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Thrifty Foods: A legacy of success

This Canadian company’s new owner acquires a chain with a commitment to floral.  

 by Monica Humbard

How does a supermarket chain that is family owned for 30 years make the transition to corporate ownership? Smoothly, it appears, in the case of Thrifty Foods, based in Central Saanich, British Columbia, Canada.

 

Sobeys Inc., a $13 billion grocery retailer with 1,140 supermarkets across Canada, acquired the Thrifty Foods chain in September 2007 in a $260 million deal. According to Wendy Whincup, director of Thrifty Foods’ floral operations, Sobeys made few changes to the 20 Thrifty Foods stores throughout Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, running the company as a stand-alone subsidiary and keeping the Thrifty Foods banner.

 

reputation for quality  

Thrifty Foods, which has its own food distribution center and a wholesale food division, has established an impressive reputation since its founding in 1977 by two business partners. With about 4,000 employees, the chain is Vancouver Island’s largest private-sector employer. Last year, for the fourth year in a row, the country’s leading business awards program, which recognizes excellence in Canadian-owned and -managed companies with revenues more than $10 million, once again named the chain one of Canada’s “50 Best-Managed Companies.”

 

In 2007, readers of community newspapers in the Greater Victoria, British Columbia, area voted Thrifty Foods “Best Grocery Store.” In addition, as part of the 2007 Black Press “Best of the City” Awards, the chain received first-place recognition in six categories, including “Best Specialty Deli” and “Best Fresh Seafood.” Readers recognized Thrifty Foods with a second-place award for the “Best Flower Shop.”

 

Thrifty Foods credits part of that success to the company’s support of charitable causes and a high level of community involvement locally and regionally. Under its new ownership, the chain continues to follow the same mission statement that helped it earn the success it celebrates today: “Thrifty Foods is committed to providing quality food products at competitive prices with friendly, helpful staff in clean, well-stocked stores.”

 

Candice Wheeldon, floral manager at the chain’s Courtenay location on Vancouver Island and a 16-year employee, says the new ownership has allowed the stores to “carry on” as usual. “This is a true testament to who they [Sobeys] are, recognizing that we are a successful company already,” she says. “They always say they are the fortunate ones for having acquired such a great company.”

 

In a press release announcing the acquisition, Bill McEwan, Sobeys’ president and CEO, said, “We are delighted to have entered into this agreement with [founder] Alex Campbell and Thrifty Foods. Thrifty is a very well-respected and well-run food-focused retailer, with great management and a reputation for exceptional customer service.”

  

floral support  

Ms. Whincup says she is confident that the company recognizes that floral departments, which are present at all 20 Thrifty  Foods stores, are important to the chain’s success. Ms. Wheeldon says she senses the same support. Corporate recognizes floral as a growing division, she remarks, and gives departments the freedom to do what needs to be done to build sales. “We are making a good effort to put ourselves on the map in this industry. This shows through our skills and pricing,” she comments, noting that it shows as well in her department’s sales and in feedback from her customers.

 

thrifty foods 

HEADQUARTERS Central Saanich, British Columbia, Canada

PRESIDENT & CEO Milford Sorensen

PARENT COMPANY Sobeys Inc., of Stellarton, Nova Scotia, Canada

STORES 20 stores across Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s Lower Mainland

THRIFTY FOODS SALES IN 2006 Estimated $540 million, according to the  Directory of Supermarket, Grocery & Convenience Store Chains

ESTABLISHED 1977 by Alex A. Campbell and Ernie Skinner, who left the company in 1991. Mr. Campbell sold the chain to Sobeys Inc. in September 2007.

AVERAGE STORE SIZE 29,000 square feet

EMPLOYEES About 4,000

FLORAL EMPLOYEES 130; floral departments are staffed with two to eight employees at one time, which may include two to four designers.

FLORAL SERVICES All 20 stores have full-service floral departments with different levels of wedding, sympathy and custom-order services. All departments are affiliated with FTD Group, Inc. and provide delivery services.

FLORAL'S CONTRIBUTION TO COMPANY SALES 1.89 percent to 2 percent, with peak seasons well above 3 percent.

BIGGEST FLORAL HOLIDAY Mother’s Day

DIRECTOR OF FLORAL OPERATIONS Wendy Whincup

WEB SITE www.thriftyfoods.com

 

Some Thrifty Foods locations have store renovations in the works, Ms. Whincup describes, and she proudly adds that many of the renovation projects started with the floral departments. These renovations include new sinks, counters, equipment, displays and coolers, as well as cosmetic changes such as the addition of more upscale ceramic tile and slate accents. She expects the renovations to improve the work environment and make the departments more customer friendly.

  

floral overview  

All 20 of the Thrifty Foods locations have full-service  floral departments located at the front of the stores. They handle florals for all occasions, including weddings and funerals, take custom orders and offer delivery. The chain’s Web site, www.thriftyfoods.com, has a page devoted to floral, describing the operation’s services and including a complete section on wedding services with photos of bouquet, boutonniere, corsage and centerpiece design ideas. One of Ms. Whincup’s goals this year is to showcase more everyday design ideas on the Web site.

 

Depending on the store size, each floral department is staffed with two to eight employees, which includes two to four designers at a time. Ms. Whincup points out that even floral clerks at Thrifty Foods usually can do some level of design work.

