When I first became a weekly columnist, an editor told me that if I wasn’t getting love and hate messages from readers, I wasn’t doing my job. Judging by my inbox, I’m over the last two weeks. Readers have flooded me with responses to recent articles about the flower industry. I’ve heard both reviled (some florists) and vindicated (consumers burned).
While I never mean to hurt small business owners, I am first and foremost a pro-consumer. I know many florists do wonderful work, offer exquisite arrangements, and are a pleasure to work with. However, my reader mail and my experience tell me that not all of them are such a pleasure. This is what I propose to help solve.
Last week, I offered tips on what consumers can do to increase their chances of getting the flowers they’ve been hoping for and paying for. The week before, I offered some less welcome advice to florists. This week, I’m spilling some more soil that I dug up behind the greenhouse. After extensive interviews with a few industry veterans, here’s what I learned about an area that isn’t always so rosy.
Dirty Secret #1: The posers. Online businesses posing as local florists threaten the good reputation of legitimate businesses. Sally Kobylinski, of Florida, owner of Orlando’s In Bloom, a flower shop with two stores, was burned by these “posers”, who actually co-opted the name of her online store.
“These are not stores at all. These are call centers, people sitting at computers,” she said. “When I hear from customers disappointed with their arrangements, which they say are from my shop, I ask to see their receipt and have to tell them, ‘We didn’t make the order.'”
These order collectors pretend to be real florists. They take the order, pocket 20% of the payment without ever touching a flower, then use a wire transfer service, which takes another 7%, before sending the order to a local florist. So if you ordered an arrangement for $100, the florist only has $73 left to work with, she said. Then the installer often adds an additional service charge of $20 to $30, leaving you with a bill of $130.
No wonder customers are disappointed.
People victimized by these order collectors experience “huge destruction of value,” said Farbod Shoraka, CEO and co-founder of BloomNation, a company that connects customers directly with florists so they can work together. “They basically handle the orders through their website and then leverage a wire service’s network of florists to fulfill the orders.”
Consumer Tip: Do your research and make sure you’re working with a florist you can actually get into.
Dirty Secret #2: Grocers beat florists for quality. Not so long ago, flower farms recognized two levels of flowers: premium florist quality and grocer quality. “Now it’s reversed,” Kobylinski said. “Farms grow for Costco, Trader Joe’s and Sam’s Club, and sell the best quality flowers directly to them. They prefer to deal with five large customers rather than 5,000 small ones.
Because farms sell directly to grocers, skipping the wholesaler, grocery store flowers are also a good deal. So much so that today some small florists often visit these retailers, where they can buy good quality flowers for less than their wholesalers offer.
Consumer tip: Don’t neglect your grocery store when buying do-it-yourself flowers. But turn to professional florists when you want a designer’s eye and talent.
Dirty Secret #3: The numbers game. “Many florists play the numbers game,” said Juan Palacio, owner of BloomsyBox, a subscription flower service. “They’re betting on who counts and who doesn’t and who’s going to complain.”
If they fill an order for telegraph services, they will create a counterfeit cheaper than what was promised. Even if florists sign agreements promising to meet a certain standard, they don’t always do so, he said, “They think it will stay under the radar, and Teleflora or FTD will never know.”
Those who receive flowers rarely complain and those who send them often do not see what is delivered.
“During busy seasons,” Kobylinski added, “some stores roll the dice and accept all orders, knowing they can’t fulfill them all. They plan to simply refund those they don’t fulfill after customers have complained.
Consumer Tip: Build Relationships. Reader and floral industry insider Tim Haley of Colorado Springs, Colorado recommends making a personal connection with far-flung florists. If you have a loved one in a distant city, the next time you are there, visit the nearest florists, introduce yourself, meet the owner and tell him that you are considering doing business with him.
Dirty Secret #4: Misrepresentations are embedded. “Most flower sales go through brokers who have nothing to do with the florist who receives the order,” Shoraka said. When you order through a news agency, you see images that have been professionally shot, retouched and manipulated. “They push all the flowers forward so the picture shows bunches of flowers, but you can’t see the back, which wouldn’t have flowers.”
Because brokers put a curtain between customer and florist, florists don’t develop a relationship with the buyer “and don’t feel pressured to outperform for brokers in any way,” he said.
Consumer advice: Destroy the channel. Get rid of the middle players by going local. Julia Watson, a San Jose reader and horticulturist, wrote to tell me about FloretFlowers.com, which has a directory of local horticulturists and floral designers from around the world, including her own Tiny Footprint Flowers.