How the Global Flower Industry Has Adapted to the Pandemic
Lessons were learned and opportunities were gained from COVID-19 throughout the global floral industry in 2020.
With its global footprint, FloraLife is in a unique position to understand the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the flower industry in various parts of the world. While there are many common threads across the globe, there are also contrasting perspectives regarding how different areas have coped with the impact. Here are observations and lessons learned from seven markets on different continents.
The first market area impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic was China. In January 2020, the country was closed down by the government to prevent people from moving around. Corporations were shut down; supermarket hours were limited; and cinemas, restaurants and entertainment venues were closed. As a result, there was virtually no flower business, and many flowers were thrown away at farms. When the country began to reopen in mid-March, with restrictions, the flower business resumed, and the economy began to rebound—gradually.
Sales related to the flower business boomed because of weddings and other events that had been rescheduled, after long delays. Flower sales continued to increase, and near the end of 2020,as reported by the Chinese government, the country had reached the same economic level as it had in October 2019.
Several business strategies played into China’s flower business turnaround. Businesses adhered to government requirements, but they also obtained government relief programs such as reduced fees, insurance and taxes to help them get back on their feet.
During the pandemic, successful flower businesses stayed in communication with their customers by phone, text messages and social platforms like WeChat. They continued to promote their brands during the closure in order to ensure that when businesses reopened and consumers were ready to purchase flowers, their brands were top of mind. Finally, smart businesses used this downtime to improve their processes, from technology and equipment to inventory, so that they would be poised for success when business returned to normal.
At the start of the pandemic, the future of the industry seemed very uncertain as weddings, social functions and funerals were limited to 10 people. But it soon became evident that the flower industry would survive, even though flower shops were shuttered. Florists soon started to receive large volumes of website and phone orders from people who could not attend these events but still wanted to send flowers.
The supermarket trade quickly went into overdrive, creating a 15 percent increase in sales, on average. Because more than 50 percent of flowers sold in Australia are imported, the flower industry was quickly faced with major supply issues. This resulted in local flower growers not being able to supply the new demand, even after many increased their production. Today, imported flowers are slowly returning to the
To survive, Australian flower companies have had to keep their businesses going at all costs, and that has meant leveraging generous payments and tax rebates from the government, as well as adjusting to meet new trends, such as a recent interest in dried-flower arrangements, and improving their website capabilities.
In the United Kingdom, florists experienced unprecedented demand from their customers despite the fact that flower shops were forced to close. Although closed for foot traffic, U.K. florists used phones, websites and signage to let their customers know that they could still deliver flowers. And those florists quickly discovered that consumers wanted flowers delivered.
The gift of flowers is one of the most emotional and sensitive statements of affection a person can receive. So, when people couldn’t take holidays, go to restaurants, and visit friends and relatives, they turned to giving flowers in an unprecedented way.
Adapting to customers is imperative. As an example, some U.K. florists responded to customers wishing to create their own holiday wreaths by producing how-to videos accompanied by DIY kits.
South Africa went through a monthlong lockdown followed by strict restrictions of essential-only businesses. As a result, florists were permitted to conduct business online only.
Many florists moved their businesses to their homes, where they had less overhead and more control. Flower shops that were not online when the pandemic hit quickly shifted their businesses online to survive.
In an effort to find new ways to supply not just florists but also consumers, many flower agents and bouquet-makers also launched online and direct-sales platforms. While this initially caused some disruption, florists have now accepted it, and the agents continue to flourish.
Supermarket chains maintained or steadily grew in sales because they were able to remain open from the early stages of lockdown. The popularity of one-stop shopping also helped to increase supermarkets’ floral market share, along with the absence of flower shops that closed.
Businesses that stayed ahead in terms of technology heading into the pandemic were in a better position than ones that had to make that investment when they weren’t generating income.
South African businesses that focused on increased customer service; that stayed up to date with training to help lower outsourcing; and that diversified, where possible, to find unique products for their channel found increased success. Florists who stayed on top of trends, such as boho flowers and botanicals, did better. Maintaining displays and merchandising, even with less traffic, helped maintain business levels. Finally, keeping up to date with government resources and collaborating with suppliers to uncover opportunities led to success.
In India, the flower business is driven mainly by events and weddings. When the total lockdown was imposed in March 2020, right before the peak wedding months of April and May, it was a huge shock for the entire floral industry. Growers and flower importers were forced to throw away large quantities of flowers.
During the pandemic, the Flower Council of India (FCI) was formed. Industry stakeholders relentlessly worked together to create awareness about fresh flowers and encourage consumers to casually send flowers to friends and family with whom they couldn’t meet.
Nearly all flower-industry businesses increased their online and social media presence during the pandemic. Many retail and online florists changed their marketing strategies and began taking digital marketing courses to leverage social media opportunities.
The pandemic caused the floral industry in India to realize its heavy dependence on weddings and triggered it to shift awareness about flowers for other occasions and everyday life.
