All stores have marketing tactics to get you in the door — stylish mannequins, elaborate display windows, posters screaming about all the discounts you can find inside.
A view of a bodega selling colorful flowers in New York City.
But some are far more subtle, so much so that chances are you’ve hardly ever noticed them. Picture your local grocery store, for example. What do you see when you first walk in?
Most likely: Flowers. Big, bright bouquets of fresh-cut blooms greet shoppers inside just about every major grocer, from Whole Foods to Kroger to innumerable New York City bodegas.
That’s no coincidence — there’s a strategic decision behind those flowers’ placement.
“It is very, very simple,” says Paco Underhill, the founder and CEO of behavioral research and consulting firm Envirosell. “If you can get someone’s nose and saliva glands working, they become a much less disciplined shopper.”
That’s right: Flowers fire up the senses, getting you ready to spend. Sure, they’re aesthetically pleasing. And as you get closer, your nose picks up on their aroma, which tells your brain “this place has good stuff.”
“You’re signaling freshness, you’re signaling ‘natural’… all the good things that make food good,” said Ashwani Monga, a professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School.
“If I’m a grocery store then that’s how I want you to see my store — logistically, if this person can manage fresh flowers and sell them, this person isn’t going to sell stale food.”
That psychological priming is just one way stores indirectly influence your behavior and encourage you to part more readily with your money. (Holiday music is another effective strategy.)
What makes flowers so effective is that they’re a high-margin item. They may account for only 1% to 3% of total sales, but in 2019 stores reported an average gross margin of 47% on cut flowers, according to a report from the International Fresh Produce Association. In other words, that bouquet you bought for $15 likely cost the store just $7.50. That’s because most of the stems for sale in US grocery stores are flown in from South America, where land and labor are much cheaper.
The grocery store flower scene has emerged over the past 30 years or so, says Becky Roberts, director of floral at the IFPA. As shoppers became more time-starved, grocery stores evolved to be more of a one-stop shop, with bank branches, coffee shops, post offices and, of course, florists.
Covid-19 lockdowns were especially lucrative for the cut flower industry.
“People had to come to supermarkets as one of the few places that they really could still come and shop,” Roberts said. “They wanted things that could bring them a little joy, a little fun, a little happiness.”
Inflation is taking its toll, of course, but Roberts said she expects floral sales to remain strong even as consumers rein in spending on non-essential items.
“You might not be able to afford a $200 dinner now, or to be able to take that road trip,” she said. “But you still can go pick up a bunch of flowers and feel like, ‘OK, I’m still treating myself.'”