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Feature Story
 
A Winning
     
        Team
 
by Cynthia  L. McGowan




Talented duo help Associated Food Stores, Inc. increase floral sales.

Associated Food Stores, Inc. (AFS), a cooperatively owned wholesale distributor based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is on pace to see its floral sales increase by as much as 200 percent this year, thanks to increased corporate support for floral and the teamwork of two of the chain’s floral executives, Annette Egan and Roxine Hodson, who have spent the past year refining programs, increasing efficiency and improving merchandising.

AFS, which had $1.4 billion in revenue in 2004, serves 580 independently owned member supermarkets in eight Western states. It also owns 23 stores in Utah as part of its Associated Retail Stores (ARS) subsidiary, under the banners of Maceys, Dan’s Foods, Lin’s Market Place and Dick’s Market.

Ms. Egan, floral buyer and merchandiser for AFS, works out of AFS’ 1.25-million-square-foot warehouse in Farr West, Utah, and does nearly all the floral buying for the member supermarkets. Ms. Hodson, floral sales manager for ARS, has primary responsibility for the floral operations at the 23 corporate stores, but she also works with the membership stores on their floral programs. “I’m really the retail side of the business, and Annette is the wholesale side,” Ms. Hodson explains. Between the two of them, they have helped AFS have some amazing sales results this year.

Ms. Hodson started at her newly created position a year ago after serving as a floral manager for one of the Maceys stores, and for the two quarters just before she came on board, floral sales at the ARS stores were down about 8 percent from the year before. A year later, for those same two quarters, floral sales are up 14 percent and 12 percent.

In addition, AFS’ fiscal year began in April, and Ms. Egan reports that the company’s floral sales for the first four months of the fiscal year are already at 63 percent of what they were for the whole year in 2004, putting them on target for as much as a 200 percent increase.

EFFICIENT OPERATION
Ms. Egan, who has been with AFS for 25 years, buys from 60 to 70 floral-related vendors from all over the world, and most of their products go through the warehouse before going to the individual stores. She does the ordering for all the stores in the cooperative and ensures that the products get to their stores in a timely manner—nothing stays in the warehouse more than two or three days. “I think the success we are enjoying is because we’re getting product in and out as fast as we possibly can,” Ms. Egan says.

The warehouse is a 24-hour-a-day operation, with 750 truckloads of products, including floral, going every week to all eight states that AFS serves. The warehouse, built four years ago, incorporates the latest technology to ensure efficient distribution of floral, grocery, frozen foods, perishables and general merchandise, and the company boasts a 98 percent on-time delivery rate. The warehouse handles 85 percent of the company’s distribution needs (the company also has warehouses in Boise, Idaho, and Billings and Helena, Mont.).

The company also has direct-store delivery when it’s most efficient or if the stores are far away from the warehouse and Ms. Egan feels products will be on the trucks for too long. Bedding plant vendors are local, and they deliver their products directly to stores.

Another efficiency that has helped boost the numbers is better scanning data for floral.
“One of the problems we’ve had with floral is getting good scan information,” Ms. Hodson says. To combat that, she has started to implement in several banners the use of generic UPC stickers for floral. The stickers go on all floral products and ensure that floral catches all the sales it should. “It was interesting that once they started doing that, that their sales went up,” she says, “because now the items were being scanned, and they were being scanned to the right department.”

NEW PROGRAMS
Part of Ms. Hodson’s role is to implement programs, make sure that a certain standard of merchandising is maintained, and train and motivate the floral staff. She and Ms. Egan are trying programs in all four corporate banners and then are determining what works best in each one, with the plan to tailor programs to each banner as they get more sales data.

“I really don’t believe that right off the bat you can say, ‘That’s not going to work here,’ or ‘That is going to work here,’” Ms. Hodson says. “I don’t think you can do that until you actually try it. Guests surprise you in what they want and what they’re looking for.”

