TAKING THE PLUNGE

A growing number of supermarkets are saying "I do" to brides shopping for a wedding florist.Though they're not an obvious destination for brides planning their march down the aisle, supermarket floral departments have been making a name for themselves as wedding suppliers.More than 10 years ago, Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper's floral department began catering to weddings with requirements

A growing number of supermarkets are saying "I do" to brides shopping for a wedding florist.

Though they're not an obvious destination for brides planning their march down the aisle, supermarket floral departments have been making a name for themselves as wedding suppliers.

More than 10 years ago, Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper's floral department began catering to weddings with requirements ranging from a single bridal bouquet to the full complement of floral arrangements.

"A significant amount of our floral business is drawn from weddings, which provide a higher profit performance than our standard floral sales," said Jon Strom, vice president of floral operations for Price Chopper. "We offer the same or better quality and superb design for less money than traditional florists."

Although profits from wedding flowers are substantially higher than regular floral sales, experts advise supermarkets to carefully evaluate the commitment of labor that weddings require before deciding to take the plunge.

"Brides are looking for roses, hydrangeas, orchids and calla lilies, which are higher-value flowers," said Sandra Hering, founder of Floral Marketing Innovations, Mattapoisett, Mass., and former vice president of floral procurement for Ahold USA. "The higher profit margins relate to the fact that there is a lot of labor involved. You really have to analyze it before you get into this. If you run out of plants on Mother's Day, it's not a crisis because you have fresh-cut flowers, but if a bride is dissatisfied on her wedding day, that's a crisis."

Florists should also consider the resources required to accommodate the occasional high-maintenance bride.

"Some brides can be more 'labor intensive' than others, but our talented floral managers have much experience here and can reassure a nervous bride more easily than an inexperienced florist might," Strom said. "Still, there are higher labor costs with weddings, especially compared to a cash-and-carry sale."

Defining the exact service levels retailers are willing to accommodate, and related costs, is crucial to any floral wedding marketing plan, Hering said.

"Just saying that you want to go after weddings is much too vague," she said. "You need to take a more strategic approach and decide which weddings you'd like to handle and the services that will go along with them. Some weddings are so simple and easy while others are more elaborate and service-oriented and you need to go to the church and the country club and even let the mother of the bride cry on your shoulder."

Quincy, Mass.-based Stop & Shop, for instance, decided that flower delivery would not be a part of its wedding services when it created its floral marketing plan years ago, according to Hering. Instead, the job of flower pickup was often delegated to the best man. Since then, the retailer has begun offering delivery service for wedding flowers.

When scouting out potential calla lily suppliers for her 150-guest wedding, Maria Brous checked out the floral offerings of a few traditional florists before deciding to get flowers through a nearby Publix store. She also customized her wedding cake with one of Publix's bakery specialists.

"The Publix florist was able to recreate exactly what I was looking for and it was at a significant savings," said Brous, who happens to be the spokeswoman for the Lakeland, Fla.-based retailer. "Compared to the lowest quote I got from a traditional florist, Publix saved me $600 and it was $1,000 less than the highest quote I received."

Although all of the chain's 875 stores have floral departments, each store's ability to accommodate weddings varies and depends on the size of the affair, Brous said.

"I knew the floral specialist from the Publix store was capable of doing a good job," Brous said, "but the thing that surprised me was I thought I needed to gather my own ideas ahead of time, but I really didn't have to. I could have saved time by going straight to Publix."

To help shoppers overcome bias against supermarkets, Hering advises florists to take pictures of all of their floral wedding work and create a portfolio that can be shared with potential patrons.

"In the beginning, if a bride hasn't heard about your services through word-of-mouth, they'll always be skeptical," she said. "A portfolio helps people visualize the work that will be done for them. It gives them more confidence that they're making the right choice."

Potential customers are often unaware that supermarket florists may have more resources at their disposal than traditional florists.

"We source the bulk of our flowers ourselves, working with world-class supplier partners," Strom said. "Our florists can also order flowers from outside wholesalers for wedding and custom work."

Price Chopper - which sources a lot of roses, gerbera daises, orchids and calla lilies for weddings - probably has more suppliers at its disposal than traditional competitors, he said.

Supermarkets also have the economies of scale that independent florists lack.

"Traditional florists need to attach a lot of mark-up because this has to support their business; the vans, personnel and the rent," Hering said. "All those things have to be supported by what's turning out to be a shrinking sales volumes. Supermarkets already have their overhead paid for."

Still, unlike patrons of a traditional florist, many supermarket shoppers are unaware of supermarkets' floral wedding offerings.

To help drum up wedding business, Lubbock, Texas-based United Supermarkets has put together wedding showcase displays that are made to look like wedding receptions. They even feature a live "bride."

The displays, which are part of the retailer's health-oriented Living Well Expos, feature items from the store's floral, in-store bakery, carry-out catering and giftware departments including a buffet, cakes, flowers and a gift table. United also advertises with in-store signs that read "We do I dos," according to floral wedding specialist Donna Norton.

"We can handle anything from the person who comes in off the street who's getting married in 10 minutes to $3,000 or $4,000 worth of flowers," she said. "We have the ability to make the bouquet right then and there, pin the groom and get them out the door."

For affairs that require more planning, organization is extremely important, according to Hering. This is especially true when dealing with finicky brides who are likely to change their mind several times after placing their initial order.

"We used to have a set location for all of the wedding forms and every associate was trained to know how to make changes to these forms," Hering explained. "They'd make a copy for the bride and one for the store and the bride's copy would be sent to her each time a change was made. If there was any question about a change, they'd call the bride and ask them rather than leaving any sort of risk."

Supermarket florists should also consider contingency plans in the event of a crisis on the wedding day.

"If you have a chain of 100 stores and each of them has an associate trained to do weddings, make sure you designate a nearby back-up associate in advance in case a wedding associate gets sick [on the day of the event]," Hering said. "It's really important to work all of this crisis management out in advance."