Originally printed in the August 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Six retailers share status of floral and indicate how the pandemic has caused a shift in strategies.
Really? Does it take a pandemic to convince consumers they are worthy of enjoying flowers and plants in their homes?
The majority of the floral industry could never have imagined the breadth of a pandemic or the influence it could have on consumer spending in Floral. But retailers, growers and bouquet distributors unquestionably are experiencing an eye-opening event.
After the initial shock and substantial loss of floral sales during the first two months of the pandemic, many retailers now don’t have a spare moment to scratch their heads in disbelief of what occurred then and what’s now transpiring. Cash registers are ringing and nobody is complaining.
Whether consumers are enhancing their Work From Home spaces or purchasing plants to pump up their safer-at-home spirits, significant sales are happening in Floral.
“Since Mother’s Day, our floral sales have been phenomenal,” says Michael Schrader, floral director of Schnuck Markets, based in St. Louis. “Sales grew 35% for Father’s Day.” A lifer in the floral industry and with Schnucks for 14 years, Schrader says this is the best summer he’s ever seen.
Based in West Sacramento, CA, Raley’s Family of Fine Stores operates 128 stores under four banners – Raley’s, Bel Air Markets, Nob Hill and Food Source. “Our floral sales are up, and I’m not sure if it’s tied to health and wellness, or to the fact that people are home and more inclined to enhance their environment,” says Cindy Raley, associate category manager of the floral department.
“Publix consumers are purchasing flowers and plants for their homes and as gifts. Having fresh botanicals around when people are spending unprecedented amounts of time at home can be an instant mood-lifter,” says Maria Brous, director media and community relations with Publix Supermarkets, a 1,252-store chain based in Lakeland, FL.
“When the pandemic started in Mid-March and California shut down, our floral business shut down too. The experience was terrifying,” relays Alice Grazziani, floral director of Gelson’s Markets, a 27-store chain based in Los Angeles. “The experience felt very familiar to the 2008 recession. I immediately went back to some of the successes that we had during the recession and applied them here.” She says it was about two months later that Floral started to see the trends heading in the right direction — and sales going up have not stopped.
Publix consumers are purchasing flowers and plants for their homes and as gifts. Having fresh botanicals around when people are spending unprecedented amounts of time at home can be an instant mood-lifter.— Maria Brous, Publix Supermarkets
In the New York City metropolitan area, Marc Goldman, director of produce and floral for the 16-store chain, Morton Williams, says, “When the pandemic hit, flower and plant sales died. We cut back to less than half, and sales have gradually come back.”
Floral buyers for supermarkets, mass markets and club stores are paying attention to pandemic-related sales in other departments. Along with seeking immunity-boosting products in Produce, health and wellness-minded consumers are purchasing home décor pieces in Floral for comfort, calming and for self-care.
“SpartanNash customers are definitely enjoying the healthy benefits of flowers, and our sales growth has reflected that mindset,” says Brian Cox, director of floral at Caito Foods/SpartanNash in Indianapolis, IN. He adds, “In addition to the air-cleaning qualities of our 10-inch foliage and other plant offerings, our customers are enjoying having our bouquets brighten their homes as well as their spirits.”
SpartanNash customers are definitely enjoying the healthy benefits of flowers, and our sales growth has reflected that mindset.— Brian Cox, Caito Foods/SpartanNash
In southern California, Gelson’s Grazziani explains, “We expanded and introduced a large scale home/office plant program with the prices ranging from $40 to $200.The stores are selling out, which is the same for the local plant growers since they’re selling out weekly.” Grazziani adds, “We also expanded our Home Décor program as customers are creating and improving a space to live and work in. Baskets, throws, pillows and pottery come with a higher retail price and customers are buying what makes them feel good.”
NOTICE THE UNEXPECTED
In communicating with retail floral experts about their roles during the pandemic, one action was mentioned several times:. Closer surveillance to track shopping patterns and consumer preferences has seemed to gain a higher level of priority in the daily inspection routine.
“One thing I have noticed is that we have a lot more male customers buying for the home,” reveals Grazziani. “I spend a lot more time in stores and I always ask whom the flowers are for. This is exciting to see these millennial men caring about their home office.”
One thing I have noticed is that we have a lot more male customers buying for the home.— Alice Grazziani, Gelson’s Markets
Cox of SpartanNash practically whispered a revelation about one consumer buying behavior. “I have been surprised by the continued strong sales of rose globes. I thought the sales would wane after the spring floral holidays, but I have been proven wrong.”
WILL SPENDING SLOW?
As the country heads toward the November presidential election, the unstable social and economic environment has predictions about consumer spending in Floral nearly inaudible. But even with commonly-shared opinions indicating the pandemic has no impending off switch, retail attitudes seem optimistic.
In the southeast, Brous at Publix sees the overall floral business continuing to experience tremendous growth during a time when many customers are being more conservative in their spending habits. “Plants and flowers are considered by many to be non-essential items, yet the number of customers who are purchasing items from the floral department has continued to trend up.” Brous adds, “Vibrant colors and lush greens can change the mood of an environment in an instant, and it is clear that consumers are appreciating the impact of what plants and flowers can do.”
