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Feature Story
the AJ's difference
by Monica Humbard

Arizona chain offers fabulous florals and service in a stylish setting.

AJ’s Fine Foods, an 11-store gourmet market headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz., has elegant surroundings, exquisite products—including fresh, upscale floral offerings—and superb service that combine to, in the words of AJ’s motto, let shoppers “experience the difference.”

The mood is set even before customers walk in the door. Outside each store, a large patio area that is often festooned with floral displays welcomes shoppers. Says Becky Paulson, AJ’s floral and store presentation coordinator, “In Arizona, the weather’s so beautiful most of the time, we’re able to display so much outside.”

Inside, there’s much more for customers to feast their eyes on. Lori Turner, floral manager of the Chandler, Ariz., store, has heard customers’ first reactions when they enter her store: “You have people walking in the door just going ‘Wow!’—the oohs and ahhs—and then somebody in the group will say, ‘I know, that’s why we wanted to bring you here, just to show you how pretty it is.’ ”

They are reacting to the abundantly stocked 3,500-square-foot floral department, which is at the entrance of each store; the soft, warm lighting; the beautiful tile floors; the brick and wood accents; and the softly playing music. As they progress into the store, shoppers’ senses are further stirred by the aroma of chef-prepared gourmet dishes in the Bistro, which promises an “international culinary adventure” for lunch and dinner.

What’s more, shoppers will find sashimi-grade tuna in the Seafood Grotto and Kobe beef in the Butcher’s Corner. A huge selection of fruits and vegetables is available in the Farmer’s Market. In the Boulangerie, customers can satisfy their sweet tooth with one of AJ’s signature fruit tarts. The fare is all designed to satisfy the palate of the most discriminating foodie.

The full-service floral department, called AJ’s Floral Boutique, has the products and service to satisfy discriminating floral consumers, many of whom are buying for home décor. Several of the stores are in growing, upscale areas, with high-priced homes whose owners spend $100 to $200 every week at AJ’s to fill them with flowers.

Many of the customers choose their flowers from the focal point of each department, a 4-foot-by-6-foot stem table, which is filled with a tantalizing array of cut flowers, from tropicals to lilies. Near the stem table is a designing table, where customers can see the designers create arrangements from the stems they choose, adding to the ambience.
Ms. Paulson says AJ’s sells some ready-made bouquets, but mostly customers buy off the stem tables, “whether it’s ginger or birds-of-paradise, Gerbera daisies—whatever they may want. That way they can just grab what they want, the colors they want, and since I have designers right on staff, we can either arrange it for them or wrap it in cellophane. We price it, wrap it and put a nice raffia bow on everything, and off it goes.”

Ms. Paulson says tropicals are the best sellers, such as Oncidium orchids from Hawaii, Proteas and gingers, each for $6 a stem, and birds-of-paradise for $4. “It could be because of how long they last,” she says of tropicals’ popularity. “It’s also those Southwestern colors because everyone’s home is those colors.”

In addition to custom designs, shoppers will find arrangements to “grab and go” in the departments’ walk-in coolers. Arrangements sell for $39.99 and up, averaging $69. A customer favorite is a dozen roses for $79.99.

The boutiques also sell blooming and green plants on custom-made wooden stair-step merchandisers that match the décor of the stores. Ms. Paulson says 60 percent of sales come from fresh flowers, including arrangements and stems, 30 percent from plants and 10 percent from hard goods.

The Floral Boutiques contribute a healthy 3.9 percent toward total store sales. Ms. Paulson credits a supportive corporate environment and professional floral staff for the operation’s success. “Everybody is so pro-floral,” she says. “It makes such a difference.”

The corporate support includes having the labor hours to staff the departments from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. AJ’s, whose parent company is Basha’s, a family-owned chain based in Chandler, pays good salaries and benefits, attracting talented designers who appreciate the corporate culture. “Because we’re treated so well, we really try to value our employment and make them as successful as possible, because it, in turn, ensures our own personal successes,” says Linda Beeckman, floral manager of the Mesa, Ariz., store. “So it’s a win-win situation.”

