Too Much Service

By Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

Many supermarkets have yet to learn the lesson that when it comes to floral merchandising strategy, the neighborhood floral shop is not the suitable role model. Evidence that this lesson has gone unheeded is all around us. Most notable: many mass retailers offer too much service in their floral departments – more services that customers are willing to pay for. Even more important, the emphasis on building up a full range of “florist like” services is in many cases distracting people from realizing the full potential of mass market floral.

The people who have built today’s mass-market floral industry have been pioneers. They had to struggle to find their own answers to difficult problems or department design, ordering, staffing, merchandising and marketing. Until practically yesterday there were no training courses, books of procedure or other guides to help run a floral operation in a mass market outlet.

Even today, the simple newness of the field dictates that a lot is going to continue to be learned by trial and error. In this kind of environment, the natural thing to do is to look desperately for models – how other people sell floral products. And, perhaps inevitably, this has meant that mass merchandisers have looked to retail florist shops for inspiration. As a result, many mass marketers of floral products have gotten hot on everything from doing weddings to soliciting corporate business to delivery vans and wire services. In fact, one would have to say that featuring all of these added services has become enormously appealing to many floral directors.

But I must dissent. I won’t say a supermarket floral shop should never feature these services, perhaps a supermarket in a rural area with cheap rent and no local florist might find it makes sense. Such services also might appeal to those new super large stores they build where management sometimes seems desperate to find things to fill in all that space. But, in general, these services and other attempts to ape floral shops are counterproductive.

In many cases, they lose money and are only justified as an added benefit for the consumer though there is no indication that significant numbers of shoppers value these services.

But even where the services make a buck, they do damage by distracting the staff and management from focusing on the task of the mass merchandiser. That is, getting people who walk through our stores every day to buy some flowers, plants, and related items.

How is it possible to ever offer too much service? The truth is that mass market floral departments are located in an extremely expensive real estate. It simply makes no sense to use that great location to run, for example, a business where people order gifts over the phone to be delivered or funeral wreaths to be prepared. If in that business, it would be far wiser to find a vacant corner of the warehouse and accept phone orders and do delivery from there.

Where you need the in-store locations is to catch those shoppers, and it’s practically everyone at some point, who don’t know what they want until they see it. And the challenge for the legions of floral mass marketers is to make this happen by capturing impulse sales.

This objective is harder to achieve if floral department personnel is sidetracked. More than once I’ve been in a supermarket floral shop where all the employees were so busy doing a special order that they ignored the customers in the store. Display racks were neglected, customer service non-existent. This is no way to take advantage of the traffic flow in mass merchandising outlets.

Once these facts are accepted, a lot of things become clear. In a supermarket environment, for example, where you have many people returning week after week, the need to vary displays and the type of flowers available is clear. Even in the layout of a department, the impulse angle dictates a great deal. Some supermarket floral departments are set up to look too much like floral shops. They are intimidating consumers from coming in to browse.

The truth is that there are wondrous ways to promote and merchandise floral items that are being discovered every day by retailers across the country and around the world. But, as a trade, we have to keep our eyes on our own goal, the goal appropriate to a floral mass marketer, that of increasing impulse sales.

What we need is the courage of our own convictions. Let floral mass marketers shake off the images of floral marketing created by retail florists. Let us announce that we intend to walk to the beat of a different drummer. Let us declare our dedication to our own trade, bringing color and pleasure to the life of the consumer who hadn’t necessarily intended to have any flowers that day.

In time, that impulse buyer may just wonder how he or she lived without the joy that comes from flowers in the home. Then our impulse buyer may just become our regular customer.