feature story
 

Tennessee’s Franklin Flower and Gift Gallery owner shares her strategy for a successful Christmas open house.

by KELSEY E. SMITH


A 50th anniversary, free media publicity and $65,000 revenue in just two days. Business just doesn’t get much better than that for most single-shop retailers. But for Debbie Burns, owner of Franklin Flower and Gift Gallery in Franklin, Tenn., an affluent community of about 46,000 residents just south of Nashville, the best part of her Christmas open house early last October was the opportunity to test the salability of new merchandise ahead of the holiday decorating season. Of course, strengthening relationships with nearly 800 people who attended didn’t hurt, either.

“It’s really a jumpstart for our holiday season,” Ms. Burns says. “It lets us know where the trends are headed and what are going to be the hot items, and it gives us an opportunity, early on, to restock things that are going to move.”
 
 
Franklin Flower and Gift Gallery At a Glance
 
 
Owner: Debbie Burns
Number of shops: 1
Location: Franklin, Tenn.
Year opened: 1955; Ms. Burns purchased it in 2001
Shop size: 5,000 square feet (2,100 sq. ft. for showroom, 1,200 sq. ft. for design and
delivery, 1,000 sq. ft. for storage, 200 sq. ft. for flower preparation and 500 sq. ft. misc.)
Clientele: primarily affluent people ages 30 to 75
Average floral sale: $58
Annual sales volume: more than $1 million (30 percent corporate, 70 percent individual)
Number of employees: 16 year-round (8 full time; 8 part time) plus seven to 10 seasonal
Web site: www.franklinflowershop.com

 


GIFTWARE GALORE
The shop, a 5,000-square-foot plantation house built in 1919, is located in an area that is about half commercial and half residential. In fact, it was the mayor’s home about 35 years ago, Ms. Burns says. At that time, the shop was in its original location about three blocks away. But the main business sector of Franklin is less than a mile away, and since buying the shop nearly five years ago—Sept. 11, 2001, to be exact—Ms. Burns has learned how to draw a crowd with a focus on quality gift and gourmet products along with distinctive fresh flowers and plants.

When Ms. Burns bought the shop, its legal name was Franklin Flower Shop. Knowing that giftware would be a major focus, she appended it to include gifts. “Franklin Flower Shop, to me, said something that we weren’t,” she explains. “We were so much more than that.”

Last year alone, gift sales increased 27 percent over 2004, accounting for approximately one-third of the shop’s annual sales volume, which exceeds $1 million. “Most people work and don’t have a lot of time to go shopping, and if we have more options available for them, that’s just more sales to generate,” Ms. Burns says.

DISCOUNTS DONE RIGHT
Although the age of Franklin Flower’s clientele ranges from about 30 to 75 years old, and professions vary just as widely, there is one thing the shop’s customers have in common: plenty of disposable income. In fact, according to the city’s official Web site, www.franklin-gov.com, Franklin is one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. Last year, sales for the two-day open house were up 18 percent over 2004.

Deep discounts enticed customers to the open house, with the main event from 4 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7 offering a 40 percent discount. The next day, the discount dropped to 30 percent for a less formal affair from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Although many of the shop’s loyal customers most likely would have attended the event regardless of whether there was a discount, the special pricing encouraged many to spend more than they would have if the merchandise had been regularly priced. “People would leave and then come back, like they got home and decided they wanted to buy more,” Ms. Burns shares.

After the open house, prices go back to normal, Ms. Burns says, and the event is considered successful if it has covered costs. Last year, the shop had approximately $45,000 in holiday inventory at the time of the open house. With the shop’s standard markups—2.8 to 3.6 times on fresh flowers, depending on the variety, and shipping cost plus 2.4 times on giftware—the event surpassed its definition of success.

“Our goal is to generate enough revenue on those two days to pay for the merchandise we’ve ordered for the holidays,” Ms. Burns says. “Each year, it increases, and this past year, we did $65,000 on those two days.”

OVER THE TOP
With its upscale reputation and history in the community, Franklin Flower’s customers have come to expect a distinctive experience at the shop’s open house. Last year, as it celebrated its 50th anniversary, the business delivered in a big way. Although Ms. Burns recommends that florists spend 7 percent to 9 percent of gross sales from their previous open house on the next year’s event—for example, $1,400 to $1,800 on an event that grossed $20,000—she admits that her 2005 event blew the budget.

“I spent closer to $10,000,” she shares. “It was very important to us to get the word out that the shop had been open for 50 years. So we had bottled water with ‘50th Anniversary’ printed on the label, and we gave chocolate cigars to every man and a chocolate truffle box to every woman. We even rented a snow machine to be inside ‘The Ice Room,’ so that the ceiling would actually snow.” (see next section)

Unfortunately, the latter idea did not pan out as Ms. Burns had planned. “The snow disintegrates before it hits the ground, but we couldn’t use the machine after all, because our ceilings are 12 feet high, and you’ve got to have a 15-foot drop,” she explains.
 
 
Debbie Burns’ tips for hosting a successful open house
 
 
 
1 Prepare, prepare, prepare. “The more effort you spend, the more successful it becomes,” Ms. Burns says. She begins preparing for each holiday open house, which takes place during the first weekend in October, with trips to the winter gift markets in January and February. She begins organizing and pricing merchandise in July.

2 Develop a theme. A broad “magical” theme allowed Franklin Flower and Gift Gallery to decorate its eight showrooms in a wide variety of looks while still adhering to the theme. From “The Cinderella Room” to “The Ice Room,” each evoked a feeling of holiday wonder with a distinct look and merchandise that coordinated with the colors of the room.

