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What It Really Takes to Get Mother's Day Flowers to Mom's Door

As the logistics of delivering bouquets become increasingly complex, the flower business's old guard is being squeezed out by more nimble competitors.
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A bouquet of flowers is a simple enough gift to give on Mother's Day, but you'd be surprised by all the work that goes into it making it so easy. For florists, this is one of the busiest seasons of the year, and by many accounts, the most stressful. Still, with Americans set to spend an average of $162.94 for the holiday and two-thirds planning to buy flowers, according to the National Retail Federation, florists will gladly endure the frustration.

When I began to research this story, I put in calls to several retailers in New York City's famed flower district, which dates back to the 19th century. Using old newspaper clips as a guide, I dialed one number after another, only to receive a busy signal, or worse, a dated recording saying "this line is no longer in service." Only one shop on my list remained open: Superior Florists, near West 28th Street.

"This is probably the oldest flower shop in the city," says co-owner Steven Rosenberg, a brusque older man whose grandfather founded Superior Florists in 1930. He lamented how the business has changed. "Anybody with a computer can say they're a florist," he says. "If somebody pays $100 for something, by the time it gets down to us, we get something like $40. People are getting ripped off like crazy."

Flower shops pay e-commerce businesses a cut of every order in commission and marketing fees, in addition to annual membership fees, which cost up to $2,500, according to CNN Money. When someone places an order for, say, a $30 arrangement of daisies on a site like Teleflora, a nearby florist will fulfill the order but also end up paying for the raw material costs, overhead, and delivery. 

Rosenberg claims online businesses have driven down his profits 30 percent in recent years. And although many of those sites will no doubt bring in a large amount of Mother's Day business, he refuses to deal with any of them. Instead, his shop will buy and resell about 5,000 roses, 3,000 carnations, and at least 40 bunches of tulips from individual growers prior to Mother's Day, and do all the preparations in-house. 

A Complex Business

It's little wonder that nimble Web businesses have taken over so much of old-school florists' territory, given how complicated the process of growing, preparing, and delivering flowers can be. It starts with flower growers, who assemble and sleeve bouquets, hydrate them for six hours to 12 hours, and pack them dry in corrugated boxes. Depending on size, 12 to 25 bouquets are placed in each box, which is kept cool at about 34 degrees. The flowers arrive from all over the world: Holland, Ecuador, Colombia, and even Thailand. 

Once the flowers arrive usually two to three days later, florists clean them. The work involves removing unwanted foliage and then treating the stem with a solution of flower food and water. Stems are refrigerated, then taken out for delivery early the next morning. "We have five of our own trucks, but on holidays we rent 10 trucks," Rosenberg says. As for the customers, they still come the old-fashioned way: mostly by word of mouth. 

Kimberly Perrone, the principal of Bloom Flowers, a hip boutique in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood, hasn't been in the business as long as Rosenberg but freely admits the Web has made preparing for Mother's Day harder. Although she'll purchase her flowers from Holland a month in advance, the orders come in so late nowadays that she has only one or two days to prepare them. "The expectation for what I do is very high, but there's less time to do it," she says.  

Big Bouquets and Big Data

In Downers Grove, Illinois, FTD, perhaps the most visible flower retailer on the Web, is relying on data, not instinct, to plot its creations. Unlike most of the boutiques I spoke with, FTD starts its planning a year and a half in advance. Michael Skaff, the company's vice president of design, says the process involves forecasting which colors are likely to be popular, then examining flower varieties, shapes of vases, and what's in stock. From there, he'll assess which arrangements to keep from the previous year based on customer demand. 

Consumer testing is a critical component of the process. Mainly consisting of customer surveys, this takes place about six to eight months after the start of planning, when Skaff is finalizing new arrangements, or what he calls "recipes." Once that part is complete, he'll work with a photographer to photograph the three to five new bouquets for FTD's website.

When a customer places an order on FTD, a nearby florist will prepare and deliver it. "At least six to eight months out, we'll communicate with the florists about all the new containers and recipes so that they can start preparing," Skaff says, noting FTD works with nearly 40,000 florists worldwide. "We have ample coverage throughout the country." 

1-800-Flowers, another major Internet player, goes one step further, increasing its staff by four or five times to accommodate demand, says founder (and Inc. contributor) Jim McCann"Watching that sausage being made is not always a pretty picture," McCann says of the process, which takes a full year and involves coordinating products and plans with thousands of florists around the country. But with variable factors such as the weather, day of the week, and the economy driving purchases, this is one holiday he can't afford to get wrong. 

Bad weather over this past Valentine's Day weekend contributed to a decline in sales for 42 percent of florists surveyed, though the same percentage of florists reported an increase in sales, says Jennifer Sparks, the vice president of marketing for the Society of American Florists. McCann's team has spoken with the florists to prepare their drivers and gone over how to handle any incidents during the peak ordering time leading up to Mother's Day. He's also held webinars on how to "stage," or prepare, the flowers, and has provided daily forecasts on how the crops are faring. "If the light pink mini carnations aren't coming in as we hoped, then we're backing it up with a tangerine color," he says.

Soon it will be Sunday, May 11, and McCann and his team will gather in the company's command center in Westbury, New York, to watch the whole thing unfold. On a giant flat screen, they'll see sales roll in, track the site's engagement and traffic, and tally up how many customers are using the site's Click to Talk function to interact with a sales agent.

McCann will then check in with florists to see if anyone needs extra supplies. But mostly he'll be comparing this year's sales to projections--and gathering even more data. The next day, the process will start anew. 

Meanwhile, perhaps in a leafy Midwestern suburb, a mother will trace the velvety petals of a pink tulip. She'll smile at the warmth and joy it evokes, without a thought about all the work that went into this moment. 

1-800-Flowers CEO Jim McCann: 'You Can't Control the Economy Around You'

The 1-800-Flowers founder explains what he did when sales suddenly plunged during the financial crisis.

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: May 6, 2014

JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer

Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.




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