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It was roughly 10 years ago that Kowalski's Markets decided the best idea for setting the tone for a retail brand makeover was to be unconventional -- put floral and gift departments front and center. As it turned out, that choice became the gift that keeps on giving.
The grocer has since wrapped up an exceptional reputation for its unique objets d'art and charming floral selections.
"We weren't always so gift-focused," recalls Kris Kowalski Christiansen, c.o.o. for the Woodbury, Minn.-based nine-store independent. "When we converted our stores about 10 years ago, not many supermarkets had gift departments. In seeking to take the mundane out of weekly grocery shopping, we wanted to offer our customers an additional experience to help them relax and unwind, while also giving them something to look forward to."
While part of Christiansen's vision "obviously involved the presence, the aesthetics, and the overall feel of gifts and floral, we thought that those departments, which go hand in hand in our stores, would be the perfect tone-setter, rather than just a wall of canned goods."
As a result Kowalski's gift departments, positioned at the front of the stores, are bursting with an array of traditional and eclectic items that run the gamut from picture frames, candles, lamps, vases, mirrors, and pottery to body care, marketplace gadgets, throws, purses, and even jewelry.
The strategy has extended to the point that Kowalski's newer locations have been built around the floral and gift departments rather than the other way around. All of the nine units have a strong gift presence ranging anywhere from 1,000 items in the smaller stores to 2,500 to 3,000 in the larger ones.
Christiansen says she's proud that the category has exceeded original expectations, but she adds that she'd be reluctant to look this so-called gift horse in the mouth.
"When it first got going, we weren't exactly sure people would be in the mode to buy a vase or a lamp while doing their food shopping," she admits. "But it's really translated with our customers. We were surprised -- pleasantly so -- that people trusted a grocery store for those kinds of things they would typically think of a gift shop or a department store for. There was a lot of acceptance right away.
"Obviously, it took time to bring in the range of quality we were seeking," adds Christiansen, but in due course, it all clicked splendidly. "It helps the [shopping] experience to stay memorable, with something different that shoppers continue to think about after they've gone," she says. "And while I think a lot of our departments are that way, it's especially so with our gifts."
Kowalski's commitment to high-quality giftware is reaffirmed by appreciative feedback from consumer focus groups, which the retailer enlists quarterly.
When asked about alternative-format operators' encroachment on supermarkets' turf, Christiansen says that the gift departments have enabled "us to further enhance our full-service one-stop shop," particularly with both party planners and partygoers. "Even if they're shopping for a special event to attend, we find that a lot of people think of us first when buying their holiday, birthday, and office gifts."
The chief architect of Kowalski's gift departments is Mark Wachter, a horticulture and design major plucked from produce to head up gifts, as an extension of his existing floral duties. His talented eye as both a buyer and merchandiser has played an integral role in the retailer's stunning collection and solid reputation, notes Christiansen.
"I was working in the produce department at the time, and being a horticulture major, I was also taking care of floral," says Wachter, who has been with the organization for nearly 20 years. "We started out small, tested the waters, and it grew from there." He began merchandising offbeat items such as decorative containers and picture frames, "and people started asking for more and more."
His departments now exude a cozy, antique-store feel. Wachter still seeks out vintage objects to serve as centerpieces of his artistic displays, and he also spends much of his time in the stores helping floral and gift managers maintain high standards and incorporate new merchandising techniques.
The newest store, in Woodbury, took those merchandising techniques to the next level. "We actually added a small furniture alcove offering table-and-chair sets, small armoires, and dressers," says Christiansen. There's also an entire room devoted to high-quality children's items, along with the main gift space and a separate display of marketplace cooking implements.
Across the board, notes Wachter, he aims for "a mix of eclectic, functional items that covers a broad range of high-end upscale, as well as affordable luxuries for all budgets."
Among Kowalski's top sellers are Arkansas-based Sunset Mountain candles, inspirational plaques, Caldrea's line of premium household products, and The Thymes collection of bath, body, and home products, the latter two companies both based in Minnesota. "We're also doing really well lately with purses, jewelry, necklaces, and watches," notes Wachter, adding that pillows, throws, blankets, tableware, cookware, and clocks are also strong sellers.
Christiansen says that the operator is also extremely competitive price-wise, especially in relation to major department stores and local gift shops in the market. "We monitor area retailers that carry like, and often the exact same, items, and we're usually less, often by about 20 percent."
The departments' high-visibility settings, residual displays, and cross-merchandising activities conducted in the other service departments stimulate many consumers to make purchases when they perhaps would have otherwise forgone the occasion. "Even though a customer isn't prepared to buy a $300 mirror when they first see it," says Christiansen, "once they continue thinking about it, they often eventually purchase it on their next trip."
Wachter credits company founder and c.e.o. Jim Kowalski for being a "prudent risk taker" who empowers his associates to think big and aim high. "His leadership has taught me that it's OK to pursue new things if you believe strongly in them."