PETAL TO THE MEDAL

Albertsons has pushed floral into the spotlight with bold displays, soft pricing and freshness guarantees.Picking the best practices from each of its divisions, the chain -- with more than 2,000 units stretched across the United States -- has assembled a consistent program designed to enhance the sweet smell of success.Albertsons already has counted itself successful with floral, to greater or lesser

Albertsons has pushed floral into the spotlight with bold displays, soft pricing and freshness guarantees.

Picking the best practices from each of its divisions, the chain -- with more than 2,000 units stretched across the United States -- has assembled a consistent program designed to enhance the sweet smell of success.

Albertsons already has counted itself successful with floral, to greater or lesser degrees, from division to division, and top management's commitment to growing sales and profits in that department has been a crucial ingredient for years, said Cindy Rapshus, the chain's vice president, floral merchandising and procurement.

The renovated program, which Rapshus refers to as "The New Floral," has been in the works for the last couple of years, she said.

On an operational level, it falls somewhere between cash-and-carry and full-service.

"In just about every store, we have someone in the department every day, but not all day long," she said.

In fact, the program attempts to give customers enough service without adding so much labor that it eats up profits, Rapshus said.

The merchandising focus is on carefully maintained, large and prominent displays of "consumer bunches" at everyday low pricing. They include three to seven stems of flowers, each a different type or color, and are priced at three for $10 or three for $12. Customers are encouraged -- via associates and signs -- to put together their own bouquets. Gift sleeves and wrap are provided.

The idea is to attract new customers to the department with color and pricing, and secure repeat sales of cut flowers, as well as corsages, wreaths, centerpieces, candle arrangements, balloon bouquets and the like. Carefully thought-out signs help the chain communicate with customers, Rapshus said.

"We're trying to balance selling a lot more [cut] flowers with growing our reputation as the place to buy flowers for all occasions. That's our mission. We tie that department strategy into our brand philosophy, which is 'Making Our Customers' Lives Easier.' It can be a one-stop shop. People can pick up groceries and also a corsage for their kid's prom or flowers for the holiday dinner table," Rapshus said.

Just before Christmas, the chain launched online ordering and delivery. The new service was announced in the chain's ad circulars in all divisions with a guarantee that the flowers will stay fresh for seven days.

The quality of the products -- and thus their longevity -- is the result of cultivating relationships with quality vendors, streamlining distribution and an investment in training to help ensure the products will be maintained and presented well at store level.

"We don't even talk about quality. Our customers know we have that, but value pricing is an important part of this. Some of our greatest successes have been in getting more people to touch our flowers by putting promotional prices on them," Rapshus said, adding that during her tenure at JeweI-Osco, the Chicago-based division of Albertsons with 200-plus units in the Midwest, she copied selling strategies in other perimeter departments and experimented a lot with promotional selling of flowers.

Indeed, much of what she has done in floral has hinged on ideas borrowed from produce.

"We looked at their beautiful, vertical displays of color, and the way they use promotional pricing. We adopted some of that with the consumer bunches. Sometimes we get even more aggressive, like putting the consumer bunches at four for $10 or selling carnations for 10 cents each when produce, for instance, is having a 10-cent promotion of some kind," she told SN. "I'm an advocate of tying into the promotional plans of other departments. That has been one of the keys to our success."

All this didn't happen overnight. Before she was tapped for Albertsons' floral leadership post a little more than two years ago, Rapshus had spent years helping to shape the floral program at Jewel-Osco, the Albertsons division that had the most sophisticated floral program, industry sources told SN.

Rapshus was part of J-O's floral department more than 20 years ago when Tom Lavagetto, now a Spokane, Wash.-based consultant, headed it up. It was there that the seeds for The New Floral were probably planted. Freshness coding was adopted there. So was promotional pricing. It was there, too, that Lavagetto led an all-out campaign to convince upper management that floral was not just a pretty thing, but could be developed into a serious moneymaker.

"Jewel-Osco is the model we're using [for The New Floral], certainly its infrastructure," Rapshus said. "We continue to use best practices we developed at Jewel-Osco, but please understand there were a lot of good things going on all over the country -- at Acme, at Albertsons stores, and others. My role is to take all the good stuff, blend it together, and make it better."

One significant aspect that's been modified is the amount of hard product -- like picture frames and figurines -- inventoried in floral. There are fewer now.

"We used to drive a higher gross margin with those hard products, but we don't want a lot sitting around. We do get some cool pots and containers from our general merchandise [department] now, and in particular divisions, like Albertsons Dallas, we do some things with school colors," Rapshus said.

In order to keep tabs on what's going on in each division, Rapshus includes in her schedule regular conference calls and planning meetings with divisions -- each has a floral category manager. Extensive travel around the country to oversee training and to ensure that store-level execution is on track also is part of her agenda. Much work has gone into making sure quality products make it to the store in good shape, too. A floral field buying group inspects product as it comes in. That particular aspect was adapted from another Albertsons acquisition, American Stores, Rapshus said.

She added that she believes the training and attention to detail that Albertsons is putting into floral is unusual in the supermarket floral realm. What's more, she said, floral at the chain is just about where it is expected to be -- in this faltering economy -- with sales and profitability.

Sources outside of Albertsons have told SN they would give Albertsons high marks in recent years for store-level execution of floral -- at least in their areas.

"There's been a big change in the last three or four years," said one West Coast resident. Industry experts said they have no doubt Albertsons is on the right floral track.

"I can only believe that before they decided to offer their freshness guarantee, they made very sure they had all the bases covered," said Lavagetto the consultant.

"It's a little like baseball," he continued. "You have to think about the vendor, the distribution system, and the store. If only one of those is working to give you a quality product, you've struck out, but if they all are, then you've got a home run."

"There's no other department in the supermarket that holds so much untapped potential, and it can generate more profit per square foot than just about any other," he said.

Rapshus agreed, saying that right now the time is ripe for reaping floral sales, thanks to HGTV and Martha Stewart.

"What's great is people aren't afraid of flowers anymore. Fifteen years ago, customers wouldn't buy flowers unless you made them a bouquet. That's not true anymore. They've seen Martha Stewart put a couple of stems in a used, green bean can and make them look good. So they feel confident buying the consumer bunches at an economical price, and putting a few stems in a bowl and some somewhere else," Rapshus said.