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Feature Story
The freshness
by Cynthia  L. McGowan

Customers flock to Central Market’s European-style floral departments.

The mission of Central Market, a seven-store division of H.E. Butt Grocery Company, is to offer customers only products that meet its high standards for freshness and quality. This philosophy is integrated throughout the stores, including their fabulous European market-style floral departments.

In today’s ultracompetitive grocery store environment, the seven Central Market stores, all in Texas, have taken a unique approach to differentiate themselves from the competition. The stores’ niche is specialty and organic foods, with an emphasis on offering products that customers can’t get anywhere else. For example, they don’t offer national brands of diapers, instead offering a “natural” line. It’s a concept that has proved successful since the first Central Market opened in Austin in 1994; that store is now one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.

John Campbell, vice president of the Central Market division, told the Houston Business Journal in 2001, “We don’t compete in bread or milk wars; it’s a different phenomenon that drives this store. Our mission is to edit out anything that is less than outstanding and create risk-free shopping by taking food to a different level.”

Not only is the product selection nontraditional but the store layout also is unique. Super Floral Retailing recently visited the Houston store, and like all Central Markets, it isn’t divided into conventional aisles. Instead, shoppers follow a path through the store that takes them into the various departments. Directional signs helpfully point out shortcuts to other departments and the checkout stands.

But a shopper would have to be in a hurry to want to bypass the departments because there are so many tantalizing reasons to linger in each area of the bustling 78,000-square-foot store, which opened in 2001:

• The colorful, inviting floral department, prominently located at the front of the store behind the cash registers, has a multitude of flower varieties, bouquets and plants for sale, merchandised to look like a European flower market.

• The 10,000-square-foot produce section has as many as 700 varieties of fruits and vegetables during the peak season—many organic and grown in Texas.

• “Protein alley” consists of a meat department that makes its own sausage and carries only Premium Gold Angus Beef from cattle younger than 20 months so there are no concerns about mad-cow disease, as well as a seafood department that carries only fresh fish.

• The beer/wine department carries 2,500 wine labels.

• The cheese department has 600 selections.

• Chef-created meals are offered for meals on the go.

• A large assortment of breads is baked daily in the bakery.

• A “bulk bar” has freshly made pesto, salad dressings, salsas, sauces and an olive bar featuring a wide variety of pitted, unpitted and stuffed olives.

On top of that huge variety, Central Market emphasizes freshness and quality. The store takes a European market approach, says David Kaiser, sales manager, so “our produce is fresh today”—customers know they won’t need to take it home and wait for it to ripen. In addition, if products aren’t in season, Central Market doesn’t carry them. Even if the products are available at other stores, Mr. Kaiser says, “if they aren’t to our standards, we don’t have them. We’ll do without.”

And, says Alison West, floral manager of the Houston Central Market, that philosophy of quality and freshness carries through to floral. “It’s a manifestation of what our floral department’s all about,” she says. “We espouse those same principles.”

Visitors to the green-canopy-covered floral department feel as if they are at an outdoor flower market, with rows of colorful blooms beckoning shoppers to come closer to look, touch and buy the many varieties available. Work tables in the 900-square-foot department let customers watch the friendly Central Market employees, who are called “partners,” as they work with the flowers.

In keeping with Central Market’s commitment to freshness, the floral department receives flower shipments seven days a week. Jennifer Young, division floral buyer, says the company procures products from all over the world, both from wholesalers and directly from growers.

Like the store’s other departments, floral also has a strong local program. A large banner in the floral department proclaims “Home-Grown Texas Specialty Cut Flowers Fresh from the Texas Hill Country.” Ms. West says there’s “definitely a following” among her customers for home-state products such as Texas bluebonnets (the state flower), hollyhocks, dogwoods and sunflowers.

The result of this flexibility in buying is a department full of flowers ranging from Wisconsin peonies to exotic tropicals like Banksias. Buckets of irresistible Hydrangeas were popular sellers during Super Floral Retailing’s recent visit. Roses were merchandised by color four rows deep.

The department’s focal point was a display of sunflowers and Irises, with a poster of Vincent Van Gogh drawn in the style of one of his self-portraits along with the words “Iris, I had some sunflowers to paint.” The display promoted a “Van Gogh Bouquet,” consisting of one bunch of Irises and one bunch of sunflowers. “It was really fun to see that fly out the door,” says Ms. West.

The floral staff is frequently offering new promotions like the Van Gogh Bouquet and changing the look of the department to keep consumers’ attention. New products constantly are brought in, and creative merchandising, including clever signage like the Van Gogh poster, adds to the interest. “It makes it very dynamic for the customer shopping experience,” Ms. Young says. “There’s always something new to see.”

Customers respond to the freshness, quality and exciting merchandising by coming back again and again for florals. Says Mr. Kaiser, “What amazes me about our customers is that they’ll buy flowers on Monday, and they’ll be back on Wednesday to buy more,” even though the ones they bought earlier are still fresh. Those repeat customers have helped the Houston Central Market floral department earn 4 percent of the store’s total sales.

Also keeping those floral customers coming back is the helpful, knowledgeable floral staff. One member of the 10-person staff is a Texas Master Florist (TMF) who serves as the department’s wedding florist. Another designer studied her craft in London, and a third is a master gardener. Part of the Central Market concept is offering excellent customer service, and, says Ms. West, “I think that’s where our people and our partners really shine. We’re able to say to a customer, ‘I think this would look really great with that. How big is your container? Do you have it with you? Can we do it for you?’” The designers will make those custom arrangements while customers shop or wait in the department.

The designers also work with the customers to help them learn how to make their own arrangements from the stems they have purchased. In addition, the store offers classes in floral arranging through its cooking school, often on a seasonal theme, such as “Create your Thanksgiving Centerpiece.”

Floral managers and perishables directors from Central Market have visited flower farms, giving them first-hand knowledge about their floral products, says Gary Klumpp, the Houston store’s perishables director. The visits give store employees the opportunity to tell customers, “‘I’ve been out there, and I’ve seen the product,’” Mr. Klumpp says, and they also can better educate consumers on the history of the flowers they are buying.

Customers also respond to the department’s upscale and creative arrangements, which often incorporate items from the produce department. “We get to use English breakfast radishes and fresh herbs, and we love using the chard, just for texture and color,” Ms. West says. “That really gives us an identity, as a department and as a design team. It gives us some really unique and innovative designs.”

Ms. West also has used lima and coffee beans for arrangements. For a special event, she used as part of the centerpieces French baguettes and pussy willow branches.

The store does about 30 weddings and special events annually, and Ms. West says they allow her department to shine. The events “really showcase what we do on a large scale,” she says.

And getting the word out about her store’s top-notch floral operation is Ms. West’s mission. “As passionate as I am about flowers, I’m equally passionate about marketing and merchandising,” she says. “Because I want everybody else to enjoy what I get to work with on a day-to-day basis.”

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

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