I never expected it to turn out this way. I never expected Edible Arrangements to become an international brand with over 1,000 stores across the world in only ten short years. I didn’t know that by fulfilling my own dream of starting a business I would one day be able to fulfill that same dream for so many others . . . and that my goal of making my customers happy would translate into sharing my idea with hundreds of franchisees who make millions of customers happy. And I was only thinking about having a job for myself, my brother and maybe my parents when we got busy – not creating a successful franchise that would create thousands of jobs. Anyone who is paying attention to the world economy knows that small businesses – like Edible Arrangements stores – are the business world’s job creators.
So, you might wonder why I didn’t start out with these lofty goals. The reason is simple . . . nobody has a crystal ball that will neatly and conveniently lay out their future. Everybody starting a business has dreams and plans of where their business may be 10 or 20 years from now, but the best plans still need to be updated to keep ahead of new trends, customer preferences and technologies. Change is inevitable, no matter how uncomfortable, and a business must evolve if it has any chance of surviving. I confidently believe that Edible Arrangements is where it is today not only because our customers believe in our product and our franchisees believe in our system, but because we evolved as the company grew.
Setting the Record Straight: Early Lessons Learned Paved the Way for Success
To help ensure the sustainability of the brand and the livelihoods of hundreds of franchisees in this challenging economic climate, some difficult, and I admit, unpopular decisions had to be made. I refer to unpopular decisions because, as a result of these decisions, certain unsubstantiated accusations and misrepresentations have been made over the past year in the media. These misrepresentations question our company’s integrity and business practices or allege a violation of contractual rights and legal obligations. These allegations have no merit and therefore need to be addressed and refuted. Yes, our franchise system has made changes over the years to stay ahead of the trends and competition, and will continue to do so, but every change was made with the best interest of our customers and franchisees in mind. I believe the lessons we learned along the way, from the very first store to the one thousandth, have helped shape our culture and pave the way for our success.
In 1999 after years running first one and then four successful floral shops, my brother Kamran and I – with the help of other family members – opened the first Edible Arrangements store. I learned about designing at the floral shop, and it was then I learned the importance technology played in running a multi-unit business operation. Learning about design and technology helped my businesses succeed, but the most important thing I learned in these early days was that the customer is king. We became successful because right away we focused on the customer and did things our competitors didn’t do. When other florists said they couldn’t deliver, we said we could. When they said it was too late to send an arrangement to the hospital that night, we told our customer it wasn’t. Customers learned that they could get great service from my shops, and I learned that to be successful, you have to work when your customer wants you to, not when you want to!
Our fruit bouquets were amazing artistically designed showpieces that made everyone stand back and go “wow” when they saw them. Such a unique product that elicited such an emotional response from people required the perfect company name. The name had to mean something, make an instant connection and grab people’s attention. We drove our friends and family crazy with our ongoing naming debate sessions. Finally, the ah-ha moment arrived, and we decided on “The Edible Arrangements.” Like Facebook did six years later, I decided to drop the word “The” and Edible Arrangements was born. I like to think that there’s another similarity between us and Facebook: we both connect people with friends and loved ones – we just do it with fruit!
Like all new businesses, we struggled for the first few years and did everything we possibly could do to survive. Time didn’t matter as we had to work around the clock just to keep the business afloat. Even though there were days when we had only a few orders to fulfill we kept plugging away, confident in our product and in what we were doing. I kept my focus on the customer – just as I had in those early days in the floral industry when we were outpacing the competition. We firmly believed, as we still do now, that as long as we took care of our customers and exceeded their expectations every single day, they would keep coming back again and again, and spread the word about our business to others. I learned a lot in those early days – stay true to yourself, never give up, constantly look for ways to reinvent your business to stay ahead of the competition, and, more importantly, always be open to new opportunities and ideas.
Franchising? What is that?
In 2000 we received a visitor at our East Haven, CT storefront that would forever change the direction of our small retail business. A motorist stuck in traffic on the Quinnipiac River Bridge on Interstate 95 noticed our Edible Arrangements sign from the highway. Intrigued, he got off at the next exit and walked into our store. Chris looked around, asked about our product and business and then asked a question that never crossed our minds before. He asked if we would consider franchising Edible Arrangements — he was confident the product would be a smashing success. I hate to admit it today but we had no idea what he was talking about. We were just kids motivated by passion for what we were doing and our product. Franchising was never a consideration; in fact, it wasn’t even part of our vocabulary.
