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Nielsen’s Florist & Garden Shop: 2011 Retail Florist of the Year
By meeting community needs and bravely adapting to change, this progressive company has thrived through three generations.
by Shelley Urban


When times are tough for everyone, as they have been in the last few years, how do you ensure that your business succeeds despite that others around you are struggling? While the leadership at Nielsen’s Florist & Garden Shop in Darien, Conn., may not have asked themselves that exact question, their impressive growth during a challenging economy—2010 showed a 20 percent increase over 2009—is a primary reason the single-location florist and garden center was nominated for the 2011 “Retail Florist of the Year” contest by Wholesale Florist & Florist Supplier Association (WF&FSA) members Carbone Floral Distributors in Cranston, R.I., and A. Perri Farms, Inc. in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. The contest is co-sponsored by Florists’ Review and WF&FSA.

One clear answer to the question of how to thrive despite the circumstances, as provided by the 2011 Retail Florist of the Year, seems to be “connecting with the community.” General Manager Sandra Nielsen-Baumann, who co-owns the shop with her three siblings, and Flower Shop Manager Tony Vitti explain this strategy and tell us how they continue to adapt in order to keep their business booming even when the economy is a bust.

The expansive conservatory captures attention from the street and provides natural lighting for the shop’s incredible assortment of green and blooming plants.


The third-generation owners of Nielsen’s Florist  & Garden Shop.

three generations of change

The company, now in its third generation, was founded in 1944 by Hilda and Christian Nielsen in the beautiful seaside community on Long Island Sound that now boasts a population of about 20,000. The property, where the shop is still located, had growing greenhouses, where the Nielsens raised and sold their own crops.

Their son, Gerald Nielsen, eventually took over the business, which was already becoming a destination for flower and plant lovers. Later, his children began transitioning into leadership positions; Ms. Nielsen-Baumann has worked full time at the shop since 1992.

She says that Darien’s demographics have changed significantly over the years, especially the last 15, and the shop has had to change with it. “We completely rebuilt the store 12 years ago, and then, in 2010, renovated it to match the more upscale, home décor direction we wanted to take,” Ms. Nielsen-Baumann explains. (Read details about the renovation in our October 2010 issue.)

giving customers what they want

In the last decade or so, this “Gold Coast” community, within quick commuting distance of New York City, has become a haven for young affluent couples seeking a more family-oriented lifestyle than the big city has to offer. But a wealthy clientele doesn’t ensure success. Several gifts shops in the area closed in recent years.<

“Even people with money weren’t spending it,” Ms. Nielsen-Baumann recalls. Yet, Nielsen’s Florist & Garden Shop managed strong annual revenues which, today, exceed $2 million. And when others were closing their doors, the Nielsen family opted to seize the opportunity to expand their merchandise.


Today, giftware, home accents, jewelry and other personal accessories such as scarves mingle among the exquisite cut flowers and green and blooming plants on display in the shop’s 2,000-square-foot showroom. Products range in price from $1 to $1,200.

Handblown glassware from Vermont designer Simon Pearce, which is priced from $40 for a tealight to $600 for a large vase, and ready-made permanent floral arrangements from Diane James Designs, ranging from $50 for a single stem in a vase to $750 for a large bouquet, are among Nielsen’s newest offerings.

In addition to high-end merchandise, the shop carries a wealth of affordable impulse buys as well. “We need to have plenty of gifts for $20 or less—aside from cut flowers—to encourage impulse sales,” shares Ms. Nielsen-Baumann. She adds that the pashminas and scarves, many of which are around $15, are great gifts and, therefore, hot sellers. And most of the jewelry, priced at $100 or less, is an enticing impulse purchase at the counter.

Products are typically displayed by color in vignettes that suggest how they can be used in homes, and flowers and plants are key elements. “We bring our cut flowers out of the cooler and our plants out of the greenhouse and utilize them the way people would want to see them in their homes,” shares Mr. Vitti. For example, “A table may feature beautiful throw pillows and candles, but it will also have a grouping of plants that all work together with the color palette. And if there are no plants, we’ll use groups of cut flowers,” he notes.

Mr. Vitti says the shop’s cooler, which was updated in early 2010 with impressive new lighting, an all-black interior and galvanized black tables, is the “sexy” feature of the showroom. But to get to the seductive refrigeration unit from the store’s entry, customers have to cross the showroom, which always demands browsing.

“The vignettes are inviting, and well-planned traffic areas ensure that customers are comfortable walking around and [experiencing] the displays,” Ms. Nielsen-Baumann reports. According to Mr. Vitti, displays continually captivate customers with new merchandise and near-constant change. “We are always looking for new products that are different from what everyone else has, and we are not afraid to invest in the new,” he assures.

