When I first became a weekly columnist, an editor told me that if I didn't get both love and hate mail from readers, I wasn't doing my job. Well, judging from my inbox, I've been overachieving the last two weeks. Readers have buried me with responses to my columns about the floral industry. I have heard from the vilified (certain florists) and the vindicated (burned consumers).
While I never want to hurt small-business owners, I am first and foremost pro-consumer. I know that many flower shops do a wonderful job, offer exquisite arrangements, and are a delight to work with. Long may you live. However, my reader mail and experience tell me not all are such a pleasure. That's what I am setting out to help fix by informing you, and, along the way, me.
Last week I offered tips on what consumers can do to increase their odds of getting the flowers they hoped and paid for. The week before I offered some less-welcome advice to florists. This week, I am spilling a little more dirt I dug up behind the greenhouse. After lengthy interviews with a few industry veterans, here's what I learned about a field that is not always so rosy.
Dirty Secret #1. The posers.
Online companies posing as local flower shops are threatening the good reputations of legitimate ones. Sally Kobylinski, owner of In Bloom, in Orlando, Fla., a flower shop with two stores, has been burned by these "posers," who have actually co-opted her store's name online. "They are not stores at all. They are call centers, people sitting at computers," she said.
"When I hear from customers disappointed in their arrangements, which they think came from my shop, I ask to see their receipt and have to tell them, 'We didn't do the order,'" she said.
These order gatherers pretend to be real florists. They take the order, pocket 20% of the payment without ever touching a flower, then use a wire service, which takes another 7%, before sending the order to a local flower shop. So if you ordered an arrangement for $100, the flower shop is left with only $73 to work with, she said. Then the poser often tacks on another $20-to-$30 service fee, leaving you with $130 bill.
No wonder customers are disappointed.
People who fall victim to these order gatherers experience "huge value destruction," said Farbod Shoraka, chief executive officer and co-founder of BloomNation, a company that connects customers directly with florists so they can work together. "They basically farm orders through their website, then leverage a wire service's network of florists to fulfill orders."
Consumer tip: Do your research and be sure you are working with a flower shop you can actually walk into.
Dirty Secret #2. Grocers edge out florists for quality.
Not that long ago, flower farms recognized two tiers of flowers: premium florist grade, and grocer grade. "Now that's flipped," Kobylinski said. "Farms are growing for Costco, Trader Joe's and Sam's Club, and selling the better grade flowers directly to them. They would rather cater to five big customers than 5,000 small ones."
Because farms sell directly to grocers, skipping the wholesaler, grocery-store flowers are also a bargain. So much so that today, some smaller florists often go to these retailers to buy flowers, where they can buy good quality for less than they can buy from their wholesaler.
Consumer tip: Don't overlook your grocery store when buying flowers to arrange yourself. But do turn to professional florists when you want a designer's eye and talent for combining flowers and creating arrangements better than you can make yourself.
Dirty Secret #3. The numbers game.
"Many florist shops play the numbers game," said Juan Palacio, owner of BloomsyBox, a subscription flower service. "They gamble on whose business matters and whose doesn't, and who's going to complain."
If they are filling a wire-service order, they will create a cheaper knockoff than what was promised. Even though flower shops sign agreements promising to meet a certain standard, they don't always, he said. "They figure it will stay under the radar, and that Teleflora or FTD will never know." Those receiving flowers rarely complain, and those sending them often don't see what's delivered.
"During busy seasons," Kobylinski added, "some shops will roll the dice, and accept all orders, knowing they can't fulfill them all. They plan on simply refunding those they don't fulfill after customers complain."
Consumer tip: Create relationships. Reader and floral industry insider Tim Haley, of Colorado Springs, Colo., recommends making a personal connection with far-away florists. If you have a loved one in a distant city, next time you're there, visit the closest flower shops, introduce yourself, meet the owner, and say you plan to do business with them.
Dirty Secret #4. Misrepresentation is baked in.
"Most flower sales go through brokers who don't have anything to do with the flower shop that gets the order," Shoraka said. When you order through a wire service, you're seeing images that have been professionally shot, edited and manipulated. "They push all the flowers to the front so the image shows loads of flowers, but you can't see the back, which would have no flowers."
Because brokers put a curtain between the customer and the flower shop, the florists don't develop a relationship with the buyer, "and don't feel any obligation to overperform for the brokers," he said.
Consumer tip: Bust the chain. Get rid of the middle players by going local. Reader and flower farmer Julia Watson, of San Jose, Calif., wrote to tell me about Floret (floretflowers.com) which has a directory of local flower farmers and floral designers all over the world, including her own "Tiny Footprint Flowers."
Marni Jameson is the author of six home and lifestyle books, including "Downsizing the Blended Home — When Two Households Become One."