Remember what I said earlier about being open and receptive to new ideas. I’m sure glad we were open to suggestions that day. One year later in 2001 the very first Edible Arrangements franchise location opened in Waltham, MA. Fast forward ten years and Chris is now a successful enterprise owner with six Edible Arrangements stores in Massachusetts. In fact, thanks to Chris convincing us that franchising was the way to go, many more franchisees in our system have followed his lead. They built their enterprises one store at a time and are now successful business leaders and CEOs of their own independent businesses.
These storefronts generate local business and are attractive retail destinations for shoppers who want to see and taste our product before they buy. But our franchisees do not have to shoulder all their marketing efforts alone – that is one of the great benefits of being a part of a franchise. Through national print and television advertising, supported by professional advertising and public relations agencies and our professional staff at the corporate office, franchisees have marketing expertise at their fingertips. This national marketing invites customers to find a local store and it also tells consumers about our websites and toll free order number. Our websites, Call Center, e-marketing efforts on social media sites and other business-generating activities are all managed through our system called EAConnect.
EAConnect is the name we use to describe the centralized order processing and related services we’ve been providing to franchisees for years. Among other things, EAConnect delivers orders to each and every franchisee via our national Customer Call Center, our consumer websites and our advanced internal inter-franchise process, which allows stores to seamlessly send orders from one store to any other store in the system. Our direct to consumer e-marketing attracts customers to our popular consumer websites, Ediblearrangements.com in the US and Ediblearrangements.ca in Canada. Online promotions and special offers convert browsers into buyers. Our franchisees can devote a majority of their time generating local business and building relationships in their communities while the corporate office, through EAConnect, delivers approximately half their business to their stores from our custom ecommerce program.
Expanding ecommerce opportunities was just one area where technology helped grow the Edible Arrangements brand. After realizing the importance technology played in the success of our floral business, I knew the same would be true for the success of Edible Arrangements. The software and technology available to the franchising industry at the time were not robust enough to create the franchise system that I envisioned. So, instead of settling for an inferior product, I founded my own company, Netsolace, to provide technology solutions specifically designed to support the unique business needs of Edible Arrangements. As Edible Arrangements grew and evolved, Netsolace was able to provide tech services and products at competitive prices to keep pace with the growing needs of the business – products such as customized touch screen training programs for store employees, a support system for ordering inventory and marketing materials, and a state-of –the-art Store Management System.
We’re constantly improving technology to service the needs of our customers – our franchisees – and since mobile technology is the way of the future we have developed mobile apps for our support services that will be available soon! This mobile application allows franchisees to be in contact with their stores without having to be inside their stores, thus making managing their businesses more efficient, especially for multi-unit owners. For this app we have redesigned our systems to deliver concise, easy to read information about customer orders, employee attendance, delivery status – all the things store owners need at their fingertips to make sure operations are running smoothly.
Customers expect real-time service, and having store information immediately available to the business owner will help ensure that every customer is promptly and exceptionally serviced every time. As the franchisor, taking steps to ensure that franchisees deliver a uniform customer experience is our responsibility; franchisees should expect us to try and develop mobile apps and other technologies that individual franchisees simply could not afford to create on their own. And we are not stopping with this phone app. We’re already at work on an app for tablet devices like iPads and new software to help expedite the in-store ordering process to further improve the buying experience for our customers.
As the system continues to grow, our costs for delivering these technological innovations to franchisees and delivering an amazing experience for our customers are also increasing. Customer preferences and expectations are changing rapidly. Society is quickly evolving and to keep pace technology must change even faster. We must evolve our technology and services to stay relevant and ahead of the competition. Our ecommerce channels must adapt and grow to meet our customers’ and franchisees’ expectations. To support this growth, we will soon implement a 2% fee on all EAConnect orders. This fee, which we have the right to assess, is very modest considering the amount of services to franchisees it will help fund and the revenue EAConnect generates for our franchisees.
Franchising has its own unique benefits, but it’s not for everyone
Franchising may be the right business model for hungry entrepreneurs hoping to become the next great franchisor, a means to attain your own small business, or a good investment opportunity. But franchising is not for everyone. Why? Put simply, it’s not just about you anymore. Every move you make as a franchisor or franchisee affects your customers, and also hundreds of thousands of other franchisees. Everyone in the franchise system must work within a uniform set of standards and operating procedures to ensure the customer receives the same, unforgettable experience each and every time, no matter where they are.
