A new specialty market in Oklahoma makes the floral department a focal point.
by Cynthia L. McGowan
Downtown meets uptown at a new-concept grocery store in Edmond, Okla., a fast-growing suburb northeast of Oklahoma City. Uptown Grocery Co. combines the latest in supermarket design and service in its sophisticated New York warehouse-style space, where a fabulous floral department sets the tone for the entire store.
The store, which opened in late February, is the culmination of years of research by owners Hank and Susan Binkowski. They and Steve Lawrence, general manager, along with other executives from the BUY FOR LE$$ chain of 13 grocery stores the Binkowskis own in the Oklahoma City area, visited supermarkets throughout the United States to find inspiration for Uptown Grocery.
The result, comments Doug Lawrence, director of produce and floral, is “a collection of all their best ideas and thoughts from traveling around the country.”
The store is in northwest Edmond, a growing area that Mr. Lawrence describes as an underserved grocery market. Edmond was ranked No. 1 last year on CNBC’s list of “10 Perfect Suburbs,” earning praise for its low unemployment rate, good public schools, and high college-education and homeowner rates.
At the grand opening, residents lined up to enter the red-brick building, which is topped with a 471-square-foot red neon sign proclaiming “Uptown Grocery Co.” Afterward, several left comments on the store’s Facebook page expressing their delight with the store, including, “Congrats to the entire team!!! Such a beautiful store! So happy this day is finally here,” and “It’s an amazing store.”
Those wowed shoppers were reacting to a store that gives a hip urban attitude thanks to a warehouselike design with soaring ceilings, exposed ductwork and black metal fixtures. Wood accents, tiled mosaics, murals depicting scenes from Oklahoma life and live music on weekends all add to the store’s inviting, engaging atmosphere.
The fresh offerings—including floral, produce, meat, bakery and deli—are on one side of the store, with general grocery on the other. Eye-catching overhead signs draw customers to the specialty departments, such as “Great Grains Bakery,” where the enticing goods are baked in-house; the “Wedgery” cheese department, which boasts hundreds of gourmet offerings; and the “Gourmet Grille,” where customers can have made-to-order entrées prepared to go or to eat in the restaurantlike dining area.
The large produce department looks like a farmers’ market and includes unusual varieties that customers might not be familiar with. Mr. Lawrence says the store will have produce demonstrations to expose shoppers to new tastes. “There are many fruits and vegetables people would buy if they knew more about how to prepare them and how they taste,” he explains.
The store also features a wide selection of natural and organic goods, along with high-end specialty products and name-brand items. Steve Lawrence, the BUY FOR LE$$ general manager, says that by offering customers all those types of items in one location, Uptown Grocery differentiates itself from competitors that don’t offer such variety. “We feel we have an edge,” he shares.
The company also feels it has an edge with its enticing floral department, “Floralfusion,” which is at the entrance to the store. The emphasis is on fresh, with a huge array of arrangements, bouquets and bunches, single stems, and blooming plants taking center stage. “There’s such beauty there,” confirms Susan Binkowski. “They’re obviously not just regular cut flowers; they are masterful works.”
The department’s intriguing circular design incorporates the floral counter, a several-section cooler, an event-planner consultation office and shelving for displaying vases and giftware. Doug Lawrence, the produce and floral director, is a 40-year veteran retired from The Kroger Co. where better than two-thirds of his time was spent in procurement of produce and floral. He was fortunate enough to join BUY FOR LE$$ just as planning of the floral department was taking shape and describes the final look as “a collection of ideas and concepts I’ve learned over the years about floral and merchandising.”
He worked closely with Börgen Systems on the design of the custom-built curved cooler, which allows the staff to fill from both the front and the back. It’s one of the first things customers see when they enter the store, and it was crucial that the design be just right, including making sure the glass would allow ideal viewing of the flowers inside.
“They did a fantastic job and were so helpful in getting the whole project constructed,” he recalls. “I can’t say enough good things about working with Börgen.”
The floral manager leads a staff of three full-time, skilled designers and three experienced assistants, two of whom have extensive backgrounds in horticulture from the state university. All are key to Mr. Lawrence’s vision of a highly personalized, engaging experience. “The customer service piece is so important to the operation,” he describes.
The customer service emphasis starts at the top, he shares. “Hank has always been focused on customer relationships,” Mr. Lawrence explains. “He’s very concerned about his guests.”
With that in mind, the department was designed to create maximum opportunities for interaction between customers and the florists. “Our goal is to keep the designers on the floor, talking to the customers about what they want,” Mr. Lawrence elaborates.
To that end, the florists do all their designing at a work table where customers can see them. “We felt it was important to have it very visible,” Mr. Lawrence shares. “It’s a little theater,” for the department, and it also demonstrates to customers what the designers can do.
In addition, the store layout sends most people through floral on their way to other departments. “Our goal will be that everyone who walks into floral will be greeted and engaged into conversation that helps us determine what their needs are and how we can best satisfy those needs,” Mr. Lawrence says.
The department’s attention to service already is showing results, Mr. Lawrence reveals, with the designers and clients developing personal one-on-one relationships. “The experience we were hoping the customers would enjoy seems to be happening,” he remarks.
Customers are turning to Uptown Grocery for all their floral needs, including custom designs, events, weddings and funeral work. “We’ve already exceeded our expectations” for event work, Mr. Lawrence shares.
