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Feature Story
 
Growing
      Garden  
          Success
 
by Cynthia  L. McGowan

Buehler Foods Inc. stands out from the competition with its high-quality offerings and excellent customer service.

These days, shoppers have many choices when it comes to venues for their bedding plant purchases, from independent garden centers to farmers’ markets to huge home-improvement chains. Grocery stores have to make themselves stand out from the competition to draw customers’ attention and their dollars, and a chain that does that well is Buehler Foods Inc.
Buehler, whose Buehler’s Flowers Plus operates garden centers in 31 of its 44 stores in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, takes special care to attractively merchandise its garden centers. “We consider the garden center a ‘welcome’ mat to the store,” says Jerri Prose, director of floral operations for the chain, which is based in Jasper, Ind. “It gives the customers a fresh feeling as they enter.”

MAKING AN IMPACT
Buehler puts its garden centers as close to the front doors as possible to make the most impact on customers and catch impulse buys. Some of the stores have 20-by-30 greenhouses in their lots with 20-by-24 corral entries where products ranging from bedding plants to trees are attractively displayed. Stores that don’t have greenhouses, either because of lack of room or lot restrictions, set up their garden centers under the stores’ canopy entry ways.
Dawn McCoy, floral manager at the Evansville North Park store in Evansville, Ind., merchandises product by color and type to give it a coordinated, eye-catching look. “We try to merchandise on the outside just like we merchandise on the inside,” she says.
Ms. McCoy says she works every year to find a different way to merchandise her garden wares to keep offerings new and exciting for shoppers. Last year, for example, she focused on hanging baskets. She promoted them heavily and merchandised them in an appealing way, and sold twice as many as any other year.
Missy Healy, floral manager of the Washington, Ind., location, likes to use props such as wooden chairs and antique barn doors in her merchandising to give customers ideas for how they can use the products in their own gardens. “We give them some display ideas,” she says, adding that customers respond well to these suggestions. “We are a grocery store business, so to get them here, we have to do a little something extra, because we’re not just a garden center.”
Ms. Healy also keeps customer interest in her garden-center offerings piqued by setting up a display of blooming plants just outside the store entrance. She changes the display weekly by color and makes sure the perennials offered there are the biggest, brightest bloomers in the garden center.

EDUCATING CONSUMERS
Realizing that many customers are hungry for plant care information, Buehler makes sure it’s ready to give them what they need for gardening success. It displays plant-care posters in the greenhouses, and each plant has a pick with similar information. In addition, Buehler’s Flowers Plus staffers are knowledgeable ambassadors for the garden centers. Ms. Healy and Becky Paulin, of the Tell City, Ind., store, are Master Gardeners, and Ms. McCoy says she grew up gardening. Some floral managers have Indiana Certified Floral Designer credentials. “They have gained this certification on their own to continue their education in floral,” Ms. Prose says.
The floral managers, in turn, make sure their staffers are well-trained and equipped to answer shoppers’ questions. “Even though the information tags are in everything, you’ve always got people asking questions about height and color and shade and sun and that type of thing, so our greenhouses are pretty well manned from sunup to sundown,” says Ms. Healy. She has as many as eight people working in her department during garden season; during the rest of the year, the typical staffing level is three to four people.
The chain also utilizes employees from other store departments, when necessary, to help out in the garden centers. “We borrow a lot of people from the other departments. I have cashiers or deli clerks working for me, store managers helping unload the trucks,” and so on, says Ms. Healy. The same people help out each year, she says, “and that way, our training hasn’t gone to waste.”

CUSTOMER SERVICE
In addition to making sure to give customers plant information, Buehler works to give them over-the-top customer service. Ms. McCoy says her store has a lot of repeat customers because of the way her staffers treat them.
“We get to know them by name,” she says. “We listen to their stories. We take time out for our customers, and I think that makes a big difference. And if somebody wants something special, we go out of our way to try to find it for him or her.”