Choosing the right items to meet customers’ tastes and budgets can be a challenge, but after 19 years on the job for Ms. Nielsen-Baumann and 14 for Mr. Vitti, the pair have a pretty good handle on what’s likely to sell. “There’s a natural tendency to buy things we like, but [my tastes] are really not what sells in Darien, so over the years we’ve learned to give them what they want,” Mr. Vitti explains.

“We also have to take note of items that are featured in the major shelter magazines,” Ms. Nielsen-Baumann points out. “Oftentimes,” she adds, “a customer will come in looking for a new perennial she saw in Better Homes and Gardens or Martha Stewart Living, and six more will come in after that, so staying on top of the shelter magazines is very important around here.”

While they admit they’ve had a few buying missteps over the years, both agree that decisions are much easier when they stay focused on the shop’s primary purpose. “What guides us,” Mr. Vitti shares, “is knowing that we are a flower shop first and a plant store second, and everything else falls into place after that.”

Indeed, the flower shop accounts for the bulk of Nielsen’s revenues, but sales of gifts and home décor are growing and now account for about 15 percent to 20 percent of total revenues. Outdoor plants and other garden center items contribute about 20 percent to 25 percent of the total.

finding needs and meeting them

With another florist/garden center almost directly across the street and a Whole Foods Market within a block or two, as well as a host of other florists, florist/garden centers and upscale supermarket florists vying for Darien’s dollars, a passive approach to marketing would likely lead to failure. But, as anyone who knows the Nielsen family can attest, passive is not their style.

Instead, the Nielsens rely on a broad mix of marketing tools, including both traditional and nontraditional strategies. One of the company’s most powerful marketing tools involves partnerships, exciting in-store events and support for community organizations.

For example, several years ago, when the host of the local Chamber of Commerce’s “Annual Wine Tasting and Auction Fundraiser” was in the midst of a renovation, Ms. Nielsen-Baumann was quick to offer the shop’s showroom and greenhouse space. The Chamber liked the idea and has continued to hold its event at Nielsen’s Florist & Garden Shop ever since.

“It’s a communitywide event that all the local businesspeople and their contacts attend,” relates Ms. Nielsen-Baumann. “We typically have 250 to 350 people here,” she notes. Tickets are $50, which includes a wine-tasting and food from local restaurants and caterers. Ticket revenues, along with auction proceeds, support several worthy causes such as the YWCA, the Chamber Scholarship Fund, and A Better Chance.

Nielsen’s Florist hosts four to six events each year, most of which were developed by Ms. Nielsen-Baumann. “Last fall, I knew I wanted to have an event in the spring,” she recalls, “so I contacted the executive director of the Darien Community Fund, formerly the United Way, and asked about a nonprofit ‘green’ organization that we could partner with. She recommended the Darien Land Trust,” which works to preserve natural space in the community.

A regional lifestyle magazine co-sponsored the event, which, according to Ms. Nielsen-Baumann, is a win-win. “Partnering with any kind of media is a good thing, as long as it benefits both of you,” she shares. “Our shop and our events get visibility in their magazine and [get the benefit of] their distribution and marketing channels, and they get to feature their magazine in a beautiful retail environment and get exposure to a clientele they want to reach.”

The springtime gathering, held on St. Patrick’s Day, drew a crowd of about 175 people, all of whom paid $10 at the door. Raffle tickets for donated prizes generated additional cash for the Land Trust, as did a donation from Nielsen’s Florist. “We have a sales staff working during these events, and we sell a tremendous amount of product. So we donate a percentage of our sales. For the Land Trust, that was $3,600,” Ms. Nielsen-Baumann confides.

While Nielsen’s Florist is earning money and attracting throngs of customers who might otherwise never visit the store,  Ms. Nielsen-Baumann says there is a cost involved. “We underwrite the cost of the food and drinks, but it’s money well spent,” she assures. “We could spend $1,000 on food and drinks, or we can buy two ads in the newspaper. To me, it makes a lot more sense to use the money to [guarantee] that customers are coming into the store.”

Such “cause marketing” is typically considered extremely effective because it results in positive press coverage and generates good will in the community. “The key,” relates Ms. Nielsen-Baumann, “is to be involved in the community and to know what its needs are. And then support whatever the town is in need of.” She says that, from a marketing standpoint, businesses can use these strategies to “reach lots of people without really doing a lot. But, if you don’t have your finger on the pulse of your community, you’re probably going to miss the boat because it’s a simple matter of finding the needs and meeting them.”

“a good marriage”

Getting customers in the building is critical to maintaining strong sales of impulse items and gifts and home décor, so when a friend with a catering business needed a new space, joining forces seemed like a great plan. “Because our location didn’t fit the rules and regulations of planning and zoning, we had to jump through several hoops to get it approved,” recalls Ms. Nielsen-Baumann, “but the businesses work well together, and it’s been a really good marriage between the two of us.”

