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Store Profile

Christmas at Kowalski's

This Minnesota innovator delights customers with a holiday spectacle of floral and giftware.

by Cynthia L. McGowan

Every October, a flurry of activity takes place in the gift and floral departments at Kowalski’s Markets. Pallets are unloaded, boxes are unpacked and Christmas trees are assembled as the departments’ fall and Halloween displays give way to winter wonderlands full of irresistible floral products and unique gift items.
Customers can’t wait to see what Kowalski’s Markets, an eight-store privately owned company headquartered in Woodbury, Minn., has planned for their Christmas shopping. “They start calling and want to know when we’re going to do our sets for Christmas,” remarks Jerri Mahoney, who shares the title of gift and floral lead organizer with Mark Wachter.
That’s because Kowalski’s Markets offers a full selection of beautiful gifts and florals in a setting that is “dripping Christmas,” comments Sue Manning, floral and gift manager of the company’s Hennepin Avenue store in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. “The trees are just absolutely loaded down with as many ornaments as we can possibly get on them, and there are lots of lights and sparkle. It’s pretty hard to miss when you come in the door.”

enticing experience
Such theater is what customers expect from this upscale grocery company that emphasizes not only quality and service but also presentation. The company’s Web site says Kowalski’s Markets’ owners, Jim and Mary Anne Kowalski, founded the company with the vision of a “place to be enticed, acknowledged and entertained.”
The enticement begins with gorgeous, Tuscany-style stores that are carefully designed to give customers a luxurious shopping experience. Rich wooden shelving, tiled ceilings, subdued lighting, columned arches, an earthy color palette and expert merchandising combine to create an inviting, warm ambience. “We want it to look perfect to the eye,” Ms. Mahoney says. “You could take a picture of the produce department and frame it.”
Quality and service fall under the “enticed, acknowledged and entertained” umbrella, too. “Throughout our company, quality is number one, whether it’s in the deli, meat department, produce, bakery or whatever,” Mr. Wachter says.
The meat department offers prepared gourmet entrÈes for shoppers on the go; the bakery has European pastries, artisan breads and organic selections, prepared in-house and also by local specialty bakeries; and the cheese department has an extensive selection of award-winning domestic and imported cheeses. The company’s Woodbury, Minn., store even has a Juut SalonSpa, offering hair and body care and featuring Aveda products.
The seafood department boasts it has the “freshest Copper River salmon in town,” and the company’s Web site shows video of its contracted Alaskan fisherman out on the water. He “catches, packages and ships fresh salmon to Kowalski’s within 24 to 48 hours,” reports the video, which also features an in-house chef offering tips for preparing the salmon.
kowalski’s markets

HEADQUARTERS Woodbury, Minn.
founders and owners Jim and Mary Anne Kowalski
STORES Eight Kowalski’s Markets, all in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area of Minnesota
SALES $134 million (estimated) in 2006, according to the Directory of Supermarket, Grocery & Convenience Store Chains
STORE'S AVERAGE SIZE 30,000 square feet
FLORAL SERVICES Varies by store; three offer custom design services
FLORAL AND GIFT EMPLOYEES Average one to two per store; bigger stores have more
BIGGEST FLORAL HOLIDAYS Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter and Thanksgiving
GIFT AND FLORAL LEAD ORGANIZERS Jerri Mahoney and Mark Wachter


european-style floral departments
The emphasis on quality and service continues in the floral and gift operations, which are located side by side at the front of most stores. They are considered separate departments but are closely related, and at all stores but Woodbury, one person manages both floral and gifts. Kowalski’s Markets’ combination of gift and floral “sets us apart from other stores,” Mr. Wachter comments.
The floral departments have the look of a European flower market. Garden statuary is sprinkled throughout displays of colorful bouquets and consumer bunches. Blooming and foliage plants, grouped by variety, add to the fresh appeal. All floral and gift products are organized by color, making a greater impact on consumers.
Three locations offer custom designs and will create arrangements while customers shop. The other stores offer ready-made arrangements as well as consumer bunches for their customers who like to mix and match flowers for their own designs. The stores receive floral deliveries an average of four to five times a week, ensuring a fresh supply. Most of Kowalski’s Markets’ flowers and plants come from local wholesalers.
The floral managers do their own ordering, allowing them to cater the floral selection to their stores’ clientele. “Each store has its own personality,” Ms. Mahoney says.
For example, the top-selling floral products at the Woodbury store, in a family-oriented, upscale neighborhood, are orchids, bouquets and single long-stem roses. At the Hennepin Avenue store in Uptown, which Ms. Mahoney describes as a trendy, diverse neighborhood where customers shop daily, consumer bunches of lilies, Gerberas, Hydrangeas and callas sell best.
The company’s Grand Avenue store in St. Paul—its first to open—is the smallest location but has the biggest floral sales. Debbie Gillespie, Grand Avenue floral and gift manager, reports that her customers are avid flower buyers. “It’s amazing,” she says. “On a weekend, you might see somebody with a little 4-inch Gerbera in her cart, and somebody else has a violet, and the next lady has six or seven bunches of cut flowers. Everybody buys flowers.” She does especially well with Hydrangeas, spray roses and tulips, sometimes selling as many as 1,500 tulip bunches a week in the spring.