The balloon category has been up and is the best performing category.–-Michael Schrader, Schnuck Markets
It’s not difficult to be optimistic when several categories surge. As with many retailers during the pandemic, balloons have been high-flying sellers at Schnuck Markets. “The balloon category has been up and is the best performing category,” says Schrader. He reveals balloon sales are up 15% to 20% for the year and up 30% to 40% for summer sales. All of those balloon-embellished yard signs and decorated cars for graduation parades have been credited for boosting May and June balloons sales in many regions. Many retailers anticipate strong balloon programs for the rest of the year.
PROVIDE LASTING VALUE
Never before have conditions been this suitable for consumers to earnestly read directions on floral food packages and care tags. Retailers see shoppers are hungry for plant care information. “As the customer base for flowers and plants is expanding, the desire to know more about arranging and caring for these items is certainly more evident,” says Brous of Publix. “With so many more people working from home and wanting to bring life into a space where more time is being spent, the investment into bouquets, freshly cut flowers and potted plants should be a lasting value with the educational aspect easily accessed by the consumer.”
We’re based in Manhattan so a lot of people left and went elsewhere. We’ve seen a decrease in cut flower sales, but those still here having been buying plants.—Marc Goldman, Morton Williams
Providing plant care information online along with in-store signage featuring care and handling tips is especially important now to encourage the new crop of plant customers. “Plant sales have picked up,” says Goldman of Morton Williams. “We’re based in Manhattan so a lot of people left and went elsewhere. We’ve seen a decrease in cut flower sales, but those still here having been buying plants.”
At Gelson’s Markets, Grazziani says, “Our floral arrangement category is down, while blooming bunch, home decor and plants sales are significantly better than last year.”
KNOW YOUR NUMBERS
Walking the stores every day and thoroughly taking in all information is vital in establishing floral status and making impending buying decisions. Schrader of Schnucks indicates what’s happening in the stores during the pandemic is providing lessons. “Be a smart merchant. Look at the numbers every day,” advises Schrader, who watches floral numbers from 113 stores.
For many retailers, the significant increases in online ordering, deliveries and curbside pickup during the pandemic are elements that have initiated the greatest calls to action.
“Instacart growth has been tremendous,” says Grazziani at Gelson’s. “I have always wondered how I would attract Internet shoppers to purchase flowers on line. The task was simple — boldly position photos of beautiful flowers. The key is for online shopers to see the floral department displayed near Produce. Many customers are shopping for produce and can’t resist the flowers. The sales coming from the web have surprised me the most.”
Industry members on all sides are learning lessons every day during the pandemic. Evaluating the metrics will most likely never be taken for granted again. Cox of SpartanNash gives a nod to efforts made before the pandemic to improve sales. “Many of the floral program improvements that we have made over the past two years are contributing to the growth we’ve experienced. Our new balloon program, enhanced orchid program and revamped bouquet program afforded our customers better options at the perfect time,” explains Cox.
PLANNING WITH CONCERNS
Entrenched with fall and holiday planning, some retailers mention two apprehensions — labor and inventory. There are concerns about the health of store workers and how the virus might impact the availability of labor during the busy holidays. The other trepidation is about a likely delay for holiday goods shipped from China due to labor issues caused by the pandemic. The mutual strategy is to push forward with expectations of strong sales.
We put an advanced order into the hands of our floral managers, and we let them order whatever they think they can sell.—Cindy Raley, Raley’s Family of Fine Stores
“Flowers and plants will be important to spruce up the home fronts during the upcoming holidays,” says Brous of Publix. “Increasing the buying proportionally for both giving and at-home decorating will target more people celebrating the holidays in smaller groups at home.”
At Raley’s, the procedure for purchasing decisions for fall and holidays remains unchanged. “We put an advanced order into the hands of our floral managers, and we let them order whatever they think they can sell. We include photos of any non-everyday items, and we offer a wide range of both cut flowers (bouquets and arrangements) and plants (in holiday ceramics or wrap) in all price points to serve the needs of both our high volume as well as our smaller stores,” explains Raley. She says the procedure is to transmit those POs by end of August so Raley’s vendors have enough time to be prepared for the holidays.
“Large scale baskets are very popular right now and so is all of the rattan that we saw in the 1970s. We cannot keep these items in stock. The higher retail on the items is not deterring the customer from purchasing them,” says Grazziani.
Many say the pandemic has caused only a few hiccups with inventory issues in Floral, and luckily has ignited a few existing items to a mystifying level of popularity. Customers at Schnuck Markets have been buying candles as never before. “We’ve sold more candles during the pandemic than we typically sell in all of fall and Christmas,” exclaims Schrader. The movement of candles is nearly baffling, but he’s thrilled the stores are keeping customers happy and coming back for more.
“As far as shopper feedback, in the beginning of the pandemic, people were mainly appreciative that we were open,” says Goldman. Morton Williams never closed and direct store delivery kept shoppers supplied. “We have no warehouse. The stores place their own orders, and our tendency is to err on the side of being too light rather than too heavy,” explains Goldman.
At Publix, Brous says the floral department has absolutely been brought into the spotlight with a steady flow of praise from customers. “It is truly humbling to see how much joy people have because of a bouquet of flowers or a beautiful orchid they discovered while shopping for the essentials.” She adds, “These testaments to the beauty and quality of plants and flowers are an incredible reminder of why we are in this business.”