Lessons Learned at Phil's Bar-B-Que

There used to be a little barbeque joint here in Blanco, Texas named Phil’s Bar-B-Que. Phil was a nice guy; friendly, served on the city council and so on. But if you came in to get a sandwich, he would go catatonic. Customers scared him to death. I’d order the chopped beef sandwich.“A chopped beef sandwich!?” Phil would yelp. My wife Pamela would order the same thing. “ANOTHER chopped beef sandwich!?” Phil would panic. Then two more customers would come in and Phil’s eyes would bug out and beads of sweat would appear on his brow. You felt sure that he was never going to be able to handle this.

One day a large group of customers came in, clearly from out of town. They all ordered barbeque, except for one woman. She ordered the crab salad sandwich. Why Phil offered a crab salad sandwich in a barbeque joint in Central Texas, and why anyone would ever order it, is a real mystery. But at any rate, this threw Phil into a tailspin. After a long interlude during which nobody was served, Phil came out to the group’s table and asked the woman if he could borrow her car keys.  He explained that he actually had no crab meat on hand, and would need to run down to the grocery store to buy some canned crab, but his car was broken down. Amazingly, the woman handed Phil her keys and off he went, leaving the restaurant unattended and customers in line.  

We gave up going there, and so did everyone else. It wasn’t too much longer until Phil closed his doors. His barbeque was fine, but his service was terrible.

I have seen flower growers look a bit like Phil when you mention that they should explore selling flowers to grocery stores. Sort of like they’ve been asked to make a crab salad sandwich out of barbeque.   But the fact is that the real growth in our industry is in mass marketers, and we have ceded that segment over to foreign growers with barely a yelp.

The good news is that these retailers really want to buy local flowers. Their customers are asking for them, and retailers want to be seen as supporting local farms. The secret is to learn how to navigate the world of the large retailer and keep your local farm identity. And your sanity.

Many people think that selling flowers to a retailer such as Whole Foods Market is the end goal, that when they deliver the flowers they are done. But harsh as this may sound, here is the real truth.  Whole Foods Markets (nor any other store) doesn’t want to buy your flowers. Nope. They want to sell your flowers. It may seem like I am splitting hairs here, but if you understand this one concept you will be successful: you sell service. You sell the service of providing merchandise (flowers) for the retailers to sell. Do it within their framework, provide them with a differentiated product (local flowers), and they will love you.

Pamela and I have been selling to grocery stores for over 20 years. What we have learned is that while they really want to work with local growers, the stores have little patience for growers who ask for their car keys to make it happen. They will help you get started, but you have to be a fast learner. Here are a few key points you have to excel at to provide the level of service to sell to grocery stores.

Consistency. Remember, these stores want to sell your flowers, not buy them, and you have to be there when you say you will. Floor space in a grocery store is high-dollar real estate, and they want it filled with things they can sell. Empty shelves are unacceptable. What Pamela and I sell most is the promise that we will be there every week, all season, on the same day, at the same time. The stores know what to expect, and we make it happen. No excuses. One time I was out during a tropical storm harvesting sunflowers in a 50 mph gale. They were all lying flat on the ground. We picked them up, packed them, and were at the store by 2:00 p.m.

Standards. Local flowers don’t need to look like the imports, but they must look the same as they did last week, or last year. The stores have to know what to expect, and that they can expect the same thing each time. Our sunflowers are always a minimum size and height. They are all cut at the same stage and delivered just about to open. We can’t ship big, open flowers one week and small, tight ones the next.

Preservatives. Believe it or not, the stores are not always up on the best methods for holding flowers.  We had trouble with one retailer for years. The flowers wouldn’t last. We finally convinced them to have a consultation with a major floral preservative supplier, and a year later the main buyer told us that their shrink for all their flowers was down 30%! We ship in preservative and we help educate the individual stores on how to handle flowers.

Communication. Most grocery stores order flowers through a main procurement office in the company. Flowers are ordered at least two weeks in advance off an “order board” provided to the stores.  When we email our stores on a Monday morning with the week’s availability, they have already done most of their ordering two weeks ago. They may have spent their budget. You’ll need to convince them that they should hold open a slot in their flower-buying budget for your flowers every week. This is why you must be consistent. If they hold open a spot for you and you don’t deliver, they can’t quickly replace your flowers. We communicate both directly with the individual stores, and with the main buyers. This gets a little hairy when you have 40 stores in a company, and they all order individually, but again, remember, you are selling service, not flowers.

There are plenty of things about grocery stores that will make you feel like Phil when four customers have just walked in. Bar coding. Insurance. Branding and signage. Pricing. Deliveries and back-dock politics. Yikes!

Lucky for you, these and much more will be covered at this year’s National Conference in Wilmington. Pamela and Lisa Ziegler have a long session to present every opportunity and pitfall they know about when selling to grocery stores. Keith Cramer of Cramers’ Posie Patch will tell you all about working with wholesalers. And an all-star lineup of Barbara Lamborne, Joe Schmitt, and Diane Szukovathy will present their stories about creating and selling through cooperatives. I think the marketing segment of the conference is the strongest we’ve had in years, and the rest of the schedule matches it. The conference committee has done a great job lining up the best of the best, and I’m looking forward to it. See you there.