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Store Profile

The Hills Market: Connecting with customers

Gourmet store’s floral department thrives by building relationships.

by Cynthia L. McGowan

Candie Tipton is more than a florist to her loyal clients at The Hills Market, where she has been floral director since 1995. For many, she is a trusted friend to whom they can turn at life’s biggest milestones.
“She’ll start off doing corsages for the daughter’s first dance, and a few years later she’s doing a wedding, and then friends of the daughter are using her for their weddings, and later on she may have to do a funeral,” explains Jill Moorhead, marketing director for the independently owned gourmet grocery store in Columbus, Ohio.
“The work that she does, the relationships that she builds with people—they don’t even think about going somewhere else,” Ms. Moorhead says.
Those personal touches are the keys to success for both the floral department and the store itself. As a 16,800-square-foot, single-store company, The Hills Market has used service and high-quality, unique products to differentiate itself from the many choices shoppers have in Columbus’ competitive grocery store environment.
the hills market
LOCATION Columbus, Ohio
FOUNDERS Nancy and Roy Kerscher
CURRENT owners James Stiffler, CEO and chairman of the board; Mark Agner, president; Kyle Baker, vice president and merchandising director; and Valerie Carlson, secretary and legal counsel
STORE’S SALES VOLUME An estimated $195,000 a week, according to Specialty Food Magazine; approximately $10 million a year
STORE'S SIZE 16,800 square feet
EMPLOYEES 100 to 120
FLORAL SERVICES Full-service floral department, offering custom designs, weddings, funerals, events and delivery
BIGGEST FLORAL HOLIDAYS Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day


neighborhood store
The Hills Market is in a shopping center at the foot of Worthington Hills, an affluent, close-knit neighborhood of 1,100 homes that was established in the 1960s. It’s the kind of neighborhood where residents have community gatherings, Fourth of July parades and their own newsletter, and says Ms. Moorhead, “They’re our customers.”
The discerning clientele from Worthington Hills, as well as destination shoppers from throughout Columbus, are drawn to The Hills Market’s sophisticated offerings and friendly atmosphere. Overhead track lighting and an appealing color palette of browns, oranges and greens create a calm, comforting ambience that invites shoppers to take their time exploring the store.
The white wooden shelves brim with specialty items like locally made pastas and sauces as well as niche products from out-of-state companies. Chalkboard signage on endcaps helps sell products with such wording as “Goodies for your gift baskets!” and “Barefoot Contessa products by Ina Garten, as seen on TV.”
The large wine department offers more than 4,000 labels, according to Specialty Food Magazine, and keeps a database of all customers’ wine purchases. Prices range from $5 to as much as $500 a bottle. The cheese case includes selections from Ireland, France, Italy, Norway and Spain. The well-merchandised produce department carries only tree-ripened fruit.
The deli, which smokes meats in-house, tempts shoppers with such items as made-to-order sandwiches, pulled pork and a customer favorite, homemade ham salad. In the “Chef’s Case,” the mouth-watering entrées include asparagus with roasted shallots, sea scallops with spicy green beans, crab-stuffed sole and Jamaica jerk swordfish. The bakery boasts in-store-created treats like baklava, crème brûlée, “blonde ambition killer brownies” and tiramisu.

keys to success
PERSONAL SERVICE The floral department has grown the business by offering excellent service and building relationships with customers.
FRESH PRODUCTS Floral deliveries are made every day, and the department follows good care-and-handling techniques.
AVAILABILITY The floral department has seven designers and is staffed seven days a week. It is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. most weekdays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays, giving customers ample opportunity to place custom orders.
SERVICES The floral department coordinates with the store’s in-house, upscale catering and bakery departments to offer customers high-end event services.
GIFTWARE Customers respond well to the giftware selection, which changes seasonally and includes ceramics, candles, place mats and books. Greeting cards also are under floral.
WEB SITE The store promotes florals extensively on its Web site,, showcasing photos of designs, describing services and profiling the floral director.


strategy for success
Ms. Moorhead acknowledges that competition has grown in Columbus in the past five years, giving both destination shoppers and the core Worthington Hills demographic more choices for grocery buying. The store’s strategy to retain its loyal customers and add new ones is to keep its focus on its community ties and its commitment to service. It sources local and specialty products as much as possible. “We really rely a lot on our vendors to help us out and to keep us unique,” Ms. Moorhead explains. “We definitely work with the small-guy vendors because we’re a small guy.”
Events also offer The Hills Market a point of differentiation. “We do lots of events,” Ms. Moorhead says, “events that other places really can’t duplicate.” The store has crab boils, farmers markets and salmon roasts. Top chefs from high-end restaurants offer cooking classes in the store’s kitchen and then serve three-course meals in the wine department. Some of the events take place on the Veranda, an outdoor patio near the store’s entrance where patrons can enjoy grilled-to-order entrées for breakfast and lunch.
Excellent customer service is an equal part of the store’s strategy for success. Shares General Manager Preston Beacom, “We expect every employee to say ‘hi’ to every customer and to go out of their way to make sure that we give them a pleasant experience every time they come into the store.”

