How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way consumers think about buying flowers? A recent poll, commissioned by the Society of American Florists and the Floral Marketing Research Fund, offers some insight into that thorny question. Its findings, along some practical ideas for floral marketers, were teased out Tuesday, July 28 — Day 2 of SAF’s Reinvention Summit — by keynote speaker Charlie Hall, Ph.D., and a panel of experts from diverse segments of the industry.
The data point to shifting priorities, some more favorable to florists than others. But Hall and others suggested that, as consumers largely continue sheltering in place, feathering their nests and looking for ways to make long-distance social connections, floral retailers have an unprecedented opportunity to influence Americans’ flower buying habits over the long term. The key strategy is to hone in on all the ways that flowers benefit physical, mental and emotional health.
“This is a health crisis,” said Hall, holder of the Ellison Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M University. “I think folks are waking up to the opportunity of articulating our value proposition in such a way that they will deem flowers to be a necessity in their lives, rather than a mere luxury.”
Some other takeaways from the session:
Yes, in a recession, consumers’ personal finances factor in. Asked, “In the next six months, what are the top three factors that will influence whether or not you purchase flowers or plants?”, the No. 1 answer was “finances/budget.” This was chosen as one of the top three by 41 percent of respondents. Not surprisingly, that was true especially among those who had recently become unemployed.
That doesn’t mean retailers should lower prices. As Hall pointed out, even in a recession, “budget” is not the same consideration as “price.” Earlier studies have established that when a consumer weighs a floral purchase, typically price is considered only after convenience and “flower quality” (a proxy for shelf life). In the “six months” question, convenience/ease of purchase came in second, with 33 percent of respondents.
“Don’t panic and drop your prices,” advised Seth Goldman, CEO of the ecommerce site UrbanStems, agreeing with Charlie Hall. “Rather, hammer your message around convenience.”
Consumers are concerned about safe shopping and delivery. “Social distancing protocols/fear of spreading virus” came in third among factors influencing future purchases of flowers and plants, at 25 percent. This factor rated especially high among non-white respondents — not surprising, considering the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on people of color. Marketing messages should reassure all consumers that flowers can be purchased and picked up or delivered in a safe manner.
Social expression and cheering up can also motivate. Other important factors, close in numbers to concern about spreading the virus, were the need to connect with friends/loved ones and the need for a pick-me-up or mood-booster, each at 22 percent. These were particularly important among consumers 18-34 years old and females of any age.
The move to online sales is now at warp speed. That’s true even for grocery store chains like Albertsons Companies, where Debora Steier is vice president of Floral: “Online sales were growing before; now they have doubled,” she shared. At UrbanStems, Goldman believes the current recession will drive more sales permanently to online for every type of floral retailer that is willing to make them an integral part of the operation: “Think of it as a different distribution channel for your same business.”
For some, plants and add-ons are big business. “Our add-on sales have more than doubled the last couple of months,” said Tim Farrell, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, of Farrell’s Florist in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, echoing similar testimony from panel moderator David Boulton, AAF, PFCI, of Flowers by George Inc. in Arlington, Washington. Customers appreciate the convenience of one-stop gift shopping at a time when it may be harder for them to go to another type of specialty store, Farrell surmised, for items like decorative candles or fancy hand lotions: “On my Teleflora website, it was easy to add those options in, and it adds up to hundreds of dollars of extra income.”
Tying in with the pivot to home decoration, plant sales have grown faster than any other category at Chicago-based floral wholesaler Kennicott Brothers Company, said company president Gustavo Gilchrist: “We are optimistic about upcoming Christmas season because of the same trend.”
The big picture for floral businesses is mixed and muddy. “Some florists have done really well year over year, others are close to closing their doors,” said Hall. “But the data hasn’t caught up such that economists can speak with authority.” Both Gilchrist and Goldman noted their impression that consumers in suburban and rural areas are buying flowers at a much brisker rate than those in urban centers.
Weddings keep getting postponed. On July 23, Washington state governor Jay Inslee announced restrictions limiting gatherings at weddings and funerals to 30 people and prohibiting receptions, said Boulton: “I had weddings on the books, now pushed out until next year.”
Business has flatlined for many of the designers she personally knows, said Holly Heider Chapple, who has operated her own wedding and event design business for 28 years. She also leads the collective Chapel Designers and operates Hope Flower Farm in Loudoun County, Virginia. Until the outlook for wedding work improves, she has pivoted to retail. “We can’t just wait it out,” she shared. “After 28 years in business, we just did our first Mother’s Day.” She has also experimented with sending out direct-to-consumer boxes of flowers. In this and other endeavors she has leveraged her mailing list of past brides, some near and some far. That’s an opportunity she suggests to other wedding designers: “We need to be making ourselves available to our past clients, massaging that list, thinking of new ways to sell to them. Anything we do now to survive is OK, as long as we do it with integrity and grace.”
Core values will get you through. “Here’s my advice for how to get through an economic downturn,” said Hall. “Stick to your core: your core values, your core products, your core customers.” Trimming SKUs and focusing on the most profitable items in your product line is a strategy adopted widely across the spectrum of floral businesses, along with making your most loyal customers the top priority. Beyond that, said Hall, “If you haven’t explored your core values, you’re at a real disadvantage right now, because those are what carry you when the going gets really tough.”
Gilchrist agreed: “When you’re running a business, there’s a lot going on, but in a crisis, it comes down to a few core things. For us it has been: take care of our employees, support our customers.”
Find creative ways to send the message about the health benefits of flowers. “SAF has done an excellent job; however, it takes individual firms to move the needle on this,” said Hall. “Some ask for a generic advertising campaign. But we need to do this at the level of the individual firm. Everybody in supply chain has a responsibility here.” A member of the audience suggested labeling certain special bouquets or weekly specials as “stress relievers.” That’s a pretty nice start!
SAF’s Reinvention Summit, a five-day virtual kicked off July 27 and runs through July 31; registered participants have access to all recorded programming through Sept. 1. Find out more about pricing and schedule options.
Bruce Wright is a contributing writer for the Society of American Florists