 

The chain’s marketing department promotes floral in weekly fliers as well as newspaper advertisements and radio commercials targeted to large floral holidays, such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. Thrifty Foods’ free publication for shoppers, Fresh, a full-color, high-quality magazine, also contains seasonal articles regarding floral four times a year, such as one written for the spring issue by Ms. Wheeldon about the chain’s “Garden Patches,” where customers can buy all their gardening supplies.

 

All floral managers are expected to give their departments new looks every season, but Ms. Whincup encourages them to change displays every week or month to focus on items they are promoting. Ms. Wheeldon has many repeat customers at her location, some of whom come in daily. Therefore, she tries to change some displays daily and most weekly.

 

Ms. Whincup also encourages her floral departments to cross-merchandise with other areas of the stores. At the Courtenay location, the department’s small size limits what Ms. Wheeldon can bring in, so she tries to “get beyond our corner to try to get more impulse buys.”

 

Ms. Whincup is working to increase the number of destination and call-in sales. When she started in the supermarket floral business, her goal was to reverse the idea that when shoppers come in to pick up milk, they buy flowers. She wanted her customers to come in for flowers first and then end up getting groceries. In the past few years, she has noticed that some customers come in specifically to work with a particular designer. Some even bring in their own containers. Ms. Wheeldon says, “This is the biggest compliment when people want to see your work in their gifts and homes.”

  

buying procedures 

Ms. Whincup chooses Thrifty Foods’ floral suppliers and establishes programs with them. However, once she has chosen the programs and vendors, floral managers do their own buying for their particular clientele. Managers are free to order products outside the programs as long as they are from the established vendors.

 

Ms. Wheeldon appreciates the opportunity to make selections for her customers. “This is critical to how successful we are,” she says.

 

When choosing vendors, Ms. Whincup, a native to the area, tries to support local suppliers whenever possible. She insists, however, she will not sacrifice quality to buy locally.

  

product selection  

Cut flowers make up most of the floral business at Thrifty Foods stores, with bouquets being the strongest category. The floral designers create bouquets in-house and also design recipes that are produced by outside suppliers. Some bouquet recipes are designed by the floral management team that oversees all 20 departments.

 

Foliage and blooming plants is a smaller category for the chain; however, some floral departments sell a lot of tropical and flowering plants. Price points vary from store to store, but Ms. Whincup notes that $6.99 potted plants sell well. She says $9.99 and $14.99 items, which are normally 6-inch plants with upgraded pots or wraps, also work well for the chain. Ms. Whincup says that if customers can see that the $14.99 items are more beautiful than the less-expensive options, they will perceive them as the best value and purchase them.

 

keys to success

EMPLOYEES The Thrifty Foods floral management team is made up of people devoted to the demands of floral. The floral staffs are trained to know how to produce what their customers want. Many of the designers have developed their own loyal clientele.

TRAINING The Thrifty Foods chain has customer-service training for all employees as well as three levels of training for floral managers and/or staff. A class specifically targeted to wedding business was added for 2008.

SUPPLIERS AND PRODUCTS The floral director chooses suppliers who put the same emphasis on quality that she does. Once she chooses the chain’s floral vendors, floral managers are free to order from established programs as well as other items from these vendors.

COMMITMENT TO CUSTOMER SERVICE Floral department staffers are expected to provide excellent service. As a result, word-of-mouth advertising over the history of the company has built increased floral business.

 

One of Ms. Whincup’s primary focuses in recent years has been the chain’s Garden Patches. She has improved sales in this area by working with local growers to develop planters exclusively for Thrifty Foods.

 

Another area she has targeted for increased sales includes vases, giftware and home-décor items. She says this covers anything that can “complement your flowers.” Her goal is to increase sales by encouraging customers to purchase $9.99 decorative vases that complement their homes instead of $4.99 everyday ones. She finds items that fit with the latest fashion and home interior trends and merchandises complementary items together so they are irresistible.

 

floral training  

When asked how she sets her floral departments apart from her competition, Ms. Whincup says, “It gets tougher and tougher every year. Everywhere someone is trying to sell a floral bouquet.” One of the areas she says sets Thrifty Foods floral departments apart is the company’s training for managers and staff. In addition to floral-related courses provided by some of the chain’s vendors and Thrifty Foods’ own customer-service classes for store-wide employees, the chain offers three levels of in-house floral courses.

 

The first course is a basic class that covers such topics as processing flowers and merchandising. With manager approval, staffers can move on to the second-level class, which covers design work. A third, more advanced, course for managers was just added. It covers more about merchandising and design work such as sympathy. The company also recently added a separate class targeted to wedding work.

 

going forward in 2008  

While many of the Thrifty Foods floral departments have already established a strong wedding business, one of the key focuses for 2008 is expanding this area even more. Ms. Whincup says Thrifty Foods handles hundreds of weddings a year. It promotes wedding work through the chain’s extensive wedding brochure, which details Thrifty Foods’ wedding services for all departments and showcases a variety of floral design ideas. The chain also takes part in bridal shows, and Thrifty Foods’ marketing department ties floral into wedding advertisements for the bakery and deli departments. sfr

 

 

Reach Contributing Editor Monica Humbard at (800) 355-8086.

 

 

Super Floral Retailing • Copyright 2007
Florists' Review Enterprises, Inc.