Kowalski's takes gifts in floral seriously.
Indeed, officials said high-quality gifts, carefully chosen, have made their floral departments a hallmark, and a destination.
Sales of gifts top sales of floral items, not just during the holidays, but year-round.
“Gifts make up nearly 60% of our floral/gift department's sales,” said Mark Wachter, lead organizer of floral and gifts for Kowalski's Markets.
Wachter acknowledges that that ratio of gift sales to floral sales is unusual for a supermarket floral department. But the family-owned, upscale independent chain, based in St. Paul, Minn., is also a little unusual in the level of attention it devotes to gifts, tailoring the selection of items to the tastes of customers at each of its nine units.
Quality is always a priority, and so is spotlighting local products. Much of the jewelry sold in the floral department, for instance, is made by Minnesota residents, and the department often features books by authors who live in the area, Wachter pointed out.
But floral's gift selection is big and far-ranging, including such things as lamps, side tables, platters, manicure sets and music boxes.
“We go to buying shows, in Dallas and New York, Vegas. We like to look at the stuff we're buying,” Wachter said. “We don't buy from catalogs.”
The items Wachter and his assistants buy cover a wide spectrum, and will retail anywhere from $1.99 to $300-$400.
But even Christmas tree ornaments for $1.99 are a cut above what you'd find elsewhere.
“The most expensive thing I can remember selling was a nativity [scene], large, for $900,” Wachter said. “A woman bought it for her large mantle. That was about five years ago.”
This year, with the economy still in shaky condition, the total gift selection, while still sparkling with quality, falls into in a lower average retail price range.
There are more impulse items, fewer lamps and wall clocks, but, as always, the buyers went out on a limb and chose a particular eye-catcher that they liked. It retails for $100.
“It looks like one of those old-fashioned TVs with rabbit ears. You turn on a channel and there are Christmas scenes going by and Christmas carols playing,” Wachter said — no “Andy Williams” or “Perry Como Christmas Special” reruns, but there are three or four different channels with different choices of holiday music.
“It's basically a music box that looks like a TV with a 10- or 12-inch screen,” Wachter said. “I could see it on someone's kitchen table.
“We've already sold some of those. Actually, at three of our locations, they're sold out. We'll definitely sell them all before the season's over.”
Wachter and his team get their departments set up early, usually the last week in October, but always a good ways ahead of Thanksgiving.
“People had already started buying Christmas tree ornaments a few weeks ago,” Wachter said. “Later, they'll be picking up hostess gifts and gifts to take to the office. We do very well with women's scarves and purses and with kids' books and games.”
It's easy to see from the displays that there seems to be something for everyone, and Wachter confirmed that. In fact, he said a customer could do all his Christmas shopping at Kowalski's floral/gift departments because there are gifts for all age groups, and some gifts are unique to the area.
Wachter counts among his competition not other supermarkets, but small gift and specialty shops close by.
While his departments show off a preponderance of gifts now, the departments were not always like that. The gift business in floral has been developed over years.
“We started with this at our Grand Avenue store downtown, with some picture frames and mugs and plush stuffed animals,” Wachter said.
“That was 15 years ago. We thought it would be a good idea and our customers took to it right away. Then it was one of our staff members who suggested we should do it in our other stores.”
Gradually, the selection grew as Kowalski's recognized what customers liked best. The customer base differs a little from location to location and, over the years, Wachter and his team have fine-tuned the selection to fit each one.
Walking into a Kowalski's floral/gift department, at whatever location and whatever time of year, one feels a sense of excitement. But now, dressed up for the holidays, the departments are particularly festive.
Trimmed trees follow a theme. For example, one has just cardinal ornaments on it, and another has just lime green and red mitten ornaments. The ornaments are for sale.
Poinsettias are everywhere, and they're not just red ones and white ones, but all the wild colors, some sprayed with gold glitter. Even fresh-cut bouquets have a special look.
“We're working with a bouquet company to help us be unique,” Wachter said. “We like to add something out of the ordinary in them. Could be larkspur or something tropical.
“We also like to put bouquets in clear sleeves, lined with a sheer, colored fabric, maybe lime green fabric this year.”
Some of the stand-out bouquets are huge, with more than 25 stems. The smaller ones, too, have a special look. The bouquets range from $7.99 to $19.99.
While impulse gift items prevail, there are quite a few high-end items in the mix even this year.
“If there's anything left after the holidays, we put them on sale,” Wachter said.
Just like at other retail stores, customers will buy seasonal items on sale in January and keep them till next year.
An industry consultant cautioned that such an intensive focus on gifts in floral is not for every retailer.
“Kowalski's is a different breed of cat, and they've been developing these departments over a long period of time,” said supermarket veteran Tom Lavagetto, president, Floral Consulting Group, Spokane, Wash.
Lavagetto, a former floral merchandising manager at Jewel Food Stores, added that most supermarkets would not find it worthwhile to take a gift selection to the heights Kowalski's has.
“Safeway, for its size, has a good gift offering, and they do a good job,” he said. “But most supermarket floral departments should stick to related items like vases, containers, baskets, maybe scented candles.”
Each Kowalski's floral/gift department looks a little different, and Wachter told SN that the departments, always positioned near the front of the store, are changed around frequently just to keep customers' attention.
SN visited Kowalski's Oak Park Heights store shortly after it opened a few years ago. At the time, the floral gift department was very impressive in terms of size and selection, but was difficult to navigate. Just weeks later, the department was rearranged to give customers easier access to gifts and floral products.
“We opened up the aisles a little and set the tables at different angles,” Wachter said.
“Actually, we try to remerchandise as much as we can. We might change the layout to make a new and different look. I think that's the biggest challenge — to keep a fresh, new look.”
All of Kowalski's floral/gift departments are staffed, a necessity when offering such a range of products, Wachter said.
With subtle signage and just with suggestions, floral/gift department staffers direct customers to other parts of the store for more gift ideas. They might suggest they visit the specialty cheese department or the gourmet chocolates display.
“It is amazing how much you can sell when you engage the customer in a conversation or simply ask if they'd like some help,” Wachter said.
There's an uncommon amount of communication with customers — between company officials and customers and between associates and customers.
The whole team at Kowalski's prides itself on knowing its customers. Efforts are under way all the time to find out what customers want, what they value and what they'll pay for it.
“We know the kinds of things our customers like. We know their taste,” Wachter said.
Focus groups made up of customers — and potential customers — are convened on a regular basis, and leaders, as category directors are called at Kowalski's, are given a lot of autonomy.
The company culture encourages innovation, and if something doesn't work as planned, that's OK. It'll be changed without much ado.
“The Kowalski's philosophy is to make shopping a fun experience, and this department, the way we do things, is part of it,” Wachter said.