Supermarket retailers have been putting their mettle to the petal, redesigning their floral departments with the hope of seeing sales blossom -- and they don't want fixtures to hold them back anymore.
The latest turn they're taking is toward mobility in display equipment. Retail floral directors and other industry sources told SN that in today's market, an efficient floral department is a flexible one, with fixtures that are not so fixed, but rather portable and adaptable.
"Where we're trying to get to as retailers is to have a nonrestrictive refrigeration [system]," said Debby Robinson, vice president of floral operations, Randalls Food Markets, Houston. "We're working with Borgen and Barker [equipment manufacturing companies] trying to develop nonrestrictive, doorless coolers."
Randalls is not alone in this journey, according to comments from other retailers.
"We're interested in a mobile, freestanding refrigeration unit," said Sue Glenn, floral specialist, Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa. "We want units that can be moved around the store."
This emphasis is miles ahead of the immobile display cases that had been the standard, until floral directors a few years ago began to get more serious about their flowers.
"You look back five years ago, and [immobile cases are] all you saw," said one New York-based equipment manufacturer who works with retailers across the country.
"Now the industry is moving toward a greater flexibility. All the new stuff this year is modular," he added.
Modular units can be shaped as the retailer wants, and can be moved and turned on a regular basis to keep the department looking as fresh as the product.
Robinson of Randalls said she is working with Structural Concepts, a Spring Lake, Mich.-based fixtures manufacturer, to add flexibility to her departments. She is using the firm's "Serpentine" modular units, for example, which can be built up or taken down as needed.
"We can take our floral department and move it completely around overnight," Robinson said. "They're not expensive at all," she added. "They sell at right around $2,000."
Because flowers are basically an impulse item, and tend to move in greater volume at certain times of the year, retailers also want floral departments that can be reconfigured based on seasonal requirements.
"You're not going to sell as much during the summer as you will around the holidays," said Jill Auman, floral buyer, Publix Supermarkets, Lakeland, Fla.
Auman said Publix opts to build some of its own floral display equipment to fit the needs of the stores. She also uses a modular unit made by Structural Concepts, which has pieces that can be attached or detached to fixed structures.
"You can add to or delete from the main [structure] depending on what you need," she said. Publix has a number of stores with rather large floral departments -- between 900 and 1000 square feet. As a result, the chain is moving to downsize them.
Downsizing, however, is not necessarily the trend. Other retailers told SN they were expanding their departments; but in either case, the industry seems to be calling on fixture suppliers and manufacturers to give them the ability to adapt to fluid situations.
Some manufacturers are answering the call. One manufacturer said he developed and recently patented a collapsible wall-display system: a self-storage item that can be as small as two inches or as large as three feet wide. It will be hitting the market during the next several months, the supplier said.
Grand Food Center, Winnetka, Ill., built up its floral department to 300 square feet over a six-month period, turning up the volume from 30 to 70 cases of flowers, said Barbara Quagliano, director of floral sales and design.
"There's a wonderful market there," Quagliano said. "It's an impulse item, but more than that, we hope it can increase total store sales. "We're trying to give a fresh look to the store."
Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo., plans to revamp all its floral departments, a move that includes relocating the departments to the front of the store, said Gary Brewer, director of floral operations.
Dierbergs, like several other chains contacted by SN, has made a huge commitment to its floral program, and is seeing the pay off through a better competitive position against other floral marketers.
"Our expansion is coming in the form of new markets," Brewer said. "As we're opening new stores, we're putting in new flower shops."
Dierbergs also has a separate facility for its floral design and marketing operations, as well as an extensive floral-delivery program.
"We're number six in FTD [ranking]," Brewer said. "We deliver all over St. Louis."
FTD ranks its 25,000 members based on the number of deliveries sent from the retailers. Dierbergs works with Redbook and AFS floral wire services as well.
