SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Secrets of selling to florists
Flower shops can be a boost to your bottom line if you cultivate relationships carefully, deliver quality and pay attention to what they need.

By Melanie DeVault

A little bit about Melanie

Melanie and husband George own a 19.2-acre certified organic farm in Emmaus, PA, where they, with son Don and daughter Ruth, have operated a modified CSA and members-only home market stand, sold at Farmers’ Markets, to health food stores and restaurants. Melanie specializes in specialty cut flowers. A former newspaper reporter, she also is a freelance garden writer. She is a member of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers.

QUESTIONS?

I’ll be happy to anwer them!

E-mail me at devault@fast.net and include your name and general location.

Posted August 31, 2004: Nearly every charming rural town has a flower shop, and the bigger towns near you will boast several florists. Here’s the surprise: If you can offer them a quality product, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The keys are quality and trust. You need to know the long-lasting varieties well and their proper post-harvest handling. A little research should yield information on the wholesale standards florists are used to -- like 10 stems to a bunch for most flowers. Throw in impeccable reliability, and they'll be hooked.

After hearing more and more from growers over the past couple of years about selling to florists, my flower partner Linda Essert-Kuchar and I added more florists to our list of customers this year (in additon to the farmers' markets, of course). We’ve found great rapport, and a nice business relationship, with some. We stopped calling one because nothing short of a $100 stem of silk reproduction would have pleased her -- and we didn’t need to deal with that.

While many larger chain stores are not permitted to buy from local growers, independent shops often love to deal with their neighbors. “One guy used to get me glads, two-tone, they were beautiful!” remembers Michelle Fagan, flower buyer for Phoebe Floral Shop in Allentown, a large, upscale florist. “But he’s gone. Over the years, more and more growers don’t come around. Kids don’t seem to carry on the family business.”

So how do you start?

Beyond the obvious, don’t call on the Friday before Mother’s Day. In fact, don’t call on a Friday at all. Call at the beginning of the week when florists may have a little more time.

Lori Klase, who has owned and operated the Posey Patch in Macungie, PA for some 13 years, advises: Do call the florist first, say this is what I have, would you like to see a sample? And make an appointment. Samples are nice.

It may take some persistence for growers to get their foot in the door, but Lori says, “Don’t be pushy. I don’t like pushy people.” Once the foot is in the door, you’ll be an asset to the florist and the one they call.

Michelle says she likes to see a sample. “Freshness, quality, is the first thing I look for. And of course price is important. But quality can outweigh that.

“If I could find roses, lilies, anything quality, really, I would buy local first,” she says. “It’s great to have local people who can supply certain things,” she adds, acknowledging that some flowers, like zinnias, just don’t ship well. Other flowers can be so much better purchased fresh locally.

Lori agrees. “Quality is most important to me.” While she says she doesn’t buy a lot from local growers because much of what she needs just has not been available locally, “there is no comparison for some flowers purchased locally, like your lisianthus.”

If you are interested in selling to florists, Michelle has advice, based upon experience with growers:

Consistency is important. Some problems I’ve seen -- growers have been unorganized. They want the money up front.” This can be a problem in dealing with larger businesses that prefer to send checks once or twice a month.

Bunch properly (check wholesale guidelines). Usually bunches are 10 stems. Bunches should be of consistent quality. Growers who come in with a bucket full of stems in different lengths and quality won’t make a good impression.

Don’t just show up. A lot of local people wait too long to contact the florist. “Someone will just show up with a trunk full of pussy willows, and I’ve already ordered them. Don't just show up. Call and ask if we’re interested. Have a sample." And let them know when a product is close to harvest.

Lori at the Posey Patch says in her smaller operation, she needs local growers who can be more flexible. “I need to be able to call you and say I need 30 sunflowers tomorrow.”

She says she also needs to deal with professionals who know what they’re doing, and label correctly. As horror stories go, Lori says, one time she ordered white tulips for a wedding. As they opened, they weren’t white at all, but pink! That was from a wholesaler, but it shows the importance of knowing your product.

Growers need to develop a rapport with the florist, too, and find out what their customers like.

At Phoebe, which averages 100 deliveries a day, and some weekends does flowers for three to five weddings, Michelle says, many customers like to see unusual things. Lisianthus, hydrangea, peonies, cockscomb and phlox are big. And tastes change with the seasons. “Customers call in orders. They want bright colors in summer. In spring, they want pastels and in fall they want earth tones, grasses, plumes, dried seed pods.”

Don’t mention white. “There are some beautiful white flowers, and we have one designer who will use them, but generally we try to stay away from white,” Michelle says.

Lori says her customers, on the other hand, “don’t like change too much.” So she says to growers, “Stick with common flowers known to people.” She says in spring and summer, her customers seem to like flowers that smell nice. “Fall is busy this year for weddings,” she says. And her personal favorite flower is the daisy. “You can’t go wrong with daisies.”

How do you price?

It’s important to know your local market, wholesale prices and your cost of production! If you’re paying $1 a bulb for a lily or calla lily, you can’t afford to sell a bunch for $2. But wholesale prices often are fair and the florist will be okay with that. We find that selling a bunch of zinnias, 10 stems, for $6 to a florist is actually easier than selling a zinnia bouquet that we make up and sell for $8 at the farmers’ market. And when one florist will take hundreds of zinnias a week, the business bottom line is helped, too.

Don’t be unprofessional and say you’ll take whatever they’ll give you for your beautiful flowers. But understand, too, that florists have access to a whole array of wholesale flowers at wholesale prices. Yours have to be special -- so nice, so fresh that they’ll take notice and put price second to quality.

We enjoy selling to florists because florists love flowers as much as we do. They ooh and aah over our bucket of fresh lisianthus bunches and make it a gratifying experience for all of us.