feature story

the modern

"Retail Florist of the Year" category winner Absolutely Flowers' creative merchandising and display techniques bring contemporary style to the heart of Kansas.

by Shelley Urban

    Most folks in the heartland are known to have traditional tastes. That’s especially true in Kansas although there are a few enclaves where preferences for contemporary styling reign. Hutchinson, a modest-size agricultural community with especially conservative roots, is not typically considered one such place. So it was with a small amount of concern that Mitzi Alexander, aifd, and Karen Maness launched Absolutely Flowers in Hutchinson, Kan., in 2004.
    They’d worked in the local floral industry for some 20 years each, so they knew that their vision of a contemporary, even industrial-looking store where designers specialized in sleek modern florals with a Euro-chic influence might not be well received by Midwestern flower buyers. Fortunately, their concerns proved unfounded, and the community’s 41,000 residents flocked to the new shop with the modern edge. Part of the appeal may have been the pair’s creative use of space in the small shop, where limited showroom area dictates display ingenuity. The ladies’ innovative strategies caught our eyes as well, and judges in our “Retail Florist of the Year” contest, co-sponsored by the Wholesale Florist & Florist Supplier Association (WF&FSA), selected Absolutely Flowers as the winner of the “Outstanding Merchandising and Display” category. Absolutely Flowers was nominated by Valley Floral Co. Inc. in Wichita, Kan.

  Absolutely Flowers at a glance

Owners: Mitzi Alexander, AIFD and Karen Maness
Number of shops: 1
Location: Hutchinson, Kan.
Opened: 2004
Shop size: 1,500 square feet
Clientele: all income levels
Average sale of all merchandise: $40 to $50
Average fresh flower sale: $45
Number of employees: 11
Web site: www.absolutelyflowers.biz



modern space matches inventory
    After working together in a flower shop for less than a year, Mrs. Alexander and Mrs. Maness chose to forge their own path. Given the modern direction they wanted to take, rather than seek an existing business, with a space to redesign and an image to change, the pair opted to start fresh. A former ice cream parlor, situated in one corner of an old brick building on a corner in Hutchinson’s midtown business district, was a perfect fit despite its modest size—just 1,500 square feet.
    The space “was in awful disrepair,” recalls Mrs. Alexander, so with their landlord’s approval, the ladies’ husbands gutted their newly leased section. This included removing the drop ceiling, exposing the original 15-foot-high structure, which was a hit with both Mrs. Alexander and Mrs. Maness.
    “We didn’t want to look like everyone else,” explains Mrs. Maness. “We wanted a contemporary, somewhat industrial look, with a clean, European feel.” As a result, the redesign was minimized but well-planned and practical.
    “At first,” explains Mrs. Alexander, “it was just the two of us and a delivery driver, so we needed the design area to be open so that when we were working, we could still see and greet customers as they entered the store.” The design area accounts for about 220 square feet of space.
    While significant space remained for an expansive showroom, the pair opted to keep it small, at just 500 square feet. This choice, too, was as practical as it was financially savvy. “We didn’t want to invest a huge amount of money into inventory, and we also didn’t want our showroom to be empty, so it made sense to keep it small,” Mrs. Alexander recalls. “But we were also assured by other industry professionals that this [a limited financial commitment to inventory] was the best way to make money,” adds Mrs. Maness.
    Despite that the pair now own the building, also occupied by two additional tenants, and could easily expand their showroom space, that same practical philosophy still governs display strategies at Absolutely Flowers, according to Mrs. Maness. “We’re able to turn a smaller inventory pretty quickly, so the shop looks different all the time,” she explains. In addition, Mrs. Alexander points out that regular rearranging of displays, which the pair and their staff do every other month, can be completed in just one night.

top-down design
    Movable display fixtures, custom-built by the ladies’ hard-working husbands, are part of what makes showroom redesign so quick and easy. Metal racks, ranging in size from 6 feet to 8 feet tall, each with four 16-inch-square removable “shelves,” actually made from floor tiles, are easily emptied and repositioned as needed. In addition, metal tables, built to stack atop one another, keep showroom configurations interesting.
    Because space is limited—even a bit snug during the holiday season—the women also utilize the open space overhead. A metal grid, again built and attached to the ceiling by their husbands, enables a wealth of products to be merchandised in midair, suspended artfully from the gridwork.
    Mrs. Maness cites that the one drawback to the intriguing format is that, oftentimes, the suspended items are most in demand, and the limited space minimizes the numbers of extras on hand elsewhere. “Sometimes we hang something up and then, minutes later, have to climb right back up the ladder to get it down,” she says with a laugh.
    Combined with the tall racks and stacked tables, Mrs. Maness reports that a visit to Absolutely Flowers’ showroom is always a “floor to ceiling experience, and every piece works together” to yield a complete, finished display.

focus on color and texture
    Product is typically arranged in bold color groupings that capture attention, even from outside the shop, where passers-by, whose purchases account for 30 percent of annual revenues, the total of which the pair declined to reveal, can view displays through the expansive glass windows. According to Mrs. Alexander, the color groupings, enhanced by skillful combinations of textures, allow displays to “look full but not cluttered.” While the pair report that they don’t focus much on the “rules” of merchandising and display, they do say that the sleek, contemporary products in which Absolutely Flowers specializes help them achieve a cohesive look throughout the store. “We don’t buy products according to their colors or themes, except somewhat at Christmas,” notes Mrs. Maness. “And we don’t spend much time thinking about how it will all fit together until it arrives,” she adds. “The styles of merchandise all tend to blend together,” Mrs. Alexander agrees.
    Instead of “rules,” the ladies focus on sourcing new and exciting products that lend themselves to creative display. “We’re always looking for a way to be different,” Mrs. Alexander reflects.
    And smart buying, says Mrs. Maness, makes each of the bimonthly showroom redesigns a breeze. “If we buy correctly, products sell out, so we don’t have to figure out how to redisplay any old merchandise to make it look new,” she explains.

staying true to their vision
    Among the shop’s best-sellers, in addition to mostly custom-designed fresh flowers, which account for 67 percent of revenues, are several lines of candles. They range in price from $2 to $50. Artful glass vases, usually in bold colors and modern geometric forms, also sell well and are priced from $5 to $50. Permanent flowers, both arranged and by the stem, capture customer interest as well and account for 10 percent of revenues.
    “We generally stick to flowers and products that go with them,” confirms Mrs. Alexander. In accordance with the shop’s “Absolutely Flowers” moniker, everything in the store relates to flowers including the homemade fudge, which is made once a week in 72-pound batches in an on-site kitchen. “It’s a popular add-on with a good profit margin,” Mrs. Alexander assures. “We suggest it for birthdays and many other flower-buying occasions.”
    The fudge tempts customers, both on the day it’s made, when the delightful scent wafts throughout the building, and on a daily basis as it beckons from inside its display case, which is positioned next to the checkout counter. The large sales area is also a prominent merchandising space where additional creative and color-coordinated displays entice shoppers.
    Despite their dramatic departure from the traditional leanings of the Midwest, or perhaps because of it, Mrs. Alexander and Mrs. Maness have garnered strong support within their community. But the pair is not eager for their business to expand beyond their mostly terra-cotta-hued walls. The small showroom, with its brick floors, limestone accents and high grid-covered ceiling, is a great fit for both their inventory and artistic display strategies. And the building’s industrial aesthetic, embraced by the other tenants as well, is an ideal backdrop for the ladies’ contemporary stylings.

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

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