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Feature Story
A cruise
     to victory
by Cynthia  L. McGowan

Hy-Vee store in Overland Park, Kan., takes top honors in the “2005 Merchandising Award of Excellence” contest.

The phrase “summer cruise,” to many people, evokes thoughts of a leisurely voyage on a luxurious ocean liner. But to Donna Bennett, floral manager of the Hy-Vee Overland Park No. 1 in Overland Park, Kan., it meant something entirely different, and her creative twist on the theme made Ms. Bennett and her staff the Grand Award winners in the “2005 Merchandising Award of Excellence” contest, sponsored by Super Floral Retailing and Börgen Systems.

Hy-Vee, Inc. sponsors merchandising contests among the chain’s floral departments, and the theme for the 2004 summer promotion was “summer cruise.” Ms. Bennett and the floral staff designed a creative, exciting promotion that not only won the Hy-Vee contest but also the coveted Börgen Cup, which Bill Carlson, vice president of sales and marketing of Börgen Systems, presented to Ms. Bennett at The Super Floral Show in June in Houston, Texas. She also received airfare and hotel accommodations.

Ms. Bennett decided to take her customers on a cruise back in time, to summer nights when teenagers went to drive-in movie theaters in cars like Ford Mustangs and girls wore poodle skirts and bobby socks. To come up with the idea, she gathered her staff, she says, and told them, “I want everybody’s ideas on what we can do to make this display different.”

The result of their brainstorming sessions was a display that wowed customers as soon as they walked in the door. A huge, brightly colored sign that said “Mel’s Drive-In” hung from the ceiling. Below it, tables full of floral and cross-merchandised products enticed customers to make purchases. Foam-core waitresses and a jukebox, made by the store’s artist, Vicky Olson, added to the initial interest. The jukebox offered “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” and “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” both hit songs from the 1950s and 1960s.

As shoppers continued into the store and went right, down the “power alley,” they came to a “drive-in movie theater,” featuring a 1966 cherry red Mustang with a movie speaker at a window, lawn chairs in front of the car for viewing the “movie” and, overhead, the artist’s version of a drive-in movie screen featuring James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

During the weeklong promotion in July, floral staffers in their poodle skirts went to the front of the store every 30 to 45 minutes and danced and Hula Hooped to music that matched the theme. “It created great rapport with our clientele,” Ms. Bennett says. “They loved it! Because the first thing when they walked in the door was these three ladies in poodle skirts with Hula Hoops and music going and flowers everywhere. It was a great experience.”

Ms. Bennett and her team created a display that had all the elements of a winner, including:

The overhead “Mel’s Drive-In” banner that greeted customers when they walked into the store immediately told them that something special was going on. Product signage was brightly colored, abundant, descriptive and easy to read.

The promotion’s big push items were red roses and pink carnations, sold by the dozen in vased arrangements and in hand-tied bouquets. Although Hy-Vee declined to release sales figures, Ms. Bennett reports they sold very well. She also added a touch of whimsy to her offerings by selling “carnation cones,” “Mel’s splits” and “flower floats,” all made with carnations. “They went over really great,” Ms. Bennett says. The low-priced, fun items were conversation pieces, and even better, she says, “they let our customers know how creative we can be and what we can do.”

The display had a dynamic feel from start to finish. The dancing and Hula Hooping created action. Overhead, balloon guitars and hanging musical notes attracted attention. And, of course, the Mustang implied movement.

Cases of Coca-Cola surrounded the Mustang and served a dual purpose. They provided additional rings through the registers, and they also served as a barrier to keep customers from touching the vintage car. They fit in perfectly with the summer theme and matched the color of the car.

The color scheme was cohesive and well-thought-out. Neon colors used for the jukebox also were used for the signage and the foam-board waitresses. The colors complemented the red roses and pink carnations.

The display took a full month of planning to pull off. Ms. Bennett’s biggest challenge was to find a car that would fit down the 6-foot-wide produce aisle. A nearby classic-auto dealership let her borrow the car of her choice in exchange for promotional signage in the store. Next, she planned the signage with the store’s artist, Ms. Olson. One of the store’s floral designers, Donna Eisenbarth, is a seamstress, and she made poodle skirts for the floral staff.

After the planning was finished, the display took just a day to put up, “once I got through the gray hairs of getting the car down the produce aisle,” Ms. Bennett says. In the end, the hard work paid off both in sales and accolades.

The contest Ms. Bennett won at Hy-Vee was one of about three the chain conducts every year, says Rita Peters, assistant vice president of floral operations.

Floral is an important part of Hy-Vee’s operation, Ms. Peters says, and the contests are a way to get employees’ creative juices flowing as well as increase sales. “We choose them when it’s kind of a lull month when we need those extra sales, but more than anything, it gives excitement to the employees,” she says.

Contests can revolve around themes, like the “summer cruise” theme with which Ms. Bennett won; items, such as a tropical plant sale the chain promoted last year; or other topics, such as color. The promotions are based on an ad item that the corporate office chooses, but the individual floral departments may choose additional items to purchase, “so they can create their own displays and go in whatever direction they want to take it,” says Ms. Peters.

That local control extends to day-to-day purchasing decisions, she says. Floral managers buy for their own locations, “so they run their shops like they feel they need to be run,” she says, letting the local Hy-Vees meet the needs of their own communities.

For Ms. Bennett, whose store is in a suburb of Kansas City, this means carrying a wide range of products to satisfy a sophisticated clientele. Vase arrangements of cut flowers are her No. 1-selling product, and she does well with contemporary designs, making sure to always have some in the walk-in cooler. “I like to make sure that people understand that we can do everything that every other shop can do,” says Ms. Bennett, who owned her own flower shop for 23 years before joining Hy-Vee in March 2004.

Ms. Bennett’s store has a European Flower Market, which consists of buckets of cut flowers ranging from Dendrobium orchids to tropicals to Hydrangeas. She receives shipments of products at least twice a week. The chain’s main supplier is Florist Distributing, Inc., of Des Moines, Iowa, a Hy-Vee-owned supplier of flowers, plants and florist products.

Foliage and blooming plants are also popular sellers in Ms. Bennett’s store. “I bring in the basics that I know everybody’s going to ask for, but I also make sure that I have the unusual ones,” she says. “One of the plants that’s been selling really great for us right now is a Calathea.” It’s offered in a black jardiniere, and, she says, it’s a great gift for men.
Other good sellers are ivies, Pothoses, Philodendrons and African violets.

All Hy-Vee flower departments are full service, offering FTD, wedding services and custom design work. In fact, Ms. Peters says, “in many of our locations, we are considered the florist in town.”

Ms. Bennett has cultivated that customer loyalty in her store by treating shoppers well and offering them the finest, freshest products. “My philosophy has always been, ‘Good quality plus good customer service equals sales,” she says. “It’s as simple as that.”
It is a philosophy that is serving Ms. Bennett and Hy-Vee well, as evidenced by the first-time entrant’s showing in the Merchandising Award of Excellence contest. Ms. Bennett says she was ecstatic when she learned she had won. “It’s awesome to get an award for something you love to do,” she says.

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

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