Psychedelic poms of neon green and hot pink, and navy blue rose buds dipped in silver glitter are among the showier offerings attracting a new generation of customers to supermarket floral departments, retailers and industry experts told SN.
Teenagers -- mostly females -- have been spending lunch periods and afternoons visiting stores close to their school to snatch up these trendy, over-the-top items. And even though they are about as "unfloral" as you can get, department managers -- faced with profit demands, staffing cuts and category management issues -- aren't complaining.
"The dyed poms in the neon colors are what people have been buying a lot of, especially younger people," said Diane Schulte, floral specialist, for Dicks Supermarkets, Platteville, Wis. The retailer operates eight Blooming Basket departments within the nine-store chain, owned by Fresh Brands, Sheboygan, Wis.
"There's pink, blue, orange -- all sorts of interesting colors. They really catch their eye, and some of our stores stock these on a day-in, day-out basis because of the requests that come in for them," Schulte said.
Supermarkets capture roughly 40% of the overall $16 billion floral industry. According to the Society of American Florists, Alexandria, Va., the typical consumer spends nearly $80 on floral products in supermarkets every year -- up from $68 just four years prior. The biggest boost has come from sales of unarranged cut flowers, mostly single-stem items that shoppers purchase to create their own bunches or bouquets.
At Dierbergs Markets, St. Louis, cut-flower buyer Lou Knockel said there is a variety of items high up on the "must-have" list this year, but the theme for them all is the brighter, the better.
"We market to all ages, but these brighter hues are capturing the younger groups. It's even carried over into the baby boomer generation," said Knockel. "A few years ago, we wouldn't have even approached these items. But now we have several stores who have customers coming back on a standing-order basis and buying a dye-colored Fuji or pom pom."
To be sure, flowers of any kind make a bold, fresh statement, but these items go above and beyond the traditional bouquets and bunches of carnations or roses offered in past years. Kathryn Miele, director of marketing for the California Cut Flower Commission, Watsonville, Calif., said supermarkets are on the front line of cutting-edge trends because of their reputation for convenience and accessibility, two key aspects required of any successful in-store floral operation.
"People go into a supermarket a couple of times a week, and the product is right there in front of them," she noted. "The product mix is also a little different from what the traditional florist offers. It's more casual and friendly than a formal stand-alone florist shop."
This ability to intercept shoppers with new products and affordable luxuries while they're shopping for food items is one of supermarket floral's greatest assets, industry officials said. Terry Johnson, president of Horticultural Marketing Resources, Mission Viejo, Calif., said the positioning of floral within the store footprint, and its strong alliance with the produce department, give floral an image that would go unrecognized if it operated alone.
"I don't believe there is a department within the supermarket that has a greater potential for delivering increased sales and profits -- at a time when [supermarkets] really need it," he told SN. "Floral is dead last in the belief that they can deliver. And that's a shame."
Figures regarding shrink and profit are hard to come by, due to wide variations in chain size, handling techniques and department inventory. But estimates of a 10% contribution to margin emerges as a good average, with roughly 10% to 20% shrink acceptable in well-run departments, industry observers agreed.
"About 1% of shoppers who walk through the doors buy floral products, and that can be as high as 5% if it's a high-end operator," Johnson added. "Now, if we can double that low-end figure to make it 2% of shoppers buying floral, there wouldn't be enough in stores to handle that demand."
Put another way, shrink in floral -- like its compatriot produce -- is a necessary part of the business. Johnson said shrink levels that are too low indicate that there isn't enough product out on the floor.
"Merchandising is the risk you take in perishable products. The goal is to increase volume, and that means putting out big displays and keeping them up," he said.
To attract floral customers , supermarket sales typically focus on two strategies: gift-giving and self-consumption. In both cases, supermarkets are ideal vendors because of their convenience and ability to offer pre-made, affordable arrangements or bouquets that are nicely packaged. Pat Bauer, director of marketing for Temkin International, Salt Lake City, noted many retailers she is working with are looking to ancillary frills that add a classy touch to their offerings without costing too much or being too labor-intensive.
"A lot of retailers are looking for subtle branding. They want to establish their own identity," said Bauer, who until last year was corporate floral director for Kroger Co., Cincinnati. "Safeway, Kroger, Albertsons -- they all want to establish their own identity in an upscale way in floral. Part of what [Temkin] does is enhance the value by wrapping the flowers in a nice way."