VENDOR RELATIONSHIPS
Having an excellent relationship with suppliers helps Buehler respond to customer needs quickly and make sure the stores have the products shoppers want. Ms. Prose says she works closely with three local growers and one in Michigan to supply the chain’s garden centers with products. She has worked with the Michigan grower’s representative for 17 years, and, Ms. Prose remarks, if that representative “says it’s good, it’s good.” The floral managers also work with the growers for their individual store needs.
The local growers carry custom-grown items for the chain such as its signature geraniums. “We have some of the best zonal geraniums around,” says Ms. Prose. “The local lawn-and-garden center sells the same item at $1 a pot more than we do.”
Ms. Healy says those geraniums are one of Buehler’s draws for customers. “They’re just spectacular,” she says. “People come here to get those particular geraniums.” She says she masses them by color and has a whole section of the greenhouse committed to them.
Ms. McCoy says Buehler also carries a wide selection of garden-center offerings, including assorted bedding plants, azalea bushes, rose bushes, Hibiscus bushes, Mandevillas and trees. “We carry a large, extensive selection of hanging baskets, all the way from ferns … to just about every kind of blooming hanging plant you can get,” she says. Price points at Ms. McCoy’s store range from a $3.99 4-inch geranium pot to a $100 mixed garden basket.
The chain also cross merchandises to get extra rings through the cash registers. “Cross merchandising is one of the fun things about the greenhouse season,” says Ms. Prose. “We tie in anything from garden hoses to fertilizer that the general merchandise department has.” The produce department also may contribute seed potatoes and onion sets.
Buehler promotes its garden centers through both advertising and word of mouth. “For four to five weeks, we will have an additional half page on the produce page” of the company’s newspaper ads, Ms. Prose says. In addition, floral managers and their staffs start talking up the garden centers to their customers before they’re put up, Ms. McCoy says. “We start telling people early,” she says. The stores also put up large banners heralding the garden centers.

THE GARDEN SEASON
Buehler starts its garden centers on April 15, when the threat of frost is minimal, and ends them two months later, “while we can still offer quality products to our customers,” Ms. Prose says.
When the weather doesn’t cooperate, Ms. McCoy says, the staff puts as much as it can inside the greenhouse, and if it’s cold enough, it will run a heater. In some instances, the employees have had to bring everything into the store, “which is pretty labor intensive,” she says, “but it just depends on how cold it’s going to get.”

SKILLED MULTITASKERS
Running a garden center while also managing a floral department is a challenge, but Buehler’s floral managers are undaunted by it. “You have to be a jack of all trades,” Ms. Healy says. She assigns her best floral designers to the shop while the staffers more knowledgeable in garden are outside, but during busy times, “it’s all hands on deck.”
Of course, garden season coincides with one of the biggest holidays for floral, Mother’s Day, and often with Easter. Many of Buehler’s floral managers have been with the chain for five or more years, Ms. Prose says, and are experienced with holidays. By planning ahead and handing off the day-to-day running of the floral departments to support staff, the holidays are manageable.

QUALITY IS KEY
Both Ms. Healy and Ms. McCoy say that freshness, quality and value are what set them apart from local competitors—and make their garden centers profitable and sales gainers every year. Ms. McCoy says she hears time and again from customers, “‘Your stuff looks so fresh, so nice. It’s so green.’ It makes a big difference.”
Ms. Healy agrees. “We keep our merchandising very nice and neat, and all product is inspected. We have district managers who walk the departments at least weekly, so we have some very high expectations to meet, and you have to, to keep your competitive edge.” sfr


BUEHLER FOODS INC.
Headquarters: Jasper, Ind.
Ownership: Buehler family
CEO: Dave Buehler
President: Kris Buehler Massatt
Director of floral operations: Jerri Prose
Number of stores: 44
Store locations: Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky
Average store size: 45,000 square feet
Number of flower shops: 29 Buehler’s Flowers Plus (17 full service; 12 cash and carry)
Stores with garden centers: 31


GREAT GARDEN CENTERS
The floral experts at Buehler’s Flowers Plus offer these tips for successful garden centers:
• Offer only quality products.
• Constantly check your wares for freshness. If anything looks wilted, throw it out.
• Merchandise by color and type.
• Display products in vignettes that give customers ideas for their own gardens.
• Put your garden centers as close to the front door as possible to catch impulse buys.
• Offer top-notch customer service.
• Order plants that are full of color to catch shoppers’ attention.
• Cross merchandise to grab extra sales.
• Train staff outside the floral department so they can help during crunch times.
• Give consumers plenty of plant information, including signage and picks.
• Offer a signature item, such as fabulous geraniums, that draws customers to your stores.
• Have a good relationship with your vendors, and work closely with them to meet your needs.


You can reach Cynthia L. McGowan at cmcgowan@superfloralretailing.com or by phone at (800) 355-8086.


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