Arranging his retail space

A glance through the front window at Planet Florist in West Los Angeles reveals a flower shop packed with furniture, fixtures and flower vases.

The concrete floor has old paint spattered on it. Fluorescent lights beam down and a rusty, broken neon sign tops the bulky awning out front.

It's a far cry from the upscale design that owner James Underwood specializes in for clients that include the luxury Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica.

"I spend a huge amount of energy and creativity making space and flowers beautiful for other people and just never seem to have the energy and resources to make it happen here," says Underwood, 44, who bought the Westwood Boulevard shop a little more than a year ago.

He doesn't even use a photo of the store on his website, at www.planetflorist.com. Instead, visitors will see a generic shot of a flower shop.

"It's been an obstacle in that respect: What we do and how we look aren't matching," says the Pasadena native, who has worked at a meditation retreat, taught English in Brazil and served as director of a free healthcare clinic in Pasadena. He designed interiors and events and worked at a high-end florist in Pasadena before running across the flower shop for sale and making the leap into first-time business ownership in November 2007.

Underwood recently invested in a new graphic design for his business cards and painted and decorated his cash register area. But he says he's been stymied in overhauling his long, narrow shop. In addition to a lack of resources, he can't decide on a single style.

At the same time, he's determined to run a green business, so he has used cabinets from a client's home and bought used brass and glass display shelves and used chandeliers, which he admired for their beauty but now worries might be too energy-demanding. He's even hoping to move to local, organic flowers.

"One of the reasons that talented people end up hiring designers to help them is, when you run a business, it's just overwhelming to have to run the business and do everything, and design your space," says interior designer Jon Andersen-Miller, who co-owns Andersen-Miller Design in Culver City with his spouse, architect Matt Andersen-Miller.

After a visit to Planet Florist, both men were impressed with the quality of Underwood's floral design but underwhelmed by the retail space.

"When you walk in the door, you are just hit with tons of stuff," Jon says. "Things were a bit disorganized, the displays were chockablock full and you were just not sure where to look, where to put your focus -- that's the biggest thing."

The team created a list of low-cost, easy steps Underwood could take to create a retail presence that matches his design sensibility.

* Divide the space. "He wants a really kind of upscale, high-design look to sell clients on his talents and so he needs a kind of initial gallery space to show that," Jon says.

They suggest that Underwood divide the long, narrow shop into three bays: a front, gallery-like space; a middle section with flowers, merchandise and the cash register; and a back work space for floral design, deliveries and storage.

They recommend tall curtains as relatively low-cost, flexible room dividers. The right fabric could also support the "big Dorothy Draper, sort of dramatic hotel style from the '50s" that Underwood favors and that matches the style of his custom floral designs.

"Matt and I came up with this idea of making a huge curtain backdrop that separates the first bay of his shop from the rest," Jon says. "If you could do a big, white curtain, kind of like a stage curtain, and you could put a single, big spray of flowers or whatever his floral design is of that day or week on a pedestal in the middle of this window, it would just simplify the whole thing and give an immediate sort of communication that this is a high-end floral designer. "

Underwood could also use an existing marble-topped table in the front space to set the floral design on, and as a meeting space for clients, the consultants say.

Lighted at night, a single, beautiful floral arrangement framed in the shop's picture window would be a great billboard advertisement that would give people a concept of the type of work he does, Jon says.

"That's going to have the greatest impact and let the neighborhood know a real change has occurred," he says.

* Enhance shop's physical assets. The shop, a middle unit in an older Spanish-style building, has a large awning that the consultants recommend he remove.

"Aesthetically, it's a real negative," Matt says of the big awning. "We talked about taking it off and putting on a thinner, lower-profile awning."

All or part of the broken neon sign could be used as the basis of a new sign, Jon says.

The designers also agreed that Underwood should check with the landlord about painting a design on the stucco facade above the shop, possibly incorporating the iron balcony above and the shop door and window, to help highlight the store and extend its graphic identity.

Inside, the paint-spattered concrete floor doesn't look nice, Jon says.

"He could, for instance, do a dramatic black-and-white diamond pattern painted on the floor that would immediately say, 'This is the kind of upscale designer you are looking for,' " Jon says.

* Extend business identity throughout the store. Underwood hired a graphic designer to create his business cards and stationery, but little else in the store reflects the design, the consultants say. They'd like to see the trendy, green leaf-and-tendril silhouette design used on everything, including price tags, in-store signage and front window signs, to create a cohesive business identity.

* Change lighting and displays. "Lighting is so important in retail," Jon says. He and Matt suggest track lighting that would enable Underwood to beam light down, gallery-style, on individual pieces or areas. Matt acknowledges that a commercial-quality lighting system can be expensive. Underwood may want to make the switch one section at a time.

* Minimize tall ceilings. Tall, narrow spaces can convey a sense of openness, the consultants say, but lighting the upper spaces -- fluorescent lights hang from the ceiling at Planet Florist -- can distract from the retail focus. To fix the problem, they recommend Underwood paint the ceiling a dark, neutral color and lower the light source to better focus on the merchandise below.

* Promote green practices. Underwood should consider his building and his energy use, Matt says. The refrigeration units, do-it-yourself walk-in closets left by prior owners, are probably the biggest energy gulpers, he says, followed by the air conditioner in the summer.

It may not be feasible for Underwood to buy new equipment, but he can make sure the cases are sealed properly. Condensation on the glass indicates that may not be the case. He could replace the three units' sliding glass doors with insulated glass. In the unit near the front of the store, where the sun shines in and makes the refrigeration unit work harder, he might replace the two glass doors facing the street with a solid wall, which would cut cooling costs, the consultants say. Glass doors at the back of the unit would still allow access to the flowers.

"Properly maintaining equipment will just be more efficient, so we talked about being on a maintenance schedule," Matt says.

And if Underwood likes the chandeliers he has stored away, he should put them up, the consultants say.

"I've been thinking about sustainability for 20 years," Matt says. "I've concluded if everybody just did a small part, we could solve this problem. That's why I encourage my clients, if you can't do 100%, do 20%. If more people do that, we won't have this crisis."

For Underwood, playing "client" was an eye-opener. When the consultants complimented him on his well-edited custom floral arrangements and then recommended he think in the same terms about his retail space, the idea clicked, he says.

"They said, 'You want to do the same thing with the space. You really want to edit down what you want people to see and take away all the things they don't need to see,' " Underwood says. They "had a great way of putting it into compartments, like priorities -- that idea of editing and focus. It all started to make sense."

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smallbiz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Planet Florist

Business: The West Los Angeles shop sells flowers, cards and gifts and does floral design for weddings and other events.

Owner: James M. Underwood

Founded: 1999; current owner bought the business in November 2007

Start-up funds: $100,000 from savings and a loan from a friend

Employees: Four

Revenue: $300,000 in 2008

CHALLENGE

To create a retail space that reflects the owner's taste, despite limited time and money.

GOAL

To expand the shop's wedding business and add botanical- themed tableware, gifts and art.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Meet the experts:

Jon and Matt Andersen-Miller

As owners of Andersen-Miller Design in Culver City, Jon and Matt Andersen-Miller specialize in architecture and interior design for high-end houses, commercial spaces and historic district projects. Matt is an architect with LEED certification, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a green building rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. He has 19 years of experience in modern, luxury housing design and construction with a focus on green design. Jon is a registered interior designer with 24 years' experience completing residential and museum projects.

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