growth in floral
The floral department embodies the company’s philosophy of over-the-top service. “I have the best customer service people,” Ms. Tipton, the floral director, says of her staff of six floral designers. “They always are friendly and smiling.”
The staff builds relationships with clients, cultivating a loyal following. “We have a lot of repeat customers, and we have good relationships with them,” Ms. Tipton shares. When Super Floral Retailing visited the store in June, Ms. Tipton was designing a casket spray. The client “called me at home because it was important,” she says.
Those loyal customers have been a key part of the success of the floral department, which Ms. Tipton started in 1995. The store previously was served by an independent florist who rented space in the store.
Within three years of Ms. Tipton’s taking over, the floral department was recognized as one of the top 25 florists in Columbus by Business First, a local business magazine. “This business has just grown by leaps and bounds,” Ms. Tipton remarks. The floral department now generates $500,000 a year in sales, contributing 5 percent of total store sales, Mr. Beacom says.

drawing customers in
The floral department is at the entrance to the store, drawing customers’ attention with bright, colorful flowers and plants. The focal point is the work counter, where the staff can interact with customers while creating their floral designs. The counter always is covered with a selection of vased mixed-flower arrangements, the department’s signature item and top seller.
Over the counter, a three-dimensional metallic sign proclaims “Floral Shoppe.” Words painted on the wall behind the counter tell customers “We do weddings.”
White merchandisers, matching the rest of the store’s shelving, are filled with bouquets, greeting cards and giftware. Buckets of flowers by the stem front the work counter. The overall effect invites impulse buying, which Ms. Tipton estimates contributes 25 percent of the department’s sales, with the rest coming from preorders.

personal touches
Keeping its emphasis on the personal touch, the department makes all the arrangements and the bouquets it sells. Prices for arrangements on the counter for impulse sales start at $13.99 and go to $48.99, with the most popular price point at $19.99. Vase arrangements of a dozen roses sell for $42.99.
The mixed-flower arrangements are beautiful and lush, featuring specialty flowers like roses, Hydrangeas, lilies and Gerberas. “We try to do a lot of different flowers and colors,” Ms. Tipton says, and it’s common for the department to replenish the supply throughout the day as customers buy the designs for home décor, gifts and dinner parties.
Customers also can have custom arrangements made while they shop, using their own vases or ones supplied by the store. Equally popular is the store’s stem program. “We have a lot of people who come in every week and buy cuts to take home” and make their own arrangements, Ms. Tipton describes. The best-sellers are ‘Stargazer’ lilies for $5 a stem, roses at $3 and sunflowers for $2.50.
Ms. Tipton, who has high standards for all products that leave the floral department, tried sourcing bouquets from wholesalers but decided her designers could do better themselves. Every day, the staff creates bouquets filled with upscale flowers like lilies, Irises, sunflowers and roses, adhering to guidelines developed by Ms. Tipton. The department sells them for $5.99 to $14.99.
Plants also are important to the business, which always has blooming and foliage plants in upgraded containers for funerals and hospital visits. For home use, 6-inch Gerberas, daisy mums, Begonias and Gloxinias, from $10.99 to $18.99, are good sellers.
The floral department receives shipments of flowers and plants every day from local wholesalers. They are immediately processed, and the department regularly cleans buckets and practices good care-and-handling techniques.
“We stay after our flowers to make sure they’re always fresh and always good quality,” Ms. Tipton says. Sometimes customers will tell her, “I bought an arrangement two weeks ago, and it’s still going strong.” She jokes, “I don’t know if that’s good or not.”

spreading the word
Customers apparently tell others about their satisfaction. “Word of mouth has just been incredible for Candie,” says Ms. Moorhead, the marketing director.
Ms. Moorhead recommends Ms. Tipton to friends, sending many to her for weddings. “She just takes care of details,” she remarks, making sure to be at the site early, bringing extra corsages and boutonnieres, and helping wherever needed. “She doesn’t just drop off the flowers and leave.”
The store also promotes its florals through bridal shows, its Web site and in-store classes where Ms. Tipton teaches flower arranging. One of the local television stations filmed the designers creating arrangements this past Mother’s Day, which Ms. Tipton called the department’s “biggest ever.”
The high-quality products, personal attention and friendly atmosphere combine to create a store that customers return to again and again. “We’re like family,” Ms. Tipton says of her co-workers. “We’ve worked together for years. We all support each other. It’s a very warm and welcoming environment. Customers do pick up on it.”

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

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