DIERBERGS UNIT PLANTS WALK-IN FLORAL COOLER

ST. PETERS, Mo. -- Dierbergs Markets has installed a walk-in cooler in the floral department of its newest store here, in an effort to give its shoppers more control over product selection.It is the first time the company, based in Chesterfield, Mo., is using this type of equipment. Dierbergs' floral merchandising officials said they hope the cooler will provide a better shopping experience by increasing

ST. PETERS, Mo. -- Dierbergs Markets has installed a walk-in cooler in the floral department of its newest store here, in an effort to give its shoppers more control over product selection.

It is the first time the company, based in Chesterfield, Mo., is using this type of equipment. Dierbergs' floral merchandising officials said they hope the cooler will provide a better shopping experience by increasing the self-service component of its in-store floral department.

"The walk-in cooler is so that customers feel [they] are more a part of the operation," said Gary Brewer, director of floral operations for Dierbergs. "They have the choice of picking fresh flowers, just as the designer does.

"Plus, it brings the flowers out front, [so they're] not hidden from the customers."

The chain is calling the cooler "The Floral Garden." Brewer said white signs hanging from above and painted on the glass doors invite shoppers inside.

Brewer told SN the cooler is an extension of the chain's attempts to get customers directly involved in selecting their own floral items. In most stores the chain uses standard "reach-in" and "bunch" coolers, which allow shoppers to choose their own flowers.

While the walk-in cooler has not been in place long enough for company officials to speculate on its potential, Brewer said many shoppers have been using it.

"People just love going in there and picking out their own flowers," he said. On the basis of this new department's immediate success, Dierbergs has decided to put a second walk-in cooler into an older store in West Oak, Mo., that is being remodeled.

In addition, Brewer said the chain plans to put another walk-in cooler in a new store scheduled to open a year from now. The walk-in cooler is leading the chain to make changes to the assortment in the department.

"Our selection of flowers has changed because of the 'out front' look, and because customers are more aware of today's flower choices," Brewer said.

Shoppers now seem to be buying more lilies, European varieties and garden flowers, Brewer said, while traditional varieties, like carnations and mums, are not selling as well.

Two of Dierbergs' newer floral programs take advantage of Brewer's observations about consumer preferences for selection and self-service.

The European Bunch Program, for example, offers pre-arranged European flowers. Shoppers can select from bunches of flowers arranged in five or six different styles.

The second new program, called Garden Fresh, allows shoppers to choose their flowers individually, and arrange them as well.

"We'll be having classes on how to arrange flowers," Brewer added.

Although he is hoping Dierbergs' newest floral department will do as well as the departments in its other stores -- some of which pull in about 11% of total store sales -- Brewer said the company's initial estimate is that the department will do about 5% of total store sales.

The department occupies about 2,000 square feet of this new 78,000-square-foot store. Many of Dierbergs' other floral departments are 5,000 square feet.

Brewer said he kept the amount of floral space tight for the new store to coincide with the department's new image.

"We are going for a cozy, homey look. It takes less time, less product and less merchandising."

He said Dierbergs' previous philosophy had been to build up floral departments in an effort to compete with stores like Wal-Mart and Kmart.

"Those departments have become elephants," he said. "It takes three times the amount of merchandise to fill up the department, and nobody buys it. "

But fewer product offerings in the department overall do not mean a smaller selection of flowers and plants.

"We are going less gifty and more floral," Brewer said. "Now everything has be a floral-related item." The product arrangements, which consist of a changing selection of 16 designs, are created at Central Design, Dierbergs' 60,000-square-foot wholesale operation in Olivette, Mo. Arrangements are sent to individual stores, which have coolers for storage and display.