Corporate executives have helped out at the store level, further endearing them to the staff. Ms. Beeckman tells of a vice president who worked in her floral department during Valentine’s Day last year. “He worked just as hard as he possibly could and was a real team player,” she recalls. “How could you not respect someone like that? That’s awesome—to come at the absolute worst time and volunteer to help.”

The staff rewards that corporate trust with professionalism and excellent customer service. Ms. Beeckman comments, “We really are like a floral shop dropped into a gourmet market.”

The designers, many of whom worked in upscale traditional floral shops, keep up on the latest trends by going to trade shows and seminars, visiting floral shops when they are in other cities and reading design and home décor magazines. “We try to stay on the cutting edge of design,” Ms. Beeckman says. “We try to keep up with current trends not only in the industry in general but what’s going on as far as design in L.A. and New York. We introduce [the trends] to the public by offering new, innovative ideas and concepts at very reasonable prices.”

The designers, who are adept at talking with customers to find out exactly what they need, will create arrangements for clients while they shop. “Someone will walk in and say, ‘I’m having a party tonight. I just want some type of a centerpiece. These are the colors I want,’ ” Ms. Paulson relates. “And while they’re shopping, we can make it for them.”

The designers also make sure to offer care tips to customers to help ensure their purchases thrive in the Arizona climate. The products have care cards, but Ms. Beeckman says, “We pride ourselves on trying to keep a florist on the floor at all times, so the 12 hours a day that we’re staffed, there’s usually someone here,” giving extra advice to customers.

The floral managers also pride themselves on providing the florals that customers will want. The floral managers do their own buying from three wholesalers in the area, who make deliveries twice a week to ensure products are always fresh.

Ms. Paulson procures products for promotions because of the bigger buying power, but on a daily basis, it’s the floral managers’ decision. “It’s ownership,” she says. “They bring in what they want, sell what they want. We have no schematics. Every store is a little different because they have such different personalities.”

Ms. Turner, the floral manager of the Chandler store, is good at gauging customers’ tastes—and sometimes giving them a little nudge in the right direction. Her store opened nearly six years ago, and tropicals initially weren’t big sellers, but she kept putting them out. “Now people come here just for the tropicals because they know they can find them here, and they can’t find them a lot of other places,” she says.

Customers also come to Ms. Turner’s and the other AJ’s Floral Boutiques for party, funeral and wedding work. The chain does 35 to 40 weddings a year, most of them small to medium size. “A couple of the country clubs recommend us to their customers,” Ms. Turner adds.

In addition to their floral products, the floral departments offer fabulous gift baskets that are made at the stores according to shoppers’ wishes. “We put in all of the gourmet items—all the beautiful fruits and cheeses and crackers” and more, says Ms. Paulson.

The gift baskets sell for about $69.99 and up, sometimes much higher. Ms. Beeckman tells of a partnership with a wine distributor who was promoting Italian wines. “We produced beautiful baskets that looked like Tuscany—deep, dark, reeded baskets, lush linens and gourmet foods that were shelf stable,” she says. The baskets had price points of $125, $175, $300 and $500, and they sold well, she reports. Her store also makes custom gift baskets for a hospital’s doctors, in the $300 to $500 range.

For promotion, the floral departments get space every week in the company’s newspaper ad. In addition, AJ’s buys a monthly column in the Arizona Republic, which is the largest newspaper in Arizona, with an average daily circulation of 454,580 readers. In the column, called “What’s New at AJ’s,” Ms. Paulson highlights the flower or plant of the month. “They give me some nice advertising money,” she says of her company’s executives. “It’s been really good for the floral department.”

For in-store promotions, the departments change the merchandising focus monthly. Ms. Paulson and the floral managers meet in November and plan the monthly promotions for the entire year. In January, for example, they decided to have a “White Sale.” They brought in white blooming plants and flowers such as Hydrangeas and callas. The idea was “to get rid of that red and green for Christmas. It’s a fresh, clean look,” Ms. Paulson says. The art department from parent company Basha’s makes banners and signage for promotions.

The well-planned promotions, fresh florals and innovative designs are all part of the emphasis AJ’s puts on quality and, especially, customer service. “That’s where that whole ‘experience the difference’ thing comes in, where we’re highly attuned to customer service,” Ms. Beeckman says. “It makes a big difference in our sales and our success.”

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