. Bielecki also stresses the importance of working with top-notch vendors. He visits all the vendors’ operations and says, “Each supplier must have a quality product at a fair price so that I can offer our consumers a great value.”

Having suppliers all in the New England area is key to offering consumers products that are fresh and free from transportation stress. “By using local suppliers, our turn-around time to supply the stores is four to six hours, which enables the stores to have a great selection of plants,” he says.

Mary Ellen Prunty, floral manager of the Market Basket in Lee, N.H., says customers are drawn to big flowers with a lot of color. Her store did particularly well with large-head marigolds last year. “I don’t know if it was just that it had been such a bad winter, but people wanted a lot of color,” says Ms. Prunty, who reports that garden center sales make up two-thirds of her floral business during the spring season.

Ms. Prunty’s products range from trees to bedding plants to hanging baskets. The garden center sold about 40 fruit trees last year at $19.99 each. Eight to 10 kinds of shrubs including Rhodendendrons/Azaleas, Forsythias, lilacs and pussy willows sold for $9.99 to $14.99.

Pansies, which come in bowls, flats and planters, were highly popular, at prices ranging from $9.99 to $14.99. Ms. Prunty replaced her initial stock twice. Other bedding plants she sells include Dahlias, Cosmos, snapdragons, Nicotiana, Petunias, Impatiens, Salvia, Ageratum, Alyssum and dusty miller.

Hanging baskets, at $12.99 and $16.99, also are big sellers—Ms. Prunty stocked 300 for Mother’s Day last year. The baskets had fuchsia Begonias, New Guinea Impatiens and Bacopas as well as combinations of daisies, geraniums and other flowering plants.

Ms. Prunty, an expert at merchandising—she won the Grand Award in the 2003 “Merchandising Award of Excellence” contest, sponsored by Super Floral Retailing and Börgen Systems, and also was an Honor Winner in 2004 for sensory appeal—takes up half of the front of the store with her garden center, ensuring that customers can’t miss it. The sidewalk is covered by an overhang, so the plants—and customers—are protected from the elements. “Customers can shop if it’s raining because it’s under cover,” Ms. Prunty points out.

Ms. Prunty uses color blocking to showcase her plants. She also recommends breaking up the colors: “I always do a yellow, a blue, a red, and then if there’s something not showing a lot of color, I put right next to it another yellow or an orange,” she says.

Signage also is important. “Everything has to have a sign,” Ms. Prunty says. The computer-generated signage has large, easily legible type, with pricing prominently displayed.

The plants are carefully organized in the displays. Baskets hang in a row across the front of the entire display. Plants in pots go against the wall on three-stepped wooden merchandisers. Plants in flats go in the front of the display, on pallets atop cement blocks, which makes it easier for watering because the water goes right through. “The roots aren’t sitting in water,” Ms. Prunty says, keeping the plants healthy for customers.

The organization also is designed to be convenient for customers. “It’s a continuous flow,” says Ms. Prunty. “They start from one end and work their way through.” Adding to the convenience is the presence of a cashier outside for garden center purchases.

The high-quality products, colorful merchandising and convenience all serve to draw repeat customers to the garden center. Ms. Prunty reports that before the season starts, customers ask her when her spring plants are going to arrive. Market Basket promotes its garden centers in weekly store fliers, but, Mr. Bielecki says, “Our consumer is positively our best advertisement.”

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

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