This Minnesota innovator delights
customers with a holiday spectacle of floral and giftware.
by Cynthia L. McGowan
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
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.”
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.
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
FLORAL'S CONTRIBUTION TO STORE SALES 4 percent
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
BIGGEST GIFT HOLIDAY Christmas
GIFT AND FLORAL LEAD ORGANIZERS Jerri Mahoney and Mark
WEB SITE www.kowalskis.com
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.
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
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
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
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.”
Kowalski’s Markets has won numerous awards throughout its
24-year history for its innovative shopping experience. Here’s a
• 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)
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
firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (800)
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