Dierbergs will be opening a new store Dec. 3 in St. Peters, Mo., which will have a walk-in refrigerated display cooler designed by Borgen Systems, Des Moines, Iowa, in its floral department.
"The structure is up; the glass isn't though," Brewer said. "We will use it in other stores; I don't know if many other stores will put one in."
For a Randalls store in Austin, Texas, Borgen has designed a glass greenhouse, open flower display which has clear shelves.
"It will look like the flowers are floating on thin air," Robinson said.
While it is evident that progress is being made, retailers interviewed by SN said they could accelerate their progress with the right equipment improvements, if the manufacturing community would keep pace.
"They [manufacturers] are lagging behind," Quagliano said.
Auman said that, with the exception of a self-cleaning, self-watering system, she has not seen anything new in about the last five years. "If there's anything new out there, I'm missing it."
"There's nothing that's really exciting; there's just nothing that is on the cutting edge," Glenn said. "You see too much of the fixture and not enough of the product."
Retailers want equipment with better refrigeration and the prospect of longer shelf life for products, especially if they are to maintain the bigger departments they are installing. They'd like to see more equipment developers accelerate their efforts in that direction.
Meanwhile, many retailers continue to display their flowers in refrigerated cases designed for packaged items such as dairy products -- but that needs to change.
"[Refrigeration] has become more and more of an issue," said one manufacturer. "It does not have the same needs as packaged goods. We want to keep the humidity as high as possible."
Packaged-goods cases typically run about eight to 10 degrees lower than the suggested keeping temperature for flowers. Refrigerated cases for packaged goods typically run much colder and have a lower humidity, which dries out and kills the flowers.
The standard cases also have a relatively high air turbulence, meaning there are higher velocities of air flow used for the packaged goods, which can dry out the flowers.
"We want a controlled, more gentle flow of air," said one equipment supplier.
As supermarkets expand their floral operations, floral directors said, they also want to make the products more accessible to shoppers, by removing any of the barriers that stifle the impulse purchase. For refrigerated equipment, that means dispensing with doors.
"We're moving more toward open-air refrigeration," Glenn said.
Others agreed that open-air refrigeration, open cases, and anything that is more likely to spur buying impulses in shoppers is what they ultimately want.
"If it's behind doors, it makes it a little tougher to sell," explained one floral director at a chain on the West Coast.
Robinson of Randalls said she and some of her fellow retailers are looking for inspiration from the European-style merchandising format, in which the product is sold outside. To copy that inside a store, however, could present problems.
"The conditions inside a store are so different," she said. "If the humidity is not right, we lose our product very quickly."
While customization is one way to fix such weaknesses, having a manufacturer design and build a case to specifically meet the needs of a particular store can be a costly venture.
"To have anything customized is cost-prohibitive," Glenn said.
Glenn also commented that, while retailers are expanding their selections of floral products to include nonrefrigerated items -- such as potted plants, hanging plants and cactuses -- their available options for the appropriate display equipment could use some broadening too.
To that end, some manufacturers said they are working on bringing more nonrefrigerated cases to market, as well as refrigerated cases. These systems are also modular, and can attach to the refrigerated systems, they said.
Sources from both sides of the industry admitted that part of the problem is that both manufacturers and retailers suffer from a lack of talent specific to the floral business.
When one supplier sought to develop its own self-watering, self-cleaning system, it had to hire outside horticulture consultants and floral experts to assist in the specifics.
"We were a supermarket refrigeration manufacturer," said the firm's national sales manager. "[Floral] is a completely different world."
The scarcity of knowledge specific to the floral industry is also a thorn in the sides of supermarket retailers.
"There are certainly some very qualified people out there, but there isn't any wealth of talent," noted one equipment manufacturer.
Quagliano said that at the Floral Marketing Association's most recent conventions, there were no training programs for the floral department.
Brewer of Dierbergs said finding the right personnel is the one major obstacle he has encountered at the retail level.
"I'm big on education," Brewer said. "We're starting schools for our employees, so we can have training all the time."