In the Netherlands, the flower industry was severely affected at the beginning of the pandemic. Exports nearly stopped, and the ability and motivation of consumers to buy flowers reached an all-time low. During this time, sales dipped dramatically, and suppliers threw away as much as 85 percent of their flowers—an image that was captured on social media and shared to millions of people.
In response, the Flower Council of Holland (FCH) created a social media campaign, “Let Hope Bloom,” that it launched on March 27, 2020 and which became a viral sensation and was viewed by millions of people around the world. The campaign resulted in 69 percent of consumers saying they would buy flowers.
To salvage flowers from being thrown away, businesses collaborated with FCH to create the “together against loneliness” movement, which became known as the “Hope Campaign.” The campaign provided 150,000 bouquets that were distributed to elderly people on Good Friday (April 10, 2020), helping the recipients and reviving the industry.
Florists who primarily served businesses saw a significant 25 percent decrease, on average, in their revenues although many were able to compensate with online and retail shop sales. With more people working from home, flowers at offices were not needed; however, many employers sent flowers to their employees working at home.
Out of crisis, opportunity is created. For example, one Dutch company bought surplus flowers at extremely reduced prices, treated them and sold them as dried bouquets, creating a trend that continues today.
The turnover of florists in the Netherlands increased by more than 10 percent in the first three quarters of 2020, and margins fell from 53.5 percent to 51.3 percent, mainly due to high purchase prices. Although there are companies in the flower industry that are struggling, expectation for the future is positive.
While overall the global floral market fared better than initially anticipated, the economy will continue to be impacted by the pandemic. Many industries have suffered from COVID-19, but the collaboration, hard work, adaptability and efforts of florists are ensuring that the floral industry will be stronger than it ever has been as the world comes out of this crisis.
It’s important to have a plan in place to deal with anyone who enters your store without wearing a face covering. Here’s some help with that.
Even though the COVID pandemic remains a threat to our health and well-being, there are still many people who try to enter stores and congregate around people without wearing face masks—despite local or state mandates and evidence that the practice is effective at reducing the spread of the virus.
Rachel Wolfe, owner of Rachel’s Rose Garden in Wilmore, Ky., has a strict mask policy in place for any customers who want to come into her store. “We have signs posted on the door about staying healthy and asking customers to wear masks,” she reports. “So far, we’ve had only a few people come in who forgot their masks, so I purchased a large pack of disposable masks to offer to customers who forget their masks.”
For those who refuse to put on a face mask, Wolfe is armed with her reply and, without being too confrontational, looks to work around the issue the safest way possible. “For me, masks are a big deal because I have a 6-month-old daughter and live on the same property with my older high-risk parents,” she shares. “I would hope that upon hearing that, customers will respect my wishes when I ask them to wear a mask. If they do not wish to wear a mask, my preference would be for them to call the shop to place their orders, or, weather permitting, I would be happy to speak with them outside, on the front walk, to discuss their needs and take their orders.”
As of November 2020, many jurisdictions required individuals to wear face coverings in public spaces, including in retail businesses. Customers who refused to comply faced fines, but it puts retailers in an awkward position when they need to confront someone not wearing a mask in their stores, and it could lead to hostile encounters. There have been numerous incidents reported of retail customers calling other shoppers who refuse to wear masks vulgar names, causing damage to items, and even coughing and spitting on people and products to show their displeasure. That’s why flower shop owners need to consider the impact that threatening customer encounters on their premises could have on the safety of their employees, their customers and other businesses.
Shop owners should prominently post their mask-wearing policy on the main entrance door(s) or in a nearby window(s) so customers can read it before entering. It’s also a great idea to post the policy on one’s website and social media platforms so people know before they arrive at the store.
A good idea is to use humor to communicate the necessary message, such as one retailer did by posting the sign, “You may choose not to wear a mask. If you do, you must also remove all your clothes to enter. It’s all or nothing. It’s about choices.” Another approach is to focus on employee safety and make your sign(s) about how important it is to protect the staff so they can provide outstanding customer service.
It’s also a good idea to have face masks on hand to give away for free, just in case someone does come into your store without one. This could defuse a potentially uncomfortable or even hostile situation.
A florist in Milwaukee, Wis., recently dealt with a customer who refused to wear a mask, and she had a hard time getting him out of the store, needing to call on one of her employees who had to practically throw the man out the door. It should be noted, however, that this is not the safest approach, and florists should devise a plan, in advance, to handle similar situations in a better way.
Experts note that, for their own safety, employees should not argue with customers who refuse to wear masks and that they should also never block customers from entering or exiting the store or physically force customers to leave. The best advice is to walk away, discreetly call local law enforcement and allow the police to take over.
In response to a dramatically increasing number of inquiries on de-escalation information, the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) recently partnered with the National Retail Federation (NRF) Foundation to develop training to prevent and de-escalate customer conflicts specific to frontline, customer-facing retail workers.
“COVID-19 anxiety continues to rise in businesses across the United States,” says Susan Driscoll, president of CPI. “Overall tensions are a frequent concern for essential workers who are faced with activating and managing mask mandates while also trying to keep the peace among customers.”
