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Store Profile

Coborn's: Red-hot promotions

Teaming up with firefighters on Valentine’s Day is just one way this floral department attracts customers.

by Cynthia L. McGowan

Cathie Thompson was looking for a way to fire up business for Valentine’s Day last year. As the floral manager of a new Coborn’s Superstore in Ramsey, Minn., and facing her store’s first Valentine’s Day, Ms. Thompson needed a promotion that would attract shoppers’ attention, get their sales and keep their business after the holiday was over.
Ms. Thompson more than accomplished those goals with an innovative promotion that had local firefighters making Valentine’s Day deliveries, with all delivery fees benefiting the fire department. Her 2006 Valentine’s Day promotion, along with other events she coordinates to attract customers to her new floral department, serves as an example to other floral managers looking for ways to increase their business.

Coborn's, Inc.
OWNERS The Coborn family
STORES 60, in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, under six banners: Cash Wise, 9, Coborn’s, 11, Coborn’s Superstore, 13, and Save-A-Lot, 4 (all supermarkets); Holiday Station Store, 4, and Little Dukes, 19 (convenience stores)
SALES $720 million in 2005, according to the 2006 Directory of Supermarket, Grocery & Convenience Store Chains
FLORAL SERVICES Most stores provide full-service floral with custom designs, weddings, funerals, delivery and Teleflora flowers-by-wire service
FLORAL manager, Ramsey, Minn., store Cathie Thompson


the planning stages
Coborn’s Inc., a privately held company that is based in St. Cloud, Minn., and has 37 supermarkets under the Coborn’s, Coborn’s Superstore, Cash Wise and Save-A-Lot banners, is a strong supporter of the communities it serves, Ms. Thompson says. Working with the firefighters for Valentine’s Day was a natural fit, especially for Ms. Thompson, whose brother is a firefighter in another Minnesota city.
She had introduced herself to Ramsey Fire Chief Dean Kapler when the store opened in September 2005, so approaching him about the promotion was easy. He received permission from the city, and Ms. Thompson began her planning in earnest.
First, she ordered products that fit with her fire theme. Flame-embellished balloons had “You’re Hot!” on one side and “Happy Valentine’s Day” on the other. Bouquets were called “Red Hot” and “Hearts on Fire.” She also had traditional Valentine’s Day products for sale, such as dozen red roses, ready-made and custom-made arrangements, plush and other gift items.

promoting the event
Closer to the holiday, she launched an all-out publicity campaign. She contacted a local newspaper, which featured a nearly full-page article, including three large photographs, about the promotion a week and a half before Valentine’s Day.
One of Ms. Thompson’s quotes in the article said, “When I first met Dean [Kapler], the first week we were open, I told him I wanted to become his favorite florist. Actually, I want to be everyone’s florist.” In addition to providing information about the Valentine’s Day products available, the article informed readers that the floral department is full service, providing flowers for weddings, funerals and special events.
Two weeks before Valentine’s Day, the floral department created bag stuffers full of information about the store’s offerings for Valentine’s Day. One side was devoted to floral, with the words “Have the Ramsey Firefighters Bring a Spark to Your Valentine” prominently featured.
The other side invited shoppers to visit the store’s other departments for their Valentine’s Day selections, saying “Let Coborn’s help you create your Valentine’s Day shopping list.” Cross-merchandising is important to Coborn’s, and the flier offered suggestions for every department. For example, in the Meat Department, shoppers could find “sweetheart steaks,” shaped like hearts, for their romantic Valentine’s Day meals; in Bakery, they were enticed to try the triple chocolate delight cheesecake; Produce offered strawberries; and even the Photo Department got into the act, with discounts on photo development.
Ten days before Valentine’s Day, intercom announcements began informing shoppers about the special deliveries. An example: “Is your heart burning with love? The Ramsey Firefighters will help to light that torch and deliver your Valentine flowers for you. Go to the floral department and order yours today. And thank you for shopping Coborn’s.”

the big day
Shoppers apparently heeded the announcement’s advice, placing orders for 25 deliveries, exceeding Ms. Thompson’s goal by 15. The firefighters delivered the flowers in their Ford F450 and F150 fire and rescue trucks. “As they all drove off, I prayed that we wouldn’t have a fire,” Ms. Thompson confides.
There were no fires, just delighted recipients who told Ms. Thompson that they were excited to see the fire trucks pull into their driveways. And the promotion benefited the firefighters, even more than the $222.50 that they received from the delivery fees as well as donations. “They were grateful because they were able to see their customers at a happy time,” Ms. Thompson says, “not a vulnerable time—putting out their fires.”
The store benefited, too. Ms. Thompson exceeded her sales goal by $500, she received tremendous exposure for her store and floral department, and she gained new customers. The firefighters’ spouses have become repeat customers, and Ms. Thompson has prepared centerpieces for firefighter celebrations. She plans to team up with the fire department again this year for Valentine’s Day deliveries.

