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Feature Story
     a fresh

by Cynthia L. McGowan

Price Chopper is committed to offering only the “Best in Fresh” to its floral customers.

A relentless pursuit of quality in all aspects of its business, from the products to customer service to merchandising, has been the basis for success for the floral operation at Price Chopper, a 112-store chain located in six Northeastern states.

A Price Chopper motto is “Best in Fresh,” and perishables is where the company has chosen to differentiate itself from the competition, says Jon Strom, vice president of floral operations. The meat departments offer certified Angus and choice-grade beef; the artisan bakeries serve up big, crusty loaves of baked-from-scratch bread as well as made-in-the-store bagels; the seafood departments offer a wide selection; and the produce departments are well-stocked with a fresh array of fruits and vegetables.

corporate support for floral
Floral is an important part of the company’s commitment to be the “Best in Fresh,” Mr. Strom says. Support for floral starts at the top, he says, with Neil Golub, CEO and president of the Schenectady, N.Y.-headquartered chain, whose 20,000 employees own 55 percent of the company’s privately held stock.

“He loves flowers,” Mr. Strom says. “He’s been in the [grocery] business more than 50 years, and he comes into my office probably every day. There are very few floral people at my level who get that kind of support and attention.”

Floral is its own department, and, Mr. Strom points out, the fact that “the head of floral is a vice president also indicates the importance the company gives to floral.” What that company support means is a large advertising presence; an emphasis on procuring and selling top-quality products; a highly trained work force; well-planned and well-executed merchandising displays and promotions; and big, inviting floral departments that are branded as Central Market Florist.

The payoff is a well-run floral operation that does thousands of weddings a year as well as funerals, celebrations and other special events. “We are custom florists inside a mass-market supermarket,” says Mr. Strom. And while he declined to reveal what percentage of total store sales comes from floral, he would say, “According to what I hear, it’s higher than the national average.”

floral paves the way
The “Best in Fresh” motto comes alive for customers before they enter Price Chopper stores. Floral products such as lawn and garden items are merchandised outside the stores nine months of the year, and flowers are displayed year-round just inside the stores. Seeing the bright fresh flowers, Mr. Strom says, “really creates an impression for the whole shopping experience. We are really happy to lead the way into the stores.”

Inside, perishables line the perimeter of the stores, with floral strategically positioned “in the last corner, which is where we want it to be,” Mr. Strom says. Shoppers don’t have to worry about their groceries crushing their delicate floral items, he points out.
In fact, Mr. Strom says, most of the floral departments are at the end of the dairy and orange juice aisles, an “ideal location,” he says, because those aisles are shopped by nearly 80 percent of customers.

large departments
No matter where the departments are, they are difficult to miss because of their design and size, which ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet. “We certainly have a much larger footprint for floral than the average supermarket,” Mr. Strom acknowledges.

The counters are at or near the front of the departments to boost employee interaction with customers. “While our florists are working, they also can engage the guests in conversation,” Mr. Strom says. In addition, “customers can see what we’re doing and see the skills and the talents of our designers.”

Most departments also have large bouquet cases, reach-in coolers with doors for high-end designs and open coolers for “cash-and-carry” florals like single-stem roses or carnations. “Ninety-five percent of our stores are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so often you’ll put a $70 arrangement in the cooler and leave at 10 o’clock, and it’s gone by 7 in the morning,” says Mr. Strom. “People have busy lives these days, and they know that they can come to Central Market Florist at Price Chopper to pick up an arrangement any time of day.”

Customers also can place orders for custom arrangements and shop while their orders are being completed. The stores also take orders in advance by phone and at Price Chopper’s Web site,, which this year won the “Best Web Site Award” from the National Grocers Association.

well-planned merchandising
The look of the departments changes constantly to grab shoppers’ attention. “A typical grocery shopper may make two visits a week to your store,” Mr. Strom mentions. Even a splashy display “blurs into the background” the third or fourth time a customer walks by it, he says, “so we really believe in rotating and changing displays.”

