The ASCFG Bulletin Board has recently seen a spate of questions and ideas concerning the particulars of selling to, and preparing flowers for, grocery store and supermarket customers. I’d like to share some of my experiences from the past 20 years working with and selling to grocery stores and supermarkets, including ideas on winning (and keeping) this customer base. A good starting point may be asking some basic questions: Why do you want to sell to grocery stores and supermarkets? What do you expect from them? What do they expect from you?
Why do You Want This Customer Base?
Two compelling reasons to sell this group are the high customer traffic supermarkets offer, and the fact that flower purchasing behavior continues to shift from traditional retail shops to supermarkets, farmers’ markets and box warehouses.
What Do They Expect?
Before approaching any grocery stores in your area, dig deep to learn as much as possible about what they currently do. This information helps you better align your offering to fit their system. Read through their websites, visit stores, peruse the floral department—get a feel for their programs and what products and services they offer. If it is a simple corner grocery, what describes the typical clientele? Tailor your product and price points to fit that profile. How will the product be displayed? Will it be up front? Outside? In shade or sun? Will it get pushed into a cooler at night?
In Holland, gas stations offer displays of hand-tied bouquets. Often, a purchase at a corner grocery or gas station is a last-minute hostess or sweetheart gift so packaging is important. Want to strengthen your value proposition as a vendor? Offer a solution or solve a customer’s problem. One Bulletin Board user mentioned Blumeboxes as a way she solves her customers’ problem of keeping bouquets fresh and gift worthy. Her solution is cardboard vases (with a waterproof insert)—stable, no tipping, no leaking. Check out the site for more info www.blumebox.com.
What Can You Expect?
Grocery and supermarkets give you the advantage of writing fewer and larger invoices. Check on the paper flow—do they work with purchase order numbers? How frequently will you be paid? What is required to get on the “approved vendor list”? Expect this customer group to require confirmation of receipt at each store drop. Do not rely on receiving or a floral clerk to get your delivery slip and/or invoice into the system. Get a signature and date from the person checking in the product and then walk the paperwork into the accounting office.
Although these stores have high traffic, do not expect much flexibility on the quantities they will accept. Don’t wait until you have a glut of product to inform them you’d like to run a “special”. Instead, start with a seasonal production plan to communicate what flowers you’re offering, approximate amounts available per week and color assortments. Update the plan on a weekly basis because missing a week wrecks your credibility and results in the loss of your display spot. Finally, ask about insurance liability. Super-markets often require vendors to carry liability insurance in case Johnny eats the lisianthus.
Know your customer. In stores that already offer cuts, flower sales fall into three basic categories: roses, mixed bouquets and consumer bunches. Of 100% total flower sales, roses usually gobble up about 40-45% sales, mixed bouquets comprise 25-30% and consumer bunches make up +/- 20-25%. Look at retail prices, divide in half to get an idea of the store purchasing price (including box, pack and freight). Note stem counts so you can determine your profitability. Your buyer will expect every bouquet to contain the same quantity of stems at a specific price point. Usually, there are between four to six price levels for bouquets ($4.99—$19.00). Ask which price level(s) move fastest. You want to know the “trigger prices”—the price points at which customers impulsively buy without hesitation. Usually $5.99 is a strong trigger price. Check prices of consumer bunches, too. “Consumer bunch” is a generic term referring to like products in stem counts lower than a standard grower bunch. For example, a standard grower stem count on lilies, iris, spray roses or snaps is 10 stems. A consumer bunch will have anywhere from 2, 3, 5 or 7 stems, depending on what price point is being met. Notice if consumer bunches comprise all like product or if they contain like product plus filler and greens. You may see an opportunity there with your product line.
Do Some Legwork
Introduce yourself as a local grower and ask the clerk questions. Ask how often the store receives floral products and on what days. Find out if bunches arrive pre-priced. Look for UPC codes and a “display until” date. This information is critical, because it’s very likely that the store will expect you to provide those same services. Making mistakes on these details costs you time, lost sales and penalties. You want to negotiate a program outlining all the expectations. Check out the produce side to see if there is an emphasis on locally-grown product. What kind of signage is used? Flowers are such an impulse item, signage and location is crucial.
You can get lots of information from a clerk, but she is generally not the buyer. Floral purchasing, like so many retail venues, has shifted almost entirely away from local and regional buying offices to corporate buying. Regional tastes and demographic considerations have been scrapped to cut costs and improve efficiencies.
What does all this mean to you? Actually, it is good news. The high traffic flow at grocery stores and supermarkets provides great exposure to sell products. Consumer interest in locally-grown products continues to boom and although you may not have the infrastructure in place to sell to a national chain with hundreds of locations, your product has great appeal to stores that support local vendors, emphasize the importance of community, and value sustainability. Of course, these stores must compete by following the tenets of any smart business offering highly perishable, luxury items: consistency, high quality, visual appeal and fair pricing.
Before approaching any potential customer, establish a strong business identity, choose a logo and tell your story. What is it that makes your product appealing? What identifies it? Get your name and/or logo on everything from the sleeve, box, bucket, or stem. You are pursuing grocery stores because they offer an advantage of consumer exposure to your flowers, so make sure consumers can identify your product and recognize it at a glance. When developing your story, include information about your location. How are you part of their community? Pam and Frank Arnosky gave a compelling talk at an ASCFG conference some years back describing how they developed brand awareness for their products that fueled customer interest and drove sales. Telling customers that their flowers were grown only miles away, and having their kids help haul them into the store helped create an enchanting story of its own.
If you are approaching an independent, consider offering a “flower catch’ to pull people into the store. One of the best I saw was a sidewalk sign with “If today is your birthday, come in for your free flower.” or “If your name is _____, come in for a free flower”. This kind of gimmick attracts interest, people start looking to see if it is their “day” and become aware that the store carries flowers. The Bulletin Board had several great posts about ways to pull people to your stall at a farmers’ market.
Finally, develop a good protocol for postharvest handling to ensure consistent, top quality. Any kind of stress robs the end user of long vase life. Grocery stores and supermarkets are not very forgiving. Keep in mind that flowers need to go into a clean solution as soon as possible after harvest to reduce stress. Research shows that pre-chilled (<40F) solutions move faster into the stems of most flower types Always add some kind of germicide to keep bacteria in check. I recommend slow-release chlorine so the effect lasts for 2-4 days. If you are using a commercial hydration solution (like Chrysal Professional #1 or Floralife Hydra Flor), measure to get the dose right. Correct dosage gives maximum results. For ethylene-sensitive blooms, the first drink must contain STS. Don’t hesitate to email me if you want additional information on whether STS is registered for use in your state or maybe you just need an ethylene-sensitive flower list. Treating flowers in pollution-free solutions as a first drink gives best results, but just as important is reducing the temperature. Get the field heat out of bunches as soon as possible after harvest. Place flowers in cold storage between 34-40F. Temperature stress plays a huge factor on vase life. Every 10o increase in temperature can shorten vase life by more than half a day. Many supermarkets will not accept dry-packed flowers if they are not cooled to 40F or lower. Once the blooms have been hydrated and cooled, fill display buckets with a low-sugar flower food. Blooms need a carbo-boost to maximize vase life in the consumers’ home! Happy selling!