Inside Weddings: Behind the Floral Industry

December 14, 2009

"Let him who hath two loaves sell one, and buy the flower of narcissus: for bread is but food for the body, whereas narcissus is food for the soul." by Mohammed

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they spin not nor do they toil; yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” by Jesus


The following article was recently featured on Nancy's Brown Bag. We feel that the insight into the floral business is quite interesting and though to pass it on to all of you. Give us your thoughts.

For the purposes of this brief essay I will concentrate on the predicament of the modern floral professional who specializes in weddings, events and corporate accounts.

As an associate who works for a company that supplies many such designers, I am all too pertinently aware of the fallout from the financial meltdown and the squeeze or even elimination of flowers from the budgets of corporations. Our company is keenly aware of the downsizing of weddings and parties that has occurred and sensitive to the quite austere atmosphere that we Americans currently live in. Given the excesses of the past ten years or so, it seems entirely logical that there would have to be a period of reconciliation with the insanity of our runaway consumption. Alas, it is just history repeating itself - yet again (Genesis 41, again!) but still, the dissolution of much of the wealth from our economy comes with some pain.

I was moved to respond to the Nancy Liu Chin’s commentary(in her post, Behind the Scenes: Bear Bear Bear) because of her straightforward and accurate outline of the financial predicament that many florists find themselves in. Most of the problems that floral professionals encounter are the direct result of a very poor understanding of the real costs involved in conducting their business. During the times when money was altogether much looser and more available, the wealth effect managed to mask most of these shortcomings; but now that we live in times when every penny counts and is counted, all costs of production need to be accounted. Last but not least, the credit-worthiness of the client needs to be assured. There is absolutely no shame in this…it is business!

OK…so now we’re in business, still in business, as it were, let’s take a look around at the playing field.

State of the Union: A Wake up Call

First and foremost to be considered are the DIY Nuptial Designers working in concert with the supermarkets. We need to have a clear understanding of what is happening at the supermarkets, and they are in business to maximize yield per sq.ft.. It is unfortunate for a lot of us that many markets frequently use flowers as a loss leader, but this is happening less and less in this economy. Even the mass markets have cut back on flower purchases. The flowers they sell can be very good, in many cases excellent. Generally however markets do not have enough people allocated to properly take care of the flowers. Therefore, the quality suffers significantly the longer the flowers remain in the store.

One fact has become clear and immutable: Supermarkets are unequivocally the best location to sell flowers to consumers, because the consumer ranks their perishable nature on a par with milk, meat and produce. Supermarkets provide the absolute best opportunity for an impulse purchase of flowers because the buyer is going directly home. The selection available is commensurate with the diversity available in the produce department. It is quite likely that if you can get organic dandelion greens or fresh sorrel, the likelihood of being able to procure Canterbury Bells or Peonies significantly increases.

Generally speaking, most of the flower selections in supermarkets tend to be commodities as the inherent purchasing process for supermarkets means being able to replicate one box lot for hundreds of stores, with the correct bar code and price attached. The flowers also need to be fairly hardy products as they frequently need to endure plenty of abuse. So the selection is going to be fairly predictable; roses, poms, carnations, limonium, asters, sunflowers, gladiolus, some lilies, and the odd seasonal selection such as peonies and hydrangeas.

(Side note: Incidentally, we will be seeing a lot of peonies in November and December for the foreseeable future because they are being grown extensively in Chile, a country with well established agricultural trading ties, and USDA located at the airport in Santiago de Chile, a cozy relationship not enjoyed by any other country in the world! The key here is that peonies have been rather extensively planted in the South American fashion, and due to the nature of the peony plants, production will increase exponentially over the next decade.)