Helping to make sure that happens is Kristal Horton, Price Chopper’s manager of floral merchandising, and three floral specialists. “The thrust of my group’s impact is executing various programs at the stores, and giving feedback on how the stores are reacting and how the customers are reacting,” she says.

The company recently started a bouquet merchandising program that is designed to have a “wall of flowers” effect with vertical striping, Ms. Horton says. The bouquets are arranged by price point—$6.99, $9.99, $14.99 and $19.99—and “each look is very different from the next,” she says, but the line is “designed so that it coordinates well as a group so that it gives a major impact when it’s displayed.”

rose of the month
The new bouquet program is just one example of Mr. Strom’s belief that “new ideas and new products are really what make a company successful.” He began at Price Chopper three years ago, and he introduced 25 new products his first Valentine’s Day with the company.

A willingness to take risks also brings the possibility of failure, which Mr. Strom embraces. “You don’t grow without both success and failure,” he remarks.

A risk Mr. Strom took 2.5 years ago has paid off tremendously. A supplier told him about a “rose-of-the-month” program, and “I really loved it and said, ‘Let’s get behind this,’” he recalls.

The company advertised a six-stem rose bunch in a sleeve for $6.99. It’s one variety for the entire month, which, Mr. Strom points out, can be difficult on a supply basis because rose growers may have 30 to 60 varieties in their greenhouses. “To produce one variety in the volume we need means we get all of their production for that particular month,” he says.

“So we put it out and gave it a shot,” he continues, “and I started getting e-mails and calls from the stores, and they said, ‘Jon, the customers want to know what’s next.’ And immediately I thought, ‘OK, we’ve got a winner here.’”

He worked with the advertising department to develop a poster with the 12 varieties for the year, “and that got people really excited.” He then worked with the marketing department to make the rose-of-the-month program part of the company’s loyalty card program, which is called AdvantEdge.

When consumers buy six bunches in nine months, they get the seventh one free. Customers’ receipts at checkout tell them how many reward points they have in the program, and putting floral on the receipts adds to the visibility of the floral operation.
Customers love the program. The first year, the company increased rose sales tenfold, and the second year, rose sales doubled. “It’s become a seven-figure business for us, this one little tiny item that nobody ever thought about,” Mr. Strom marvels.

Another benefit from the program is the data mined from rose purchasers’ use of their loyalty cards. “Each year we do some marketing directly to our rose-of-the-month purchasers,” Mr. Strom says, “which drives our sales up. That’s been very exciting.”
getting the word out

Price Chopper runs newspaper advertisements at the beginning of every month to promote the rose-of-the-month program. Floral also has a presence in the company’s
weekly newspaper ads. “We get tremendous ad support,” Mr. Strom says.

A recent ad offered a “Fresh Dozen Rose Bouquet” for $9.99; 10-stem daffodil bunches at two for $3; a 4.5-inch potted Oxalis (shamrock, clover) plant for $3.99; 4-inch potted miniature roses at four for $10; and “Flower Market Bunches” at 10 for $10.

For Valentine’s Day this year, floral had its own four-page section that wrapped around the regular advertising supplement. In addition, floral is advertised on radio and television during major holidays, and the company has a television ad promoting its wedding services.

The company also promotes the floral departments through public relations efforts on local radio stations and in newspapers. For Valentine’s Day this year, for example, “we gave away a dozen roses every day,” through 35 radio stations on the days leading up to the holiday, Mr. Strom says.

suppliers’ roles
To make sure that its floral products are the “Best in Fresh,” Price Chopper partners with about 100 suppliers. Says Mr. Strom, “I’m confident that we have the world-class supply team that we need to bring the freshest and the best product to our customers.” The suppliers include growers in South America, California, Florida and Holland as well as local and Canadian growers for nursery products. The company also buys from wholesalers. Floral managers do their own ordering for their stores through the corporate office, which sends the orders to the suppliers.