extensive giftware selection
After customers are wowed by the colorful fresh flowers, they move on to the gift departments, where a large selection of items is for sale. The gift departments’ eclectic collection of stylish products includes throws, pillows, lamps, accent tables, candles, wall art, clocks, jewelry and purses.
Some stores even offer shoes. Ms. Manning’s Hennepin Avenue store has started offering “Lexees Flexees,” a sandal that has interchangeable tops. “You never know what you’re going to find” in the gift shop, Ms. Manning says. “The looks on some people’s faces when they come in here and see that we have shoes now, it’s hilarious.” And she adds that customers are buying the shoes.
Those are the sorts of finds that keep Mr. Wachter and Ms. Mahoney scouring national and local gift shows for unique products that their customers won’t find elsewhere. Ms. Mahoney reports customers have told her, “We’ve never seen a store like this before.”
They also express their satisfaction during consumer focus groups. “People always comment on how they like the gift department,” Mr. Wachter shares. “They like the convenience and the selections. They like the ease of buying groceries and picking up a card and a small gift.”

keys to success

MERCHANDISING Kowalski’s Markets turns grocery shopping into a luxurious experience, with a soothing color palette and stylish decor. Products are color-blocked and displayed for high impact. Holidays like Christmas get a maximum effort from the stores, with massive displays of merchandise.
UNIQUE GIFTWARE Kowalski’s Markets’ gift and floral team searches out interesting, stylish giftware. Products from local vendors are included, emphasizing the company’s community ties.
FRESH FLOWERS Floral products are sourced mostly from local wholesalers. Deliveries to the stores average four to five times a week, with some getting deliveries seven days a week.
REPEAT CUSTOMERS The stores are in high-traffic areas where shoppers make weekly purchases of flowers.


preparing for christmas
The gift departments’ No. 1 holiday is Christmas, thanks to careful planning, focused product selection and exciting merchandising. Mr. Wachter and Ms. Mahoney decide three to four themes for the departments and select giftware from those themes when they go on buying trips.
By January, the team has finished its holiday buying for the next Christmas season and is ready to plan how the displays will look in the stores. Mr. Wachter and Ms. Mahoney create a “plan-o-gram” on a large blackboard in their office and decide what ornaments will go on which trees and the type of lights for each one. That way, when the products go to the stores, the floral and gift managers “automatically know what goes to what tree and how it’s supposed to look,” Ms. Mahoney says.
It takes teams of three to four floral managers and Mr. Wachter and Ms. Mahoney two or three days to convert Halloween displays into Christmas scenes. They move furniture, assemble 7- to 8-foot-tall trees and unload pallets of products that are shipped from the company’s central warehouse.
Ornaments are taken out of boxes and hung on themed trees, enticing customers to buy them. “We decorate the trees so that they look full and sparkly and spectacular when you walk in, and it gives the idea to the customers of what kinds of things go together,” Ms. Gillespie says.
The sparkly displays also serve to draw people into the stores. Ms. Manning’s department faces the front windows. “At Christmas time, it’s really pretty to look in and see all the lights and the glitter,” she says.
Kowalski’s Markets usually sells out its stock of ornaments before the season ends. “We sell a ton of ornaments,” Ms. Manning confides. “It’s just unbelievable.”
The company also sells undecorated trees, but sometimes customers want to buy the decked-out trees, complete with ornaments. “They just come in and say they want the tree and all the decorations with it,” says Ms. Mahoney. Adds Mr. Wachter, “So you have to get your tissue paper out [to wrap the ornaments] and your calculator.”

award winner
Kowalski’s Markets has won numerous awards throughout its 24-year history for its innovative shopping experience. Here’s a sampling:
Best Gourmet Grocery (2006 and 2007 Best of the Twin Cities, City Pages)
2005 Starr Award for Interior Design (Minnesota Shopping Center Association)
• Mary Anne Kowalski, 2002 Woman of the Year (Women Grocers of America, National Grocers Association)


floral favorites
In the floral departments, mass displays of poinsettias grab customers’ attention. They’re displayed on large tables and “waterfalled” down to the floor. “It’s a large impact,” Ms. Mahoney says. Painted and dyed poinsettias flew out the doors last year, she reports.
Other floral favorites during Christmas are amaryllis, white lily and rosemary plants. Ms. Gillespie says bouquet combinations of fresh evergreens, berries, roses and Hypericum sell well at the Grand Avenue store.
The floral departments also sell ready-made arrangements produced by Kowalski’s Markets’ wholesalers based on designs created by Ms. Mahoney and Mr. Wachter. “We do that so it’s not the same look as what other people have,” Ms. Mahoney shares.
That emphasis on unique products is a key reason why shoppers can’t wait to see what Kowalski’s Markets is offering for Christmas. During set-up, remarks Ms. Gillespie, “they’re usually right in there digging in the carts before it even gets on the trees. Most of them are pretty excited.”

Unless otherwise noted, photos are courtesy of Richard Milteer, AIFD,†AAF, PFCI, IFDA

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

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