Clearly, given that we are in a recession many brides-and-grooms to be will elect to buy flowers from their local wholesaler, farmers market, supermarket or, for the lucky few, from a flower farm. I imagine they may do it themselves or a friend will put the flowers together fro them. Likewise I suspect they may have friends take the photos and bake a cake. Many brides may elect to forgo the elaborate wedding dress due to financial constraints. I think we must have compassion for everybody whose dreams may be curtailed in these often gloomy times, but we must applaud and support their decision to become betrothed, and I for one wish all brides and grooms nothing but the best of luck and that they enjoy a happy life together. (I agree!)

Insofar as the flowers are concerned; can people buy satisfactory flowers at a supermarket? Absolutely!

For that matter; can people buy serviceable butter, flour, sugar, eggs and cream from a supermarket and bake a more than adequate cake? No doubt!

I imagine there are people who take cool and hip photos with disposable cameras and create neat little sushi appetizers and amuse-bouches, and all with products garnered from a supermarket.

Heaven knows, one-stop celebrations catered by supermarkets, from basters to bouquets, is already purchased in its entirety by many Americans at Thanksgiving!

Verdict: Good quality DIY Wedding Flowers can be enjoyed if the couple is flexible and willing to keep things simple.

However, I have a nagging suspicion that there are quite a few people these days who, when contemplating marriage, may not want to invest significantly in the occasion because they are not invested 100% in the emotional and spiritual components of a lifelong commitment to another person.

But for those people who believe that the “Wedding Day” is a sacred and profound and who have the economic wherewithal and desire to invest in this occasion, certain facts hold true: When two people join together and make a commitment to live together for the rest of their lives for better or for worse, then it is customary to celebrate this matrimony in the presence of both extended families and the couples closest friends. Many parents are extremely proud of their children and want to underwrite the vent or support it in a substantial fashion. To this end it is generally necessary to secure the services of a variety of specialists who can make that day unique, memorable, inspirational and maybe even divine.

Again, I must underline that prudence be employed when creating the budget and thereafter discipline in sticking to it is paramount to success of the wedding, not to mention the happiness of the couple!

Adding Value and Quality

Today, more so than ever, almost all citizens of the USA want to ensure they get the most value for their money, and that this holds true for all income levels. In these economic conditions people are searching for quality, and this applies equally no less for a set of tires than it does for floral arrangements. Therefore, it is plain commonsense that we provide the best possible quality products to our clients, and that we go as far as we can in providing the best experience for our customers as possible.

I would like to venture that there are some consumers have felt rather short-changed when looking at the products submitted for their wedding. Generally speaking, on the wedding day, most couples are experiencing an impregnable euphoria, so it is mother-in-laws, fathers, ushers, bridesmaids, friends and so forth who may be apt to criticize, especially if they have an inkling of the sums involved. And I am sure amongst these critics are perhaps a few who have felt that “they could do that”! This of course engenders even more DIY weddings. Thus, another level of economic pressure, the corrosive competition from florists who are not equipped to deliver value commensurate with the sums of money involved in nuptial flowers, provides yet another hurdle for the legitimate floral professional to surmount.

Consequently, the challenge is to be able to articulate and demonstrate the value-added products and services that one can offer to a couple considering your business as the purveyor of all things floral for their wedding. If you are able to do that in a professional and sincere way, maintaining an acute consciousness of the couple’s desires and allowing their ideas to resonate in your craft, then one will be able to continue to do business successfully. But people will expect “more for less” and it is the true, experienced artisan who will be able to prosper, displaying light, beauty and levity with less flowers, creating the illusion of mass and volume, substance and generosity with fewer ingredients. Certainly, the days of the crammers and jammers are a thing of the past (Jeff Leatham is an exception, it would seem! We mean no disrespect, Jeff! We wish you and your TLC show - Flowers Uncut! much success!) and economy, good taste and grace must surely prevail.

Unique Value Proposition

In concert with this, and what struck me about Nancy’s emphasis on the need to be profitable, is that we all need to account for our costs, and pay ourselves a living wage. It is imperative to be ever vigilant that you are attributing the costs of doing business properly. Incidentally, one aspect of retail flower cost estimates I have never understood is the method of marking up flowers three times or four times, adding the cost of hard goods, the cost of labor and any drayage, plus taxes.