From initial procurement to the final sale, the company’s emphasis is on quality. “We don’t just make sure the product is fresh, we also care for it and handle it very, very well,” Mr. Strom says.

All floral products are delivered to a distribution center in refrigerated trucks and kept in the cold chain during the entire process, Mr. Strom says. If the items are shipped wetpacked, they are transferred directly to the stores. But if they come in drypacked, they are processed at the distribution center.

The process is excellent for quality control, Mr. Strom says, “because we see every product before it goes to the stores.” It also benefits customer service by taking some of the care-and-handling labor out of the stores, allowing florists “to turn and face the guests and really provide service and fulfill their needs,” Mr. Strom says.

meeting customers’ needs
That customer service is something the floral operation prides itself on. “Floral is known in Price Chopper as one of the premier customer service departments,” Ms. Horton says.
The company is so confident in its floral products and services that it offers a 200 percent guarantee—if a customer has a problem, his or her money will be refunded, and the product will be replaced. However, Mr. Strom says, “I hardly ever hear of it being necessary.”

Instead, he says, he receives heartfelt expressions of thanks from customers for the services they have received. In the past year alone, he says, he has received more than 150 complimentary e-mails and “countless” letters from satisfied customers.

A highly motivated and well-trained work force makes that level of service possible. The floral departments, depending on size and volume, employ from two to eight people, both full and part time. In all, more than 700 people in the company are involved in floral.

The company is constantly training the floral employees through one-on-one interaction, meetings, newsletters, phone calls and e-mails. The three floral specialists are assigned zones, with about 35 stores in each zone. “They’re able to give a lot of hands-on focus to each store and answer their questions, visit them quite frequently and give them tips and pointers on what’s working, how to better merchandise their departments, their financials, you name it,” says Ms. Horton, who also is constantly in the stores.

The corporate staff also is available by cell phone to the stores. “They all know they can reach out to their specialists at any time,” she says.

That availability and responsiveness at the corporate level is part of Mr. Strom’s customer service philosophy. “Everyone who works for me knows that our customers are the floral managers, and we treat them the same way we want them to treat the guests who walk into the store,” he says. “We have a real customer focus in everything we do.”

In addition to the one-on-one feedback, Price Chopper has a companywide meeting every fall for all department managers and their suppliers. Another meeting in January is just for floral, and the staff sets goals, discusses holidays and plans programs. The specialists also regularly conduct meetings with stores in their zones to go over ordering, merchandising, scheduling labor and whatever they need to discuss.

The corporate team sends out weekly planners to the stores. Each week, the color cover highlights a successful display or merchandising technique, and the floral managers enjoy having their stores showcased in that way, Ms. Horton says.

Mr. Strom also communicates to the floral managers through “Jon’s Weekly E-Mail.” “It lets them see how they fit into the big picture, and it also gives them direction and encouragement and excitement about what’s coming up,” he says.

The company also motivates the floral staff through sales contests, Ms. Horton says. Prizes have included cruises, gift certificates and a trip to Miami.

The company offers training classes twice a year that were developed with the help of FTD Group, Inc. The floral specialists run the two-day sessions, and the company now has more than 200 certified designers.

partnering with ftd
That FTD connection is important to Price Chopper, and the company is a top member. Mr. Strom says 91 of the company’s 112 stores have FTD services. “We’ve been growing our business with FTD by 30 percent a year for the last three years,” he says. The company has done that by aggressively promoting its FTD services. It advertises its FTD partnership heavily and has in-house contests to promote sending FTD. “I read every statement for all 91 stores every month,” Mr. Strom says, making sure no orders missed going to an available Price Chopper.

That focus on details and the company’s emphasis on quality and freshness are key factors in the floral operation’s success. Says Mr. Strom, “Floral is important to Price Chopper, and it shows up in the support we get and also in what we do. We take that on as a big responsibility.”

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

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