Flower shops and other floral businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic, but they’re innovating to serve customers – and hoping that flowers remain an important part of local celebrations and people’s lives

Parts of Hawai‘i’s flower industry were already in slow decline when the pandemic hit, drastically altering large gatherings like graduations, weddings and funerals, where lei and flowers play a big role. Some people worry that social distancing and the fear of catching a virus may forever threaten one of Hawai‘i’s most beloved traditions: the giving of lei and the embrace that follows.

Local companies are also adapting to the new reality with services like shop from home, contactless delivery and curbside pickup, and owners remain hopeful that flowers and the joy they bring will remain an important part of people’s lives.

“I was here for the beginning to where it is right now,” says Karen Lee, who runs Cindy’s Lei and Flower Shoppe in Chinatown. She fears the lei tradition will fade as a result of this latest business downturn. “We’ve had to reevaluate our position not only as a small business but what we contribute to the community for this lei that we create and sell. The lei is such a big part of people’s milestones.” Photo courtesy of Aloha Island Lei Lee acknowledges that her business, which has been around for four generations, is on precarious ground. “Before, we were able to make a lot of random decisions and we were able to recover,” she says. “That’s not the case now: Every decision is important.”

The annual statistical summary of Hawai‘i’s horticulture and nursery products from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture has shown a slow decline since 2014 in the lei and cut flowers category, while other areas of the nursery industry have grown, such as garden and potted flowering plants.

For instance, while the department’ 2018 estimates showed a 9% increase to $84.3 million in revenue overall, two categories indicated major declines: 27% decrease in lei, from $2.42 million in 2017 to $1.76 million in 2018

12% decrease in cut flowers, from $6.24 million in 2017 to $5.49 million in 2018.

Past Challenges

The local flower industry has survived downturns before, including the effects of 9/11; Hurricane Iniki in 1992; the Great Recession of 2007-09; and the 2011-12 flooding in Thailand, a major supplier of orchids.

COVID-19 may be the biggest challenge of all.

“When the pandemic arrived, everything came to a screeching halt. There was no business and no demand,” says Eric Tanouye, president of Green Point Nurseries in Hilo, Hawai‘i’s largest anthurium farm. Photos courtesy of Green Point Nursery Many companies depend on a combination of business from locals and tourists, including A Special Touch, a family flower shop in Lahaina. “The tourists have really fed the floral economy for many years, and we have no hotels (open) right now so it has changed a lot,” says Leann Lum, who runs the shop.

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