Some flowers sell themselves and don't need any wrapping. A recent development has been the surge in popularity of blue-dyed roses dressed in glitter. Both Dierbergs' and Dicks' floral operations received a surprising jolt when these items first appeared on the market last year.
"One of our managers took about 75 stems back with her to her store, which is right next to the high school," recalled Knockel. "Soon, a couple of students came in and bought them. And within a very short period of time, our parking lot started filling up with these high-school girls rushing in to buy these roses."
Dierbergs capitalized on the fact that the school's colors just happen to be navy and white. The stems sold for $3.99 each, or a dollar more than a traditional, unadorned bud.
Much the same occurred at Dicks, where Schulte said the same roses sell for $3 apiece.
"The blue-tinted roses are big," she said. "With schools with blue-and-white team colors, they fly out as soon as we get them. It's another item some of our stores have a standing order for."
To be fair, not everything in today's floral department is loud. Also making the bestseller list are natural-colored hydrangeas and roses that are in subtle shades of green. These are mostly used as fillers for larger bouquets or arrangements.
"We work a lot with those natural-color Fuji mums, and Kermit and Yoko Ono poms," noted Schulte. "They're wonderful as a neutral color in arrangements. In general, we're trying in our designs now to use different accent flowers, and lay low on the carnations, to give us a more upscale look."
Miniature sunflowers and Gerbera daisies are also popular as consumer bunches or by the stem. Bauer of Temkin said that at Kroger, bouquets and consumer bunches comprised more that 50% of the giant chain's floral sales.
"Bouquets and consumer bunches are the two leading items in almost every retail I'm familiar with," she said. "The very bright colors, as well as the more unusual colors, are very popular right now. That includes oranges, yellows, pinks, and the natural green. All of them will sell well during the summer, too. It's a retro, '60s thing, like a Peter Max painting."
At Dicks' Blooming Basket departments, "about 75% of our business is in cut flowers, whether it's loose stems, arrangements or in vases," Schulte said.
One special item that has become something of a signature for the retailer is its store-made candle arrangements, she added.
"It's a wide jar candle, where we flip the lid over and build the arrangement in the lid, and then tape that to the top of the candle jar. We use a lot of larkspur, sunflowers and other wild-looking flowers for them," she said.
Adding value in the form of such add-ons that last well beyond the life of the actual flowers is another way retailers are boosting sales beyond their full-service programs. At Forever Blossoms, a Miami-based distributor with clients ranging from Wal-Mart to Albertsons, a new item getting attention is a bouquet of flowers and fillers that can be dried and kept as a momento. Jackie Reidenbach, general manager of the company, said the "Dry Me" line includes sturdy components like spray roses and eucalyptus, along with consumer instructions for proper drying on a tag attached to the packaging.
In the end, however, floral is still a business -- however pretty -- and strong management is what is helping supermarkets stay on top of successfully intercepting the consumer. According to Johnson, the consultant, the top three mistakes in supermarket floral are: a failure to demand value at the grower level; cool-chain violations; and a lack of retail specifications to standardize quality.
"The key in developing a successful supermarket floral business is understanding that the retail sale starts when the flower is cut from the plant, because all too often, that's where the problems start," he said.
"It's improper cutting techniques, poor cool-chain management, and the like. It's not like produce, where we have food-safety regulations that mandate cool-chain practices all the way from the farm to the individual store."
What's more, there is no definitive how-to manual of best practices that standardize the way floral products are treated. As a result, it's largely still a trial-and-error business, he said.
"There aren't any demands made on anyone but their immediate vendor," Johnson said of retail practices today.
"Someone has to decide that it's in the best interest of the supermarket, and their customer, to make demands on the entire distribution channel," he added. "That's what happens in produce all the time."
For better or worse, having produce as the floral department's umbrella is giving rise to new attitudes as to where floral fits in the supermarket setting.
"I feel there is strength in having produce as the backbone of a floral department," said Bauer, the former Kroger director.
"A lot of people may not agree with me on that," she said. "But floral is a very small piece of the overall business, so if you have a supporter like produce, that's helping to raise the floral profile; you get improved exposure and a stronger corporate voice when it comes to decision-making."
Dierbergs is following a different model. The 20-store operator, which also runs a 150-person central design and distribution facility, has been steadily moving the department away from the back corner of stores, after produce, to the front, where it is a full-service boutique with walk-in coolers and a full-service desk.
"Floral has always been a key part of the Dierbergs chain," said Knockel. "In fact, one of the advertisements we use from time to time is calling ourselves 'Dierbergs, the florist with a supermarket attached."'