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  • Creative approach to Sympathy Business
    Getting Personal
    By Kathleen Pyle

    A fast-growing shop builds on a creative approach to sympathy business.

    Rather than a stiff fan of gladioli, sympathy tributes at Sixth Avenue Floral in Princeton, Minn., take a much more personal shape. Everyday symbols of a person's life often become the accents on the shop's casket sprays: a dish towel embroidered by a grandmother, a grandfather's minnow-bait bucket with a cane fishing pole, a gardener's favorite trowel.

    The use of such personal mementos, paired with simple but elegant flowers, has become a shop trademark. "People look at an arrangement and know immediately where it came from," according to co-owner John Minks.

    While most customers won't ask for such a personalized tribute on their own, they're grateful when the idea is suggested to them, says Minks: "When people come in to order flowers for a funeral, we draw details from them. What was the deceased known for? Did they have any special hobbies? Unless you ask these questions, the bereaved usually aren't focused on the person's life. They rely on florists to do the thinking for them."

    The Human Touch

    The testament to this strategy's success is an army of loyal customers: One entire wall of the shop is covered with customer thank-you notes, many of them for memorable sympathy designs. Minks, who worked at the shop for three years before he and Bill Potrament purchased it, excels in large-scale funeral work. But it's the human touch — along with the artistry — that drives their sympathy business.

    The flower choices, too, breathe fresh air into funeral work. "We've gradually been introducing our customers to the idea that less can be more, that sympathy tributes with less flowers but more unique ones will stand out," Minks comments. "We tend to work more with Holland flowers for funerals, using delphiniums, gerberas, lisianthus, along with architectural elements such as grapevine and curly willow. It's another thing that has made our work identifiable."

    "A funeral is not the time to clean out your cooler," adds Potrament. "Our sympathy designs represent our absolute best work. So we made a decision to go to the expense of having our own enclosure cards designed and printed. They feature the shop name printed discreetly on the bottom. Some people might think it's tacky to advertise on a funeral arrangement. But we're proud of our work. To us, the mention of the shop name is like putting a signature on our designs."

    Freshening Up

    "Even in a small town like ours, florists really need to put themselves out there by marketing their services," Minks observes. A farming town of 4,000, Princeton is fast becoming a bedroom community for commuters to the Twin Cities, located about an hour northwest.

    Sixth Avenue Floral has always been a familiar place here. Originally a 700-square-foot flower shop attached to a funeral home, it was, says Potrament, a former vice president of wholesaler Koehler & Dramm, "a dump" in a dated color scheme of turquoise, orange and pink when he and Minks became its owners. With the help of their friends and family, they transformed it in one weekend into a floral paradise with a low-cost facelift.

    "It doesn't cost much to add a fresh coat of paint," Potrament observes. "And you don't know how much it's going to cost you if you don't pay attention to looks. We try to walk in the front door once a day to see what kind of impression we're creating. Our goal is an eclectic atmosphere that appeals to all the senses, something that sounds and smells as well as looks like a flower shop."

    Since opening day, Minks and Potrament have added space and renovated while retaining historic touches such as the tall front windows with their original copper molding and a paisley wool carpet from the shop's funeral parlor days. In March 1996, they purchased the funeral chapel and adjacent buildings to increase shop space by 4,000 square feet. The extra room now houses an antiques collection, extensive gift lines and a larger cooler.

    Marketing on a Budget

    The partners report that in just over three years, sales have grown by 300 percent. They credit their success to keeping a firm grip on costs and growing their clientele with some innovative — but inexpensive — marketing strategies. To increase their sympathy business, Potrament and Minks rented a casket and displayed it in a booth at the local Home Expo along with a casket spray, side baskets and unusual ideas for sympathy tributes.

    "People talked about our booth for months and we were able to increase our sympathy work by 74 percent in the following year," Potrament recalls. "That kind of publicity is priceless."

    A new computer has helped the partners maintain a list of 1,500 past and prospective customers, built from enclosure card names. Those flower recipients are mailed a 25 percent-off coupon tickler, with a two-week expiration date. The mailing list comes in handy for holiday promotions, too.

    "For special flower days such as Secretary's Day, we'll send out a card with four choices of arrangements, our prices and our phone number," Mink explains. "By narrowing the choices, we not only make it easy for the customer to order, but we can put arrangements together in advance. That way we can be cost-effective with our labor as well as our materials."

    Of Flower Shops and Dairy Queens

    Adds Potrament, "Cost control is important. Running a flower shop isn't any different from operating a Dairy Queen. Everything in the design room ought to be priced, including the bolts of ribbon. It may be $1 more expensive to make one type of bow versus another. You make profits on the nickels and dimes you save day in and day out that can add up to hundreds of dollars."

    The broken flower bits and pieces other shops might throw out have become the basis for Sixth Avenue "cooler cuties." The abbreviated blooms are arranged in mini bouquets in small pots or baskets and sold for $12. "They're affordable and make wonderful hostess gifts or small table centerpieces," Potrament states.

    In an area filled with grocery chains featuring huge floral departments, the two partners find they can pull drop-in customers with some special pricing. Their biggest moneymaker is an everyday special of a dozen roses for $21.99, advertised on a six-by-eight foot banner outside the shop.

    "Male buying habits are unwavering," explains Minks. "They don't like change: they tend to buy the same item time after time. So by offering this price every day except for Mother's Day and Valentine's, we've found we can coax them into buying a dozen roses every Friday, not just for special occasions."

    "We've also discovered that specially priced items can prove more profitable for us laborwise," Minks continues. "Instead of putting all the labor and materials into bouquets of a dozen roses plus filler and only selling maybe 8-10 a week, it doesn't take a math wizard to see that 30 or 40 dozen a week without the frills and labor gives us bigger profit margins. This is one way in which we can compete with grocery chains."

    The Ring of Success

    Exceptional customer service is another way. When the phone rings late at night at Sixth Avenue Floral, a real voice answers. That's Potrament. He and Minks respond to customer calls 24 hours a day by relaying shop calls to their home.

    "For funerals and births especially, our customers often need help early or late. In our first year, we were able to track $7,000 worth of business to answering after-hours calls," Potrament says.

    No wonder the business is growing fast now — but Minks and Potrament have an eye on the future as well. One way they seek to grow their customer base is by encouraging school kids to visit on field trips.

    "Everyone gets a flower," Minks says. "They have so much fun here that they ask to make repeat trips. Then when it's time to order flowers for their prom and their wedding, they'll think of us."

    By then, no doubt, the shop will have to clear another wall, just to hold the thank-you notes from the next generation of customers.


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