That success is thanks to the florists’ time spent developing event and wedding work, he says, and also due to the cooperation the department has with the company’s growing event-planning business. “We had our first official event coordinator start a year ago in August, and we now have four,” Susan Binkowski shares.
The on-staff event coordinators make party-planning easy for clients, shares coordinator Gisela Wolfinbarger. “We meet all their needs in one place,” she says.
The event coordinators make sure to include floral when talking with clients. “There’s always a question: ‘Is there a part for floral to play in this?’” Mr. Lawrence shares. “It’s working out fabulously.
“When you can take the expertise from bakery, deli, floral, working as a team with the event coordinators, and give the bride an example of what she is thinking and planning right then and there, that’s a ‘wow’ factor,” he continues.
Floralfusion also gets the word out about its flowers and wedding work through the store’s Facebook page and at bridal shows. “We participate in all the bridal shows,” Mr. Lawrence confirms, and BUY FOR LE$$ also sponsors a quinceañera and wedding expo for Hispanic families.
The department is merchandised to inspire impulse buys and keep customers coming back for more. Displays are changed at least every other week, with special attention paid to ensuring seasonal flowers and plants are showcased.
In addition to the cooler’s selection of fresh products, three display areas are strategically placed in the department—potted orchids at the entrance, a vignette of arrangements and cut stems that leads to the prepared foods area, and blooming plants near produce.
The department also takes advantage of cross-merchandising opportunities. “We design every day for different sections of the store,” Mr. Lawrence describes. The beautiful arrangements add to the ambiance of the store, and they give customers an example of the expertise and quality of the designers’ work at Floralfusion, he explains.
Mr. Lawrence and the floral manager work together on floral buying. “She and I talk about all the orders,” Mr. Lawrence shares, and while he makes some purchases at the corporate level, the floral manager has the flexibility to order flowers, plants and supplies as needed for the department.
They procure floral products from a variety of suppliers including local wholesalers and Associated Wholesale Grocers in Oklahoma City. They also are developing ties with local flower and plant growers. “We’ve bought some things from them,” Mr. Lawrence expresses, “and as I get out and visit the growers and the farms and their operations, I expect that to get bigger.”
All of Uptown Grocery’s bouquets, consumer bunches and roses are supplied by Passion Growers of Miami. Mr. Lawrence chose the company for its high quality as well as its commitment to environmental and social responsibility at its farms in Colombia.
“They’ve gone above and beyond in making sure that their workers and their workers’ children have a sustainable lifestyle, and they respect the environment and give back to the community,” Mr. Lawrence shares, adding that those values are important to both BUY FOR LE$$ and its customers. The department has given shoppers fliers describing Passion Growers’ sustainability efforts.
A wall of at least 50 bouquets greets customers when they arrive in the store. They come in four price points, and customers prefer the larger, fuller-looking styles. “Our upper price points are selling better than our lower price points,” Mr. Lawrence reveals.
Among consumer bunches, spray roses have stood out as customer favorites. “They’ve really taken a liking to the spray roses,” he shares, which come in 10-stem bunches. The bunch program also includes Gerberas, sunflowers, lilies, Alstroemerias, spray mums and more, arrayed in an open cooler near the floral counter.
Soon after the store opened, the floral department discovered that its customers wanted more single stems, especially those that are considered exotic or upscale. In response, the department makes sure to have a ready supply, including orchids, tuberoses, bells-of-Ireland, lilies, kangaroo paws, Hydrangeas, Ranunculi, peonies, blooming branches and exotic foliages as well as such tropicals as Anthuriums, birds-of-paradise and Heliconias.
Mr. Lawrence estimates that 30 percent of arrangement sales are custom designs and the rest are grab and go from the cooler. All the arrangements are created in house, and customers favor unusual, contemporary styles.
Preferences in plants also tend toward the uncommon. “The more colorful or the more unusual, the better they sell,” Mr. Lawrence describes. To satisfy that demand, “We try to focus on bringing in blooming plants that you might not see everywhere.” For example, the department has found a local grower who provides beautiful, high-quality Freesia and azalea plants with full, large blooms.
The department’s prominence at Uptown Grocery, with its experienced staff and high-quality products, underscore the company’s commitment to floral, Mr. Lawrence shares. That commitment stems from an understanding of flowers’ importance, he explains.
“Flowers are a very important part of people’s lives,” he reminds. “You cannot give somebody flowers and they won’t smile.” That’s the idea behind setting the floral department at the entrance, paving the way for an unforgettable store experience. “It’s the focal point,” he expresses, “and should be.”
||uptown grocery co.
LOCATION Edmond, Okla.
OWNERS Hank and Susan Binkowski
PARENT COMPANY BUY FOR LE$$
STORE SIZE 50,000 square feet
STORE EMPLOYEES 260
FLORAL DEPARTMENT SIZE Approximately 2,000 square feet
FLORAL EMPLOYEES Six
FLORAL SERVICES Full-service floral department, offering custom designs, delivery and event, sympathy and wedding services
DIRECTOR OF PRODUCE AND FLORAL, BUY FOR LE$$
keys to success
MERCHANDISING The beautiful floral department at Uptown Grocery Co. sets the tone for the store with an inviting array of flowers and plants. Displays change often to keep customers’ interest high.
SERVICE The store’s six designers and assistants engage customers, offering one-on-one service. The department offers a complete range of services, including weddings and events.
PRODUCTS The department procures products from local and global sources, ensuring customers have a wide selection to meet their needs.
Reach Editor in Chief
Cynthia L. McGowan at
or (800) 355-8086.