For example, we obviously need to control the quality of the fruit we sell, because that is what our customers come to us for. That’s our business! For consistency, dependability and traceability, we created our Fruit Reliability and Excellence System (we call it “FRESH” – and say the “H” is silent!). Our franchisees use this produce-ordering system for the best quality fruit that is available at all times, and only the most discerning produce distributors with proven track records are eligible to be a part of our FRESH program. We work directly with growers as well, who produce fruits to our exact standards and specifications. When you’re the leader in Fresh Fruit bouquets, your customers expect you to have the best, and that is what we demand from our growers and produce distributors!
Some franchisees may not always agree with every policy, procedure or enhancement to the system. However, since our franchisees are all independently owned and operated, it’s the franchisor’s responsibility to communicate with franchisees and convince them about the validity of any change or decision. It’s a constant balancing act where every decision must be weighed very carefully. What may be good for the system as a whole and for each franchisee may not always be apparent to all at first. It’s not always easy or popular to make the tough choices needed to ensure you stay one step ahead of the competition and keep your customers happy, engaged and coming back year after year. To be successful you must always be thinking ahead, evaluating your weaknesses and taking advantage of any and all opportunities to help ensure your business and products stay relevant.
We recently addressed what we considered to be one of the weaknesses in our system – taking a page from the playbook I had used back in my floral days when we did well by being open when our competitors were not. We extended weekday hours until 7:00pm, so our customers could pick up our products on their way home for an evening meeting or gift. And we opened on Sundays, when people entertain guests and celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other specials occasions. Remember, the customer is king and we need to be there at their convenience –not our own. By now being open 7 days a week, we are meeting the expectations of our customers, attracting new customers and further differentiating our brand from the competition. This decision wasn’t enthusiastically embraced by all our franchisees. But the reality was our operating hours were not customer friendly, and that made us vulnerable to losing customers to competitors.
As a franchisor, we must always strive to make our customers’ lives a little easier by ensuring our product is available to them and our ordering process is as easy as possible. Since our internet business keeps growing, we were able to extend our reach into areas where we don’t yet have stores by using a new consumer website and a shipping program. With DippedFruit.com, we can now ship chocolate dipped fruit to customers who want a delicious fresh fruit product but don’t live near enough to one of our stores for van delivery. DippedFruit.com supports our franchisees – it does not compete against them. Customers who are specifically searching for dipped fruit with various toppings who place an order with Dipped Fruit.com are automatically serviced by an Edible Arrangements franchisee if one services the area. If not, the order is fulfilled and shipped by a franchisee-owned Edible Arrangements shipping center.
Our corporate clients tend to send large quantities of bouquets and boxed chocolate dipped fruit during the holidays or for special occasions, and they often send them to employees or clients all over the country. These orders are often fulfilled by many different stores in our system. To facilitate these corporate orders we created a program through our Call Center so corporate clients can quickly and easily order and pay for their purchases. Once orders are sent to the applicable franchise locations to fulfill and deliver the products, the same exact fee split that applies to all inter-franchise orders is assessed, even though the corporate office incurs considerable expense for advertising to corporate accounts and the additional labor needed to handle the increased call volume.
Where We Are Today
Our humble idea became over 1000 stores in thirteen countries, expanding into India and China, adding to our product line with fresh fruit beverages and fruit salads, and embracing change as a necessary part for business evolution and growth. Even though it may be easier to stay complacent and not risk internal discord, we simply cannot afford to stop and smell the roses. We will continue to change, to evolve, so long as we continue to deliver an incredible experience to our customers and value to our franchisees. As the number of franchisees in our system continues to grow, independent viewpoints and different opinions also grow. Therefore, it is even more imperative that we make an extra effort to work closely with our franchisees to ensure both our goals and interests are aligned and everyone is on board with a new process, procedure or change. For it’s our franchisees that make the brand successful and help bring happiness to our customers each and every day. We look forward to getting our franchisees feedback and participation in many more areas in the years ahead.
Sometimes the things you never expected turn out to be better than you ever dreamed. For me, it was launching Edible Arrangements and seeing how hard working and dedicated franchisees turned one small shop into one really big idea. What will it be for you?