With 67 years under its belt, Nielsen's Florist & Garden Shop has seen plenty of changes in the industry, and its ability to adapt has earned the shop 2011 Retail Florist of the Year Award.

Sandy Nielsen-Baumann, one of the shop's owners, said news of the award is still sinking in even though she was notified early last month. The contest is sponsored by Florists Review Magazine, and Wholesale Florist and Florist Supplier Association.

"I can't believe we won this award. I'm really proud of the store and the staff and really thankful to the customers," she said.

Nielsen's has never entered the competition before, but office manager Raya Ward made it her personal mission to make sure the shop was a contender.

"I thought we could compete," Ward said.

Before a retail florist is even considered for the award, the business must be recommended by two other retail florists.

Linda Rohr, who works part time and helps with public relations, said the shop was assessed on a number of criteria, including advertising, marketing and promotion, customer service, fresh flower selection and quality and community involvement.

"Each business needs to be well-rounded and you have to excel at all aspects of the business," Rohr said.

Nielsen's was nominated by Carbone Floral Distributions, of Rhode Island, and A. Perri Farms, Inc., of Long Island. Both retailers have worked with Nielsen's over the years to strengthen their businesses.

Since opening its doors in 1944 under the care of Nielsen-Baumann's grandparents, Hilda and Christian Nielsen, the store has seen a number of changes.

"We felt we had done a lot of innovative things," Nielsen-Baumann said. "We did work on the website and a lot of cosmetic work on the building as well as working on a logo to brand ourselves."

Ward said since she started working for the business she has been surprised at how much more streamlined everything has become.

With its most recent award, Nielsen's has accrued a number of accolades, including being named Best of the Gold Coast in a survey conducted by Moffly media; Connecticut Magazine named the shop the Best of Connecticut; and the University of Connecticut's business school and Mass Mutual named Nielsen's the first runner-up in their annual Family Business Award.

"It's huge for us to receive such an award because this is the second national award we've received," Nielsen-Baumaan said.

Chamber of Commerce President Carol Wilder-Tamme said in an email she was pleased to hear Nielsen's won the award because of how the business has changed its product line over the years to meet new demands.

"Nielsen's has expanded (its) home decor and have included some gorgeous hand-blown glassware, and other tempting pieces," Wilder-Tamme said.

Wilder-Tamme also credited Nielsen's efforts in the community as a reason why its customer base is so loyal.

"They have hosted the chamber's Wine Tasting and Charity Auction with Nielsen's generously rearranging their space to accommodate the 300 guests for that night. It's a wonderful evening that has grown from a chamber networking event to a community-wide evening party that supports local charities," she said.

Winning the award is a great honor for Nielsen's but it doesn't mean the staff will stop looking for ways to improve.

"You're always trying to improve yourself. You never really stop to see how things have changed," Nielsen-Baumann said. "You have to keep going."

May and December tend to be the busiest months of the year for Nielsen's and because the business was notified shortly before Mother's Day it would be receiving Retailer of the Year, there wasn't a lot of time to let it sink in. Nielsen's is planning an event to celebrate the award and thank its customers.

"We want everybody to celebrate with us," Ward said.

The retail florist business has become increasingly more competitive over the years as supermarkets and online florists have become more prevalent, Nielsen-Baumann said. She attributed Nielsen's success to the fact the business has always focused on meeting the needs of the customers.

"If you put your best foot forward and you know what you're customers want then you'll do fine," she said.

Nielsen's also participates in weekly webinars where florists from around the country discuss ideas they've tried that have either worked or haven't worked so each business can get an idea of what can be done to improve.

Looking toward the future, Nielsen-Baumann said the store will survey customers to see if there are more ways to improve.

"You can't fix what's not broken. You can only improve on feedback and our priority is to put customers first," she said.

Nielsen-Baumann said she has had a lot of fun running the business because she grew up in Darien and knows many of the customers.

"In a small town like this, I know a lot of the customers and it makes it fun. Some of our customers have been coming here for generations," she said.