Summer may be the slowest season of the year for floral sales, but that doesn’t stop Sandi Probst from going all-out to promote her section. Last month Probst, floral manager at Lin’s Market in St. George, Utah, partnered with the store’s produce department on a display that featured citrus fruits alongside mums, gerbers and other floral blooms, all situated around a large inflatable archway. The theme of the display: “Keeping It Fresh.”
“It’s the first thing our customers saw when they entered the store,” said Probst. “We got lots of positive feedback and sales.”
“Keeping It Fresh” is an appropriate theme for the floral industry right now. Battered by the recession a few years ago, department managers have emerged with a commitment to pushing fresh, high-quality flowers, not just during the major holidays, but year-round.
“The holidays are automatic, but in order to sustain the business you have to sell floral 52 weeks a year,” said Tom Lavagetto, president of Floral Marketing Solutions in Spokane, Wash. “[Supermarkets] have gone back to basics. They’re really promoting flowers as an everyday part of peoples’ lives.”
So far the effort has paid off. Between 2009 and 2011, retail floral sales increased by $2.5 billion to just over $32 billion total, according to the Society of American Florists, drawing on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. By comparison, the years 2007 to 2009 saw a $5 billion drop in sales.
Continuing this growth at a time when austerity is still on many peoples’ minds is no easy task, though.
The key, retailers and analysts agree, is to make flowers relevant to shoppers — to create that need even when there isn’t a major event to tie it to.
Read more: Plant Sales Mixed at Retail 
Like Probst, Patti Rispoli, deli and floral manager at Food Circus Super Markets in Middletown, N.J., believes in creating her own events through clever displays. There have been summer luaus and “Valentine’s Day in August” promotions. One of her favorite tricks is to build around seasonal color cues. At the beginning of April, she’ll put out forsythias, since “everyone wants yellow that month,” Rispoli told SN. During the summertime, she places field flowers front and center.
This month, Rispoli plans to capitalize on the uptick in floral spending by building displays that incorporate fall foliage.
“Whatever they see when they’re driving to the supermarket, all the oranges and browns and yellows, that’s what they want to see in the store,” Rispoli said. “If you have those colors in the floral section, you’re going to get those sales.”
At United Supermarkets , shoppers this fall can spot potted mums and hardy asters on display outside stores. Rex Henderson, floral business manager for the Lubbock, Texas-based chain, said he arranges the flowers by color and uses large signs to drive traffic to the floral department.
“This is a great impulse sale as guests decorate their porches and patios,” he said.
Cross-Merchandising Grows Floral Sales
Another way supermarkets have traditionally driven traffic to the floral section is through cross-merchandising. A beautiful bouquet or planter in the produce department, for instance, can get customers thinking about flowers and add some extra freshness to that department.
But Lavagetto and others caution against giving away too much of the section.
“Out of the floral department can become out of sight, out of mind for shoppers,” said Lavagetto. “It can become unnecessary shrink.”
Some cross-merchandising can be effective, he said, but retailers need to pick their opportunities carefully. At Food Circus, Rispoli says she tries to do just that, meeting regularly with managers of other departments to plan cross-promotional displays.
“Working with your store manager and grocery manager really helps,” Rispoli told SN.
Smarter merchandising also means capitalizing on opportunities within local communities, according to retailers. In Texas, where football is a sport bordering on religion, high school students wear floral corsages and garters to their homecoming game each fall. United’s floral departments offer these every September, and Henderson said it’s not unusual to see a store sell 100 to 150 at $50 each.
“Even the smallest babies wear some type of football corsage,” he said. “Mum displays go up the week prior to school starting to inform our guests of these services. School colors are used throughout the display.”
Aside from all the colorful marketing, floral managers say they’ve improved from a nuts-and-bolts operational standpoint. According to Lavagetto, prior to the recession retailers bought on price and ended up with inferior flowers they had trouble selling once the economy tanked. These days, he said, supermarkets are buying better product and carefully tracking sales through scanning data.
“While they knew how much Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup they were selling, they didn’t really pay attention to the floral numbers,” said Lavagetto. “Most chains nowadays are very cognizant of what’s selling and what’s not.”
At Kowalski’s Markets, Woodbury, Minn., floral manager Gary Paone and his team have become more sophisticated about what they buy and how they track sales. They’ve learned, for instance, that the first half of the year can bring huge returns on tulip sales, and that the color green is trending.
“Anything green is really selling right now,” said Paone. “It’s like the new neutral. It works in everybody’s homes.”
Read more: Floral Departments Adjust to Valentine's Day Trends 
This level of category management has also allowed retailers to hone in on the specific flower varieties that shoppers are looking for. One popular rose, a light red-and-white varietal called “fire and ice,” is showing up in more and more stores as retailers realize its appeal.
“Without the proper label or UPC, what they’re selling is just another rose,” said Lavagetto. “They’ve really broken it down to see which of these varieties they should have. So the tools at their disposal are better than before, and they will only get better.”
Quality and longevity are key factors in getting those everyday sales, Lavagetto explained. But price can also be a determining factor. In fact, as companies like Kowalski’s are finding, companies don’t have to sacrifice one selling point to have another.
“A great price point for us is $19.99 for a dozen roses, and we have a grower who will guarantee those will last for a minimum of seven days past the sell-by date,” said Paone.
Capping off retailers’ enhanced floral operations is a renewed focus on customer service and education. At Kowalski’s, Paone makes sure every flower, bouquet and arrangement has a care-and-handling tag on it, and that his employees are knowledgeable enough to answer any questions. Doing this, he said, makes shoppers feel that what they’re tending is not just a flower, but an investment.
“In this industry, unfortunately, the biggest demand comes around Valentine’s Day, when flowers are at their most expensive,” Paone noted. “If we can educate them on how to maintain their flowers for maximum longevity, that’s a good thing,” he said.
At Food Circus stores, meanwhile, shoppers can often find a flower-of-the-month display that includes information about the plant along with instructions on how to care for it. This imparts valuable knowledge without overwhelming the customer, said Rispoli.
It also performs the all-important job of getting shoppers to think about flowers.
“Customers don’t know they’re walking into the store to buy flowers,” said Rispoli. “It’s not on their shopping list, so you have to put it on their shopping list.”
Flowers may be a symbol of love and consideration, but consumers worry those same traits aren’t reflected in the way they’re grown.
Currently, the U.S. sources 78% of cut flowers sold at retail from Colombia and Ecuador. Growers in these and other exporting countries have become incredibly efficient over the years, able to meet the demands of the $32 billion American flower market. However, according to watchdog groups and exposes like the 2007 book “Flower Confidential,” working conditions can be extremely poor. And, with the local movement in full force, some consumers might find it unsettling that a supermarket rose traveled halfway around the world.
Retailers have begun to address these concerns by applying fair trade practices to their floral sourcing. Whole Foods , Austin, Texas, offers its “Whole Trade Guarantee” label, which ensures customers that the flowers were grown under ethical working conditions and with minimal impact to the environment.
Whole Foods and other companies also source flowers locally. At Kowalski’s Markets, Woodbury, Minn., customers can find the retailer’s “Minnesota Grown” tags on many of the selections, from roses to mums.
“‘Minnesota Grown’ in a big deal for us and we make sure to signage that appropriately for customers,” said Floral Manager Gary Paone.
Tom Lavagetto, floral analyst and president of Floral Marketing Solutions, Spokane, Wash., noted that sourcing concerns are nothing new for the industry.
“Floral was one of the first industries to address these issues of fair trade and sustainability, and I think they’ll continue to expand these services into the future,” he said.
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