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.”
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.
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
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.”
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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’
• 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
• 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
email@example.com or by phone at (800)
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