The floral departments vary in size, and she has worked with corporate planners to make sure the space is well used. For example, during a recent Dick’s Market remodel, a small space was allotted to floral—only 6 feet wide and 18 feet long. However, Ms. Hodson turned a potential negative into a positive by putting in an open cooler, end caps with half-round stair-step displays and a balloon station. “We increased sales by about 25 percent because it’s the right fixture and it’s in the right location,” she says.

Other stores have had updates, too, she says, and “I’ve been really lucky since coming on board that I’ve had an opportunity to influence some of those buying decisions with coolers and fixtures. We’re getting some good updates, and it’s making some dramatic improvements in our sales.”

ATTENTION-GETTERS
Ms. Hodson also is a big believer in the power of in-store announcements to bring attention to floral, using color blocking to organize products and using signage to help sell. “Like every other department, labor is an issue, and with floral, if you don’t have big sales, you definitely don’t have big hours to work with,” she says. “Signing is so important because if people aren’t there to talk to our guests, then the signs have to do our work for us.”

The stores try to make the signage interesting and relevant to consumers by including care and handling information. At a Dick’s Market recently, Ms. Hodson says, some lavender hadn’t sold until the floral manager put some signs up saying what to do with it and where to plant it. “Within a couple of days, it had all sold,” she says. “It made a huge difference.”

Ms. Egan also works with the stores on merchandising. She chooses weekly themes for the membership stores three months in advance and gives vendors the opportunity to supply products that fit the themes. She then lets the stores know what the themes are so they can plan and organize their displays.

To encourage creativity and to get floral departments to change their displays often, Ms. Egan has weekly contests. They send her photos of their displays, and she and others in the warehouse judge them. The winners receive trophies engraved with an AFS slogan, “Only the Best.” “It gives them something to strive for,” she says.

Ms. Hodson also is a believer in changing the look of the departments. “If you don’t change it up,” she says, “pretty soon, people think, ‘I don’t have a plant on my list, so I don’t need to go to floral; it looks the same all the time, I know what’s in there,’ so you’ve really got to change it up in order to keep people coming back.”

CUSTOMER FAVORITES
And customers are coming back, as seen by the recent sales increases. Popular sellers include dozen-rose bouquets for $8.99 or $9.99, depending on the banner; mini-rose plants for $2.99 and $3.99; and ‘Calandivas’ at $4.99 for 4-inch plants and $8.99 for 6-inch plants. Other mainstays include ‘Pelee’ potted mums, Gerberas and dyed “crazy daisies.”
Ms. Egan says stores choose price points, with the exception of ad items. She and Ms. Hodson choose the promotional items for the ads, write the copy and set the prices.

As part of their efforts to build AFS’ consumer bunch program, Ms. Hodson and Ms. Egan have implemented a “10 for $10” program from The Queen’s Bouquet Network that they learned about at this year’s Super Floral Show. Shoppers can get consumer bunches for $1 each, and “when you buy 10 of them, you have a nice big bouquet,” says Ms. Egan. “That’s been pretty successful for us.”

Ms. Egan and Ms. Hodson have seen good sales increases from holidays and special promotions in the past year. The company’s biggest holiday is Memorial Day, when people in Utah and Idaho buy potted mums to place on loved ones’ graves. AFS stores sell 6-inch mums at three for $10. “We’ll sell truckloads of mums for Memorial Day,” says Ms. Egan.

Ms. Hodson reports that one store sold out of 9,000 potted mums on the Friday before Memorial Day. The company as a whole had a 45.9 percent increase in floral sales for Memorial Day this year, and the ARS stores had a 21.9 percent increase for the week leading up to Memorial Day. Ms. Egan and Ms. Hodson also report sales increases for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, the next two biggest floral holidays for AFS.

STAFF TRAINING
Ms. Hodson and Ms. Egan are proud of their accomplishments of the past year but are keeping their focus on continuous improvement. They conduct two training sessions a year for the ARS and AFS floral managers, and both are always in contact with floral staff and available for trouble shooting or advice.

In those training sessions, Ms. Hodson stresses to the floral managers the importance of creative merchandising for the success of their departments. “Anything that you can do to generate a little fun and excitement is awesome,” she says.


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


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