getting attention
Ms. Thompson reaches out to the community in other ways, too, in order to get exposure for her floral department and store. She has had flower-arranging demonstrations for the local Red Hat Society and the garden club, where she reminds the members that they can get all their floral needs, including supplies and floral foam, at her floral department. “They come to my store now to shop,” she reports.
She also will be going into area schools soon as part of the “Flowers for Kids” program, an initiative sponsored by Ecuadorean growers that aims to instill in children a love of flowers. (For more information on the program, go to
Her efforts are paying off as the store gains new floral customers. Store Manager Nathan Tykwinski says the floral program has grown consistently since the store opened. Although he declines to say what floral contributes toward total store sales, he offers that floral’s growth has been “at a little bit better pace than the other departments within the store.”
He attributes that to the professional, high-quality work of Ms. Thompson and her staff, which consists of two part-time floral clerks as well as other part-time help during the holidays. “I would more than put any of Cathie’s work up against any independent floral shop in the area,” he says. “She does a superb job with all of her products.”

the right products
And because each Coborn’s floral manager does his or her own ordering, Ms. Thompson is able to buy products that fit with the tastes of her clientele. She orders from several local vendors as well as Supervalu, which supplies Coborn’s stores, and gets floral deliveries as often as three times a week.
Bouquets are her best-sellers: Customers buy about 45 dozen-rose bouquets a week, 30 half-dozens and as many as 90 mixed bouquets. A favorite in that category has one ‘Stargazer’ lily, two roses and fillers such as heather and baby’s breath.
A consumer bunch program lets customers create their own bouquets. Customers go most for the Gerberas and spray roses, Ms. Thompson says, and she also sells other popular flowers including sunflowers, carnations, chrysanthemums, Hypericums and fillers.
Plants are important to the floral operation, too. Ms. Thompson keeps “a great variety of sizes and shapes” on hand. Ivies sell well, as do perennial chrysanthemums in the fall. “We go through hundreds of those,” she says.
The cooler always is kept stocked with arrangements including bud vases, dozen-rose designs and centerpieces for customers to grab and go. Customers also can order custom designs and have them made while they shop.

keys to success
PROMOTION Coborn’s Superstore in Ramsey, Minn., takes advantage of opportunities such as presentations to clubs and schools as a way to promote the floral department. The store also advertises its floral products in the weekly newspaper supplement.
PRODUCTS The local floral managers order their own products from trusted local vendors, ensuring that they are getting the right florals for their customers.
SERVICE Full-service departments such as the one in Ramsey can handle custom designs, weddings, funerals and other events, ensuring they can meet all their customers’ floral needs. The Ramsey store is open 24 hours a day, and the floral department is staffed from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.
CROSS-MERCHANDISING Floral teams up with departments throughout the store on promotions to get add-on sales and draw attention to displays.


one-stop shopping
That kind of convenience is part of the niche Coborn’s has carved for itself as a “one-stop shop,” Mr. Tykwinski says. The store has a dry cleaner, drive-up pharmacy, photo lab, gas station with convenience store, sit-down deli, bakery, video rental store and liquor store.
The floral department is in a highly visible area near the checkout stands. The spacious department has a large sign overhead that says “Flower Shop / Weddings • Funerals • Special Occasions • Teleflora.” Customers are drawn into the department by a variety of colorful products that are attractively arranged on wooden tables and glass and metal shelves. A pergola holds hanging plants and features cut flowers and blooming and green plants inside.
Ms. Thompson changes the look of the department every three to four weeks to keep customers’ interest. She bases the style on a color theme or seasonal promotion, such as weddings, when she highlights the fact that her store, true to its one-stop shopping philosophy, can provide full wedding services, from flowers to cakes to catering.

storewide teamwork
Such storewide cooperation is emphasized throughout the year. “Cross-merchandising is very big, and our store does it well,” Ms. Thompson says. “We’re all working together,” resulting in floral displays in all areas of the store, from silk arrangements atop dairy cases to bouquets at the entrances to balloons at all the checkout stands and a cart of giftware at the photo shop. The produce, liquor and floral departments also work together to create gift baskets.
The store came together for a breast cancer awareness promotion in October, too. Ms. Thompson brought products into the floral department from throughout the store that had tie-ins to awareness efforts. She sold 55 vased arrangements of a dozen pink roses, each with a pink bracelet attached, and $2 of each sale went to the local American Cancer Society branch.
Mr. Tykwinski says he discusses opportunities for cross-merchandising at weekly staff meetings. The presence of Ms. Thompson’s wares in other departments not only offers an opportunity to sell more floral products but also “gives those departments attention,” he says. “It gives a warm feeling throughout the store.”
That warm feeling is what Ms. Thompson wants her customers to feel every time they leave her floral department with a purchase. Whenever she meets potential new customers, she hands them her card and gives what might be called her signature saying: “We want to become your favorite florist.” With a welcome like that, it’s a good bet that those customers will be back.

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

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