The catering business, Michael Joseph’s Catering, pays rent for its space, which is located on one end of the building while the flower shop/garden center is on the opposite end. The glass-walled conservatory, filled with a veritable botanical garden of green and blooming plants, divides the partners.

Michael Joseph’s serves breakfast and lunch at three small bistro tables in its cafe while tables in the conservatory and outdoors (weather permitting) accommodate additional diners. Michael Joseph’s also sells prepared meals for evening take-home and, of course, caters Nielsen’s on-site events.

“Having them here has helped to make our store a destination,” notes Ms. Nielsen-Baumann. “And it helps that the library is now directly next door because it brings a lot more traffic to this end of town.” In fact, Mr. Vitti confirms, “there is a group of 18 women, who attended a function at the library, having lunch in our conservatory right now.”

flower and plant sales

Another way to keep customers coming back is to entice them with great deals. Coupon mailers, preferred customer gift certificates and “Bonus Bucks”—through which customers earn $1 for every $10 they spend from April through November—are especially popular with Darien’s residents.

In addition, every Friday, all cut flowers are half price. To make the weekly discount even more tempting, wine and cheese are served, which helps draw customers in as they kick off the weekend. And as they wrap up the weekend, all orchids are half price on Sunday. According to Mr. Vitti, quality orchids in 6-inch grower pots with two spikes full of blooms start at $75, but most of the shop’s orchids are upgraded so they’re more like fresh art than a potted plant. Upgraded plants are more expensive, but on Sunday, they’re definitely worth the splurge.

Other than orchids, tropicals, notes Mr. Vitti, are not popular with Nielsen’s customers. Instead, he explains, “our customers prefer upscale, seasonally available flowers in classic designs.” He says peonies from Holland, roses from Ecuador and, lately, amaryllises are among the top sellers.

And when it comes to trying new cut flowers or new varieties, Mr. Vitti says that perceived value is the most important selling point. In other words, it has to look like it’s worth more than what they’re paying for it.

Because of the investment the shop makes in its fresh product, along with the expectations of its customers, flower quality and longevity are critical. As a result, Mr. Vitti shares, one full-time staff member is devoted to the care and maintenance of Nielsen’s fresh-cut inventory. “She’s the quality control officer who specializes in making sure we have the freshest flowers. She opens every box, and if the flowers don’t look good, they’re going back,” he explains. “She also keeps their [solutions] fresh and keeps them rotated,” all of which results in satisfied cut-flower consumers.

Mr. Vitti and Ms. Nielsen-Baumann concede that they’re fortunate they “can afford to have a single person in charge of cut-flower care five days a week,” but, they add, they’re also fortunate to have 13 full-time staff members who are devoted to their work. “We have a diverse group of people with a lot of different expertise; they’re not just florists,” mentions Ms. Nielsen-Baumann. “And all of them take a lot of pride in their work. Our staff really is our greatest asset.”

The staff, many of whom have been with the company for years, are critical to the connections with clients and the community. They, and the products they supply, are what keep customers coming back year after year.

Photographs by Raya Ward.

Contact Shelley Urban at surban@floristsreview.com or (800) 367-4708.

 

  Nielsen’s Florist & Garden Shop  
 

Owners: Third-generation Nielsen siblings:
  Sandra Nielsen-Baumann, Karen Kuehler,
Tami Whittier and Gerald Nielsen
Number of shops: 1 retail location, complete with
  a garden center, conservatory and on-site caterer
Location: Darien, Conn.
Founded: 1944
Annual revenues: more than $2 million
Shop size: 6,500 square feet
Clientele: primarily affluent women
Number of delivery vehicles: 2
Minimum for delivery: no minimum required
Average arrangement price: $100
Average sale: $65 to $70
Number of employees: 13 full time and
  12 to 20 part time, depending on the season
Website: www.nielsensflorist.com


 
 

the next mountain

 
 

Given the propensity that Nielsen’s Florist & Garden Shop has for plants and décor as well as their designers’ skills with crafting grand cut flower arrangements, corporate services are on the rise. “Our clients need patio pots outside and plants and arrangements in their waiting areas,” says Tony Vitti, flower shop manager.
To continue developing that business, Nielsen’s has implemented a program to entice corporate clients. A brochure, used as a sales tool during consultations with potential clients, describes the weekly design services, which include free delivery and a “no-obligation one-month trial.” According to the brochure, the first two weeks of the trial are completely free, and there’s no obligation to continue after the first month. In addition, contracting corporate clients can receive discount cards for their employees. The cards provide a 15 percent discount on all live goods, including cut flowers and arrangements, purchased online or in the store.
The program is still in the early stages, but a plan is in place to expand its reach. “Our goal is to have at least one corporate visit per week,” confides Sandra Nielsen-Baumann, co-owner and general manager of Nielsen’s Florist & Garden Shop. “[Expanding our corporate business] is our next mountain.”

