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  • Service First

    When Dennis Sunstrum, AIFD, first became a florist, he was motivated by an impulse that was more artistic than entrepreneurial. "I wanted to design and to create," he says. "I studied, won competitions, became a show designer. For some people in the industry, that's the ultimate.

    "But after a while," he continues, "I realized that succeeding in business as a retail florist depends on providing what my customers want. And what they want more than anything else is good customer service." Since the day he came to that conclusion, says Sunstrum, his shop — Town & Country Florist in Niagara Falls, Ont. — has prospered.

    "What it all comes down to is treating the customer well at the point of sale," says Sunstrum. "If you fail at that, it doesn't matter how talented you are. A customer poorly treated simply won't return to your shop."

    What is Good Service?

    Sunstrum defines good service in a variety of ways. Remaining open longer and on more days than his competitors is one. "We open at 8 in the morning, we answer our phones until 9 at night and we usually don't leave the shop until two hours after that, and we do this seven days a week."

    Seeing to it that deliveries occur at or very near the exact time of day requested by customers is another — regardless of whether the delivery is in town or miles distant in the surrounding rural expanses. It's true that providing that level of service adds to a florist's costs. But, says Sunstrum, "people will pay handsomely for good service."

    Sunstrum, who grew up in Niagara Falls, began his career in flowers while still in high school during the early 1960's. He approached a local florist and offered to apprentice without pay. Later, after absorbing as much as possible about both the artistic and fiscal aspects of retail floristry, the then 19-year old Sunstrum left to open Town & Country in partnership with a close friend and the pal's father, who helped with the financing. Ten years after that, Sunstrum bought out his partner's interest in the shop and went solo. "In those days, I did everything myself, including delivery," he recalls.

    At Home in the Shop

    Currently, the shop employs 14 and occupies a two-story, red-brick building that, with its shake roof and dormers, looks more like a home than a commercial storefront. Sunstrum says this architectural style lends itself to the friendly feeling he has tried to establish inside. The interior features a mirrored hallway just off to the side of the front counter. The mirrors permit customers standing at the counter to observe store personnel at work in the generously sized design room — a view that otherwise would be obscured due to the presence of a 22-foot-long, 12-foot-deep flower cooler straddling the two areas.

    "I want customers to see what goes on in the design room," he says. "We're extremely proud of the work that comes out of there. I think allowing customers to see all of that instills in them greater confidence that they've made the right choice in coming to us."

    Flower prepping activities take place in a separate room in the basement, which is also big enough for storage of containers and other supplies. Offices occupy the second floor.

    New Thinking

    Sunstrum began paying greater attention to the commerce-oriented nuts and bolts of shop operations upon awakening to the fact about a decade ago that artistry can take one only so far along the path to success. "After you've become an accomplished designer with flowers and have acquired all the professional credentials, you've got to give real consideration to the business component in order to grow and reach the next level," he says.

    One of the first steps Sunstrum took in pursuit of that very goal was to raise his profile in Niagara Falls. He did that, in part, by becoming an active participant in several civic organizations. The visibility gained from serving, for example, as the auctioneer at a locally televised fundraiser by the Rotary Club and as a key participant in a community revitalization drive by the Lions helped make Sunstrum's a familiar face to many who might otherwise never give him — or his shop — a second thought, he believes.

    Advertising That Pays

    Sunstrum also beefed up his investment in advertising. "I wasn't willing to sit around and wait for customers to come in the door," he says. "I decided I had to go out and bring them in."

    He quickly became enamored of radio advertising, finding it a potent and economical tool for saturating prospective customers with his messages. "Radio gets results," he says. "It doesn't cost much to buy lots of airtime, and you can get the station that runs it to produce your commercial for you as well — usually at no extra cost, which saves you the trouble and expense of having to hire an advertising agency." Print advertising, too, played a role in his outreach plans, then as now.

    Sunstrum hasn't been afraid to experiment with more unusual forms of advertising as well. For instance, at one point he outfitted his pair of delivery trucks with loudspeakers, which allowed music appropriate to a particular occasion to boom out at the home or workplace of the flower recipient about 40 seconds after the driver exited the parked vehicle. "The person receiving the flowers would open her front door and just about then, 'Happy Birthday to You' would start playing from the truck," he tells. "It really worked great. People remember touches like that." Sunstrum abandoned the loudspeaker concept after about a year — the same length of time he sticks with every such ploy before moving on to something new. After a year, he explains, the gimmick either becomes wearisome to the public or is imitated by competitors, losing effectiveness in any event.

    Doing the Arithmetic

    Another savvy move on Sunstrum's part involved reassessing his product lines, with an eye toward scouting fresh opportunities. "I limited my existing lines to just those that I could build on in some way with related products," he says. "For example, I sold flowers for funerals. That was a good line for me. Well, that opened the door to selling cemetery monuments."

    "I soon discovered that the only thing limiting how deep we can get into related products is time — it requires a sizable commitment of time to properly promote whatever you want to sell extra. There just aren't enough hours in the day to allow me to take on everything I might want to carry."

    Among the goods and services that fell by the wayside, for Sunstrum, were weddings. "I did the arithmetic and found that weddings just weren't profitable for me," he offers. "A $500 wedding job can stretch out for months. I'm better off doing 10 $50 arrangements, which I can do in a single morning."

    Lately, the success of Sunstrum's Town & Country Florist has prompted him to think at length about the future. "The biggest idea I have in mind is to keep my shop open 24 hours a day," he divulges. "Will it be worth keeping the lights on that long? Yes, I believe so. There are people out there who need to buy flowers at 2 a.m., and — whoever they are — I want to be there for them. I want their business. I'm serious.


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