Flower power

Features - Trends

Garden centers are bringing back floral departments, launching their own flower shops and attracting new customers.

November 4, 2019

As local florists are consolidating and closing their shops, the shifting tides present opportunities for IGCs to embrace flowers.

As traditional florists close up shop, IGCs are looking to fill the gap, but floral departments require staff with a particular set of skills.

For example, when a florist went out of business half a mile down the street from Bayside Garden Center, the IGC saw a chance to expand its reach by opening its own flower shop, called Bayside Floral Design, in 2003.

“We decided to move into their existing space to expand our floral and prevent another competitor,” says Andy Kolowith, general manager of Bayside Garden Center and Bayside Floral Design in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Like Bayside, more IGCs are finding new opportunities in flowers. In her 2018 Floral Insights and Industry Forecast, Slow Flowers founder Debra Prinzing predicted the trend of retail garden centers opening or reviving in-house floral shops. She cited examples like Windmill Gardens, which brought floral design back in house two years ago for the first time in about 15 years. After renting out retail space in its store to other florists for several years, Windmill Gardens reclaimed its flower shop, rebranding it as Windmill Floral Studio.

“A lot of traditional florists have gone out of business,” says Ben DeGoede, Sr., owner of Windmill Gardens in Sumner, Washington. “The lack of competition meant less choices for customers. That’s why we got back into floral.”

Can flower power boost your IGC to new heights? “This is an incredible opportunity to connect with consumers who have not traditionally walked into a garden center,” Prinzing says. Although floral is by no means an easy add-on, a flower shop can help tap into growth — if you do it right.

Finding the right staff

The biggest hurdle in launching a floral division is finding the right staff to manage it. Prinzing sees this challenge play out at grocery stores that lump the floral department together with produce, instead of finding floral experts. “That’s a recipe for disaster,” says Prinzing, who winces every time she sees inexperienced managers place cut flowers in full sun. “If you want to do floral, you really need dedicated staff.”

When Windmill Floral Studio first opened, a manager from the garden center pleaded for the position — but without any floral experience, she struggled in the role. So, when DeGoede spotted florist experience on the resume of a candidate applying for a job in his greenhouse, he hired her to manage the flower shop instead.

“It’s a labor-intensive business, so get an experienced, entrepreneurial person to manage it,” says DeGoede, who employs three part-time staff in addition to the full-time floral manager. “Find someone who has a good eye for aesthetics but also has the business acumen to meet budgets.”

Community engagement

To set his flower shop apart, DeGoede wanted Windmill Floral Studio to be an event-oriented business that generates a buzz beyond simply selling bouquets. But tapping into weddings, funerals and other flower-worthy events requires active community engagement.

“You have to cultivate relationships with funeral homes and wedding venues,” says DeGoede, who also works with local high schools during homecoming to fuel his corsage/boutonniere business.

Special event orders make up most of Windmill’s floral sales volume, while walk-in traffic is a small minority. That’s why it’s important to have an entrepreneurial manager.

“Running a newspaper ad doesn’t have much impact,” Kolowith says. “It’s getting out there and meeting with brides at bridal shows or introducing ourselves to venues to put our foot in the door.”

Cross-branding potential

Originally, Bayside Floral Design had its own website and separate online presence, but over time, Kolowith decided to merge the marketing together.

The sign on the door says, “Bayside Floral Design — a division of Bayside Garden Center.” Inside both stores, signage points shoppers to the other location.

Besides flowers, Bayside Floral Design features a small selection of vases, pottery and décor like lamps, rugs and pillows, as well as some blooming houseplants. “The flower shop has almost 2,000 square feet of retail space, so we can add a lot of extra merchandise,” Kolowith says. “We try to focus on more high-end décor that a lot of garden center shoppers aren’t buying, so it gives us two separate feels.”

Cross-promotion can bridge customers from your flower shop to the rest of your store, since each type of business tends to attract different consumers. Bayside Floral Design gets a lot of mall shoppers that Bayside Garden Center wouldn’t otherwise attract, and even Windmill Floral Design — which is located inside of Windmill Gardens’ retail space — draws traffic through cross-branding.

Steady business

According to Debra Prinzing, offering workshops that include floral design experts is a good way to dabble into the market.

DeGoede initially pursued floral as a year-round business model to mitigate seasonal retail swings. “Garden centers are notoriously seasonal,” he says. “If we didn’t have the florist here, I don’t know if we’d even open at all in the fall to wintertime.”

Kolowith agrees. “One advantage of floral is that it’s pretty reliable income, even in the slower garden center months,” he says. “The floral industry is not booming, but we do see steady growth every year.”

Floral business makes up about 10% of the overall sales volume for both Windmill and Bayside — but not without a lot of dedicated effort.

“It’s a valuable department if you have the capacity for it,” Kolowith says, “but I wouldn’t necessarily run out and open a flower shop without taking a hard look at the numbers. It has to be profitable.”


Tiptoe into floral

Although an in-house flower shop can help attract new clientele, not all IGCs have the space, staff or resources to launch a dedicated department. Fortunately, there are other ways to tiptoe into floral without the upfront investment.

“If you’re a garden center and you want to dabble in floral, find somebody who already has an established floral design studio and invite them to do a pop-up shop or workshop once a month to gauge the response of your customers,” Prinzing says.

Earlier this year, Prinzing ran the Northwest Flower and Garden Festival debut floral design workshop series. These “Blooms and Bubbles” classes came with an add-on to the standard ticket price, offering participants a glass of champagne while they designed a flower crown, centerpiece or similar creation.

“These workshops sold out months before the show, and there was a waiting list for every one of them,” Prinzing says.

Another idea is to partner with local flower farmers to sell seasonal bouquets. Use the directory at Prinzing’s website, SlowFlowers.com, to find a farmer near you. Ravenna Gardens in Seattle, Washington, collaborated with the University of Washington’s UW Farm last year to supply fresh flowers, and this year they brought in dahlias from Triple Wren Farms.

“I highly recommend creating partnerships with local farmers to differentiate yourself,” says Ravenna Gardens owner Gillian Mathews. “It’s not a huge part of our business, but it’s a unique offering for our customers.”

Local partnerships, pop-up shops and hands-on workshops are low-risk ways for IGCs to dabble in floral. “It’s definitely an opportunity,” Prinzing says, “especially if you’re trying to remain relevant in your marketplace and offer something that other garden centers don’t have.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and frequent contributor to Garden Center magazine.