 
 

other marketing efforts

 
 

Although Nielsen’s Florist & Garden Shop does purchase print advertising, which includes high-end regional lifestyle magazines and some newspapers placed at strategic times throughout the year, here are some other proven strategies.
Redesigned website: With images from professional photographer and staff member Raya Ward, the updated website now seamlessly ties in with the shop’s Teleflora site, which now features Nielsen images photographed by Ms. Ward. Since the update, Internet sales have steadily increased. www.nielsensflorist.com
Recipient offers: At key times throughout the year, a small trifold card including a coupon for $20 off a purchase of $100 is tucked into each delivery, so recipients are encouraged to visit the shop.
Preferred customer gift certificates: Sandra Nielsen-Baumann, Nielsen’s co-owner and general manager, says that retailers “have to work hard to get new customers, but we have to work even harder to keep our existing customers happy.” So, in that spirit, she regularly sends letters to flower buyers thanking them for their business and includes a gift certificate for $10 that must be spent in the store within the next 30 to 40 days. A great percentage is redeemed.
Reminder postcards: Reminding customers of the important occasions in their lives helps them and keeps them coming back. Although Ms. Nielsen-Baumann says the postcard reminder system seems a bit archaic, “we get almost a 100 percent return on them.”
Youth sports teams: The shop regularly sponsors Darien youth softball, baseball and hockey teams. “I’d sponsor them all if I could,” Ms. Nielsen-Baumann relates. “For $500 for each team, I get 25 kids wearing my jersey and caps around town, and 25 families that recognize that we are putting up money to sponsor their kids. We have lots of young families here, so I think it’s a great way to reach them.”
Coupons in the mail: Money Mailer and Valpak are well known for their direct-marketing services, but Ms. Nielsen-Baumann wasn’t sure they fit the upscale image of Nielsen’s Florist, so she decided to eliminate the direct-mail efforts. “But as soon as I said that, people came in with coupons,” she laughs.
Ms. Nielsen-Baumann concedes that everyone likes to save money and notes that some of the wealthiest customers are the primary coupon users. Plus, these services are affordable. “For $600, we get distribution in 14,000 homes,” she shares.
The shop allocates a percentage of its revenues to marketing, but that budget is never set in stone. It’s flexible and can fluctuate, within reason, based on needs and opportunities.


 
 

wholesale florist partners

 
  In a first for this contest, now in its ninth year, the winning retailer, Nielsen’s Florist & Garden Shop in Darien, Conn., was nominated by two members of the Wholesale Florist & Florist Supplier Association (WF&FSA), which co-sponsors the “Retail Florist of the Year” contest with Florists’ Review. Both wholesale suppliers cited the florist’s community connections and its ability to adapt to changing times as reasons for their nomination.
Carbone Floral Distributors, in Cranston, R.I., has worked with both the second and third generations of the Nielsen family for more than 40 years. “My father started selling to Gerry Nielsen [second-generation owner] over 40 years ago when he would visit our location in Warwick, R.I.,” recalls Vice President Stephen Carbone. He says he’s been working with the current staff for more than 20 years and is especially impressed with their “progressive, community-minded [attitude].”
Carbone Floral Distributors was founded in 1952 by Robert J. Carbone, who sold buckets of Gladioli from his car. Within just a few years, the R.J. Carbone Company Wholesale Florist settled into a physical location in Cranston. As the business grew, the location and structure changed, as did the name in 1991, but today, the company boasts an 80,000-square-foot facility where florists can access fresh flowers, greenhouse plants and floral hard goods. Carbone Floral Distributors also has space in the Boston Flower Exchange and a distribution center in Derry, N.H.
Just across Long Island Sound, in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., is A. Perri Farms, Inc., which supplies a full range of cut flowers, plants and hard goods. Sal DiPalermo, director of sales, says he has worked with the Nielsen family for just under three years supplying, primarily, fresh-cut flowers. He says he nominated Nielsen’s Florist because, “in troubling economic times and an ever-evolving industry, they … are thriving by offering unique specialty flowers at attractive prices.”
Founded in 1994 by Anthony Perry III and Trina Perry, A. Perri Farms has been serving florist customers in the tristate area with fresh flowers from around the world as well as dish gardens, indoor plants, gourmet foods and florist supplies. In 2008, the company expanded with an additional building, resulting in 20,000 square feet of space to house its extensive floral lines.
For more information about Carbone Floral Distributors, call (800) 343-2242, or visit
www.rjcarbone.com. For more information about A. Perri Farms, Inc., call (631) 471-3060, or visit www.perrifarms.com.


 
 


To learn more about the “Retail Florist of the Year” contest, visit www.floristsreview.com, or contact us at (800) 367-4708. Visit the website of our co-sponsor, WF&FSA, at www.wffsa.org, or call (888) 289-3372.

 

 


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