As I understand it the profit is captured in the mark-up on the flowers, but this method seems to leave the true profit in the realm of the occult. Whereas most conventional businesses add up all the costs of production, plus allocate a pre-determined percentage to cover all fixed costs, and then mark up this total to arrive at a price that includes the profit, which is therefore a known quantity. Knowing all your costs, fixed and variable, as well as your estimate of the profit will allow you to properly prepare a quote, and if your customer indicates this is higher than they care to pay, you are in a position to advocate downsizing, changing ingredients and so on. If, after you have tried to accommodate the client, they still find your price beyond their reach then you are on a sound footing to decline the assignment or accept, but with lower (but known) margins. I have witnessed many talented persons fail because they do not allocate nearly enough money to cover fixed costs, or a reasonable salary plus profit for themselves.

The floral professionals who have a sound financial footing, who are assured and confident of their unique value proposition can move forward in securing profitable engagements.

Beyond Flowers: Fashion and Beauty

Now I shall focus on the third component of our industry to be considered which provides a powerful advantage over the competition: Fashion. Unbeknownst to many people in the floral industry is the concept that we are in a “fashion industry”. But we are. Colors, textures, shapes and sizes influence our business just like clothing, furniture, kitchen components and so forth. To further put distance between ourselves and the competition it behooves us to be conscious of what is happening in allied industries. Certainly, much of fashion seem frivolous, but trust me it is all about the bottom line. Therefore is extremely important to be open to what is happening in the world around us, and especially to the younger generations, no matter how alien there ideas may seem at first. As one’s sensibilities become keen, anticipating floral trends, or even being in a position to create them can really set one apart and above the competition.

The company that I work for prides itself on sourcing the newest rose varieties, unique flowers from around the world, off-crop products from the Southern hemisphere as well as forgotten heirloom varieties from our won back yard. It is part of our business model that we strive to differentiate ourselves from the competition, although we have competitors around the country who also do an excellent service. And yes, the cost of some of these items is high, but this is unavoidable. To stay on the cutting edge incurs expenses not apparent to many people, such as the research, the education, the travel and the expertise to track down new products, not to mention the cost of freight, handling and so on. But with unique items featuring unusual shapes and textures, of a limited supply, our customers can establish their unique and trademark designs, confident that they are in fact differentiating themselves from the crowd.

Incidentally, it follows that if peonies are filling up buckets at the supermarket, they will be featured less and less in wedding magazines, as editors and designers seek to find new looks, new flowers and new textures. Flowers that are much harder to handle, transport and keep hydrated, such as Sweet peas for instance, or sprays of phaleonopsis, will become more ‘fashionable’(or Iceland Poppies, I can never find them).

There is no way to change what is happening in supermarkets, with internet fulfillment, or the world-at-large. What each of us can control is our actions, our decisions, our desire to learn and our enthusiasm to share our lives with other people. And we can do it with flowers.

What I would like to share with you all is that at the end of the day, flowers may remind us of our spirituality. Of course they are “temporary d├ęcor”, temporal is how I would express it, but in the big scheme of things so are we. Flowers speak to this mystery, and have echoed these feelings in human beings since the dawn of time. Let’s celebrate this idea!

I would like to thank Nancy for the opportunity to express my ideas, and I hope they may spark some thoughts within you. I leave you with a couple of quotes from two great spiritual minds:

"Let him who hath two loaves sell one, and buy the flower of narcissus: for bread is but food for the body, whereas narcissus is food for the soul." by Mohammed

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they spin not nor do they toil; yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” by Jesus

David Dahlson has worked with Mayesh Wholesale Florist for over 25 years, and is currently involved with marketing and the development of the On-Line Shopping Portal of Mayesh Wholesale.

The ideas expressed in this article are solely those of David Dahlson.

Mayesh Wholesale Florist, Inc. does not necessarily agree with, or endorse, this article or any part thereof.

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