NONFOODS: Greeting Cards: Perfect mix

The greeting card sections at Canton, Ohio-based Fisher Foods have gotten smaller, but they definitely haven't downsized in quality or profitability. In fact, category sales for this regional independent are up, even though it hasn't discounted a single card -- not to mention that the grocer is seeing incremental profits from new merchandise displayed in the freed-up space.

How did the seven-store Fisher Foods make this work? By finding a greeting card supplier as a partner that has the same philosophy and values, says Jeffrey Fisher, third-generation owner and president.

"A lot of the larger greeting card suppliers are extremely cookie-cutter in their variety and the way they dealt with independents," says Fisher. "They would treat the independent the same way they would treat the chains. If the same set of cards is at every drug store and discount place down the road, and selling for 20 percent less than it is here, why would they buy it from me?"

In this case bigger wasn't better, in essence. "For an independent grocer a smaller card company is better able to design the right program for you, and not put you in a scenario where you can't be competitive."

The supplier Fisher found for a partner is Marian Heath, based in Wareham, Mass. "Marian Heath understands the independent, and is willing to work with them," he says. "They're excited about independents that want to do something different, because that's exactly what they do. We're happy with them because they're willing to work with us to make each store unique, and that's what's made the whole thing work."

One of a kind

Each of Fisher's greeting card departments is unique, which is key to the program's success. "Fisher's is a unique independent grocer," he explains. "We have seven stores in seven different trading areas. We have some stores in the inner city; we have some stores in the suburbs. So we're able to carry the same line in each store, but a variety of cards within that line [to suit each location]."

Fisher's greeting card selections encompass everyday and seasonal cards ranging from 99-cent cards to specialty cards, and include a line of humorous pet cards from Avanti, a Detroit-based supplier that has a partnership with Marian Heath. The sections also carry gift wrap, wrapping supplies, and party goods such as birthday-themed paper plates, napkins, and tableware. Fisher also complements his main selection with cards from niche suppliers like Rochester, Vt.-based Oatmeal Studios.

The retailer's goal is to create an impactful section that stops the shopper in his tracks. "The consumer that comes into the supermarket today, in most cases -- even though the card companies would like to believe that this isn't true -- isn't necessarily there for a greeting card," says Frank Ranalli, v.p. of operations for Fisher. "What's important is creating a department that's exciting and vibrant, and has a positive presence. Impulse is very important."

Fisher's distinctive selections allow the retailer to avoid discounting cards, as shoppers aren't likely to find them anywhere else in the market -- another benefit to working with a smaller supplier, says Fisher.

The selections are also tailored specifically to the surrounding markets -- a task made easier by the fact that the Fisher family has lived and operated in the area for seven decades.

"We're a local family-owned company that's been around for 73 years," says Ranalli. "We live in the communities we serve, so consequently we understand our consumers, because they're our friends, our neighbors. We're able to tailor and change quickly, based on our customers' needs and demands."

Such targeted selections also allow Fisher to create denser greeting card departments in terms of profitability, and free up space for other products.

"In some of the stores we decreased the space that the previous card company had, because it wasn't needed," says Fisher. "It looked good, but, quite frankly, if we're able to sell as many cards in a 12-foot section as we did in an 18-foot section, it gives me additional space to sell something else. And Marian Heath and M&M (the local distributor) helped provide the information we needed to be more productive, and gave us space that wasn't being used productively to use for other things."

Fisher has filled that free space with specialty nonfoods items, enhanced party and birthday offerings, and even some food items.

Having less space on the selling floor doesn't mean more back-room space was needed, either. With the help of his suppliers, Fisher is able to maintain tight inventory control.

"We really saved a huge amount of dollars because of Marian Heath's inventory control system," he says. "The bigger companies we've worked with would just send in a large amount of cards, and often you wouldn't go through them because they just didn't sell. Then all of a sudden there's an inventory issue, you get billed for the cards, you send them back -- it's a big ordeal as far as trading dollars for inventory. Marian Heath seems to have a better handle on not sending in things that you don't need, which is something every business is interested in, whether you're an independent or a chain. That's one of the benefits of their being so hands-on."

Ranalli sums up the situation in a single sentence: "It's a perfect mix."
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