3 Create a sensory experience. Wine, champagne and hors d'oeuvres, including samples from the shop’s gourmet food line, pleased palates while soft music from a string quartet lulled customers into a tranquil state during Franklin Flower’s open house last year. “There’s no better compliment to us than when customers meander around and tell us that this is what they look forward to—just coming to visit the flower shop because it makes them feel relaxed,” Ms. Burns shares.

4 Offer a discount. Customers who perceive that they are getting a good deal often end up spending more than they had planned. Ms. Burns offers a 40 percent discount on all merchandise during her four-hour formal open house event on Friday evening and a 30 percent discount the next day. The discounts often entice people to come back for more before regular pricing resumes.

5 Utilize local media. Ms. Burns says the key to free exposure is to be persistent. She sends press releases first by mail, then a few times by e-mail before following up with personal phone calls.

 
 


PLENTY OF ROOM
The Ice Room was one of eight themed rooms in the shop that went along with the event’s overall “magical” theme. Minus the snow machine, the room captivated customers with iced branches and all-white merchandise. Another distinctive room was a floral art gallery, which was mentioned on the invitations for the open house. Rather than showcasing oil paintings of flowers, which the shop carries as well, the gallery featured fresh floral works of art. The room was botanically adorned from floor to ceiling, with real trees, stripped of their leaves and lit with Christmas lights, placed on each side of the room and arching the entire ceiling. Trees also canopied a hall that measures approximately 10 feet wide by 40 feet long, to create a gardeny atmosphere before customers entered the floral art gallery.

“It’s important that customers have that ‘wow’ experience not just when they walk in the door but with every room they go into,” Ms. Burns says.

In addition to the merchandise, most of which is purchased during Ms. Burns’ trips to major winter gift markets, open-house visitors’ overall experience was enhanced by live music, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres such as stuffed mushrooms and shrimp. Several of the hors d’oeuvres were prepared by a couple of the shop’s culinarily talented employees, saving on catering costs, and others were samples of the shop’s gourmet product line. A string quartet played under the portico of the shop, inviting customers to listen to its soothing sounds as they enjoyed their food and beverages. A white tent with tables decked in fine linens carried the formal feeling outdoors as well.

HIGH-VOLUME FINESSE
Ms. Burns says preparation is the main key to the success of her open house. Each year, she and her staff begin planning a little earlier than the previous year to ensure that customers will have the best possible experience when they visit. As of last March, Ms. Burns had already determined the themes for the coming holiday season, and she says she begins tagging merchandise and grouping it by those themes as early as July. She spends two weeks getting the showrooms ready prior to the open house, leaving a portion of the shop devoted to fall merchandise.

To handle the surge in customers during the open house, Ms. Burns hires a police officer to direct traffic. In addition, the shop provides a fun form of transportation for front-door service. “We have extra parking at The Carter House (a national historic Civil War museum) next door, and we have golf carts that shuttle customers from that parking lot because ours is not large enough to accommodate them all,” Ms. Burns explains.

In addition to Franklin Flower’s 16 regular employees, the shop hires seven to 10 seasonal employees to help for the holidays. Everyone is needed during the Friday evening open house; there were 26 on staff last year. Ms. Burns says that during her first open house in 2001, the shop used only two of its cash registers—it’s on Teleflora’s Eagle system and has eight computers—but that quickly became a nightmare because the cashiers couldn’t get people checked out quickly enough. Now, the shop opens five registers for the event and has personal baggers at each location, ensuring shorter lines and more efficient service.

Ms. Burns says local schools play a big part in her search for temporary help. “We have really good relationships with our high schools when it comes to driving golf carts or bagging—things that are not specialized areas,” she says. “They’re always looking for assistance with their flowers for dances, so sometimes we negotiate deals where they come in and assist us with our open house, and then we give them credit for their flowers.” Ms. Burns adds that this trade-off helps the shop eliminate additional overhead expense.

MARKETING TO THE MASSES
With a customer database of 18,000, Ms. Burns says it is impossible to personally invite each customer to the open house. Formal invitations were mailed to Franklin Flower’s top 3,000 customers although anyone who drove by either Friday evening or Saturday was welcome to stop in and shop.

“I spend close to $4,000 on invitations,” Ms. Burns shares. “We really take pride in the presentation of everything, and a postcard does not imply the type of event we do.”

In addition to the formal invitations, Ms. Burns aggressively markets the two-day open house to local media, generating lots of free exposure. She mails press releases about two months prior to the event, then periodically e-mails press releases until about three weeks before it. That’s when she begins calling the newspapers. “They’ll run it; you just have to be persistent,” she confirms. “We usually get at least two or three papers to run something.”

The open house acts as self promotion for the shop’s holiday decorating segment, about 90 percent of which comprises residences. Franklin Flower begins decorating homes and businesses for the holidays during the last week of October and books them through around Dec. 12, which is when the shop gets too busy for this outside work. Although the decorating business is already booked by the time the open house rolls around—for this year, it was booked by March—people who are already on the schedule find the open house to be the perfect time to discuss their options with designers and to take advantage of the discounts. And for those who are not on the schedule, it is the perfect time to make them aware of what the shop could do for them in the future.

“During the first week of January, we send a marketing packet to all of the customers whose homes we have decorated. It’s on a first come, first served basis, and then we know whether we can assume any more homes,” Ms. Burns explains.

It is conscious planning such as this that has made Franklin Flower’s annual open house a successful mainstay in the community. And Ms. Burns knows that distinctive merchandise, combined with an extra level of
service, will keep customers coming back year after year to jumpstart their holidays.

You can contact Kelsey Smith at ksmith@floristsreview.com or by phone at (800) 367-4708.



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