CPI offers a range of training programs, free resources and tips on de-escalation in the workplace at crisisprevention.com.
Four florists share how they have dealt with stress and loneliness caused by the lack of “connection” during the pandemic, and a wellness expert offers tips.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made being a florist something of a lonely time. While many studio florists were used to working alone and not having walk-in customers stop by, and even though many retail florists often work in backrooms isolated from the public for a great deal of the day, many in the industry are now finding out what it’s like when no one is around, working in almost complete isolation many days. Customers who used to be in and out of stores all day have disappeared, and many staff have either been laid off or are working from home.
Erika Zauner, wellness expert and CEO of corporate wellness program HealthKick, notes that stress and anxiety in the workplace are at all-time highs as a result of the pandemic: 60 percent of all U.S. workers reveal they are lonely. “Implementing simple health and wellness adjustments can make a significant impact on mental health and overall well-being,” she says.
For instance, she suggests picking up the phone to call family members (not texting!); video chatting with a friend; joining a virtual group; or meeting up with someone for a walk (wearing a mask, of course) as ways to stay in touch with other people and cope with feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Zauner also notes that being active is important for improving mental health. “You can be active without having to go to a gym or go outside,” she says. “Simply moving your body can help give you a boost of energy and improve your mood.”
Danielle Cole, of Alfa Flower Shop, in Milwaukee, Wis., notes that the level of stress in her shop is definitely apparent, even though she’s continued to stay busy throughout the pandemic. “We’ve had to space out everyone’s workstations, and as things change day to day with mandates and state policies, there’s definitely a different tone in the air,” she says. “We are having more phone consultations and fewer face-to-face consultations, which can be hard to navigate.”
Cole says she tries to stay connected with people as much as she can, which usually means being on social media. “We try to share all the pretty things we are making to keep everyone’s spirits up,” she says. “As far as my own mental health and staying stress free, it’s been hard with all the uncertainty and events being canceled. We are, however, a tight-knit group here, and we consider each other as family. So just being there for each other as we stress about the times is how we’ve been getting through this.”
Michelle Northey, owner of Flower Girl Design Studio in Appleton, Wis., has kept her shop closed to walk-in customers since March, and while she was able to keep the shop’s garage doors open in the summer to have some interaction, with the cold weather, it’s basically not seeing anyone most of the day.
“I’ve kept employees at home whenever possible, and we do a ‘second shift’ where I either go out on deliveries or take paperwork home early and an employee comes in to work on a to-do list,” she shares. “It’s so very quiet and lonely, but we remind ourselves that it’s a sacrifice we must make to keep ourselves safe and healthy in an effort to remain up and running.”
Northey spends many days isolated and feeling overwhelmed, and she admits this whole thing “hasn’t been fun at all.”
“I worry about whether enough orders will keep coming in and fretting over supply issues and so many other things that just aren’t as smooth and predictable as usual,” she says.“Things are far from stress free, but I try to focus on the things I can control. I recognize how lucky I am to be able to keep the shop going, and I try to take time to appreciate the beautiful things I get to work with.”
Northey is grateful for her customers who continue to use her art to connect with their oved ones, and she stays connected to them through Facebook and Instagram. “It’s one day at a time,” she says. “We’re all just trying to make the best of it.”
Lou Quismorio, owner of The Flowerman in Pasadena, Calif., is thankful that he’s been able to keep his store fully staffed, and that’s helped keep loneliness at bay. Not that he doesn’t feel the stress of everything going on.
“Music is the best stress reliever in our shop,” he says. “We try to create a fun atmosphere. Not being able to see anyone’s expressions when they receive flowers is somewhat difficult, but we have motivational signs around the store to keep us and any customers happy.”
Pamela Talley, owner of Talleyho Florals in Denver, Colo., relies on virtual connections to keep her sane. “I recently participated in a virtual ‘bouquet boot camp,’ which was a great opportunity to build on my existing skills,” she says. “I not only learned new techniques and arrangements but also discovered other inspirational florists and flower farmers all over the country.”
Talley also has taken to watching Instagram Live videos of florists creating new bouquets or watching how they craft beautiful arrangements. “There’s something magical about bringing a vision to life, and this type of content really gets my creative juices flowing,” she says.
She also finds comfort in driving an electric vehicle to make her deliveries. “For one, our industry often utilizes gas-guzzling trucks, and driving on zero-emissions shows respect to these beautiful flowers and allows me to do my part for the climate,” Talley elaborates. “In addition, I get to see the look on the recipients’ faces when they answer their doors. Flowers are exclusively a happy experience. People laugh, they beam, they clutch their chests and some even cry. Those are moments of pure joy, and they’re so satisfying to witness.”
A look at how several floral industry businesses have stayed in business during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to small businesses; a recent Yelp survey reported that approximately 175,000 small businesses in the U.S. have closed permanently since the pandemic began. However, this isn’t the first time the U.S. has seen numbers like this. During the subprime mortgage crisis between 2008 and 2011, the U.S. Small Business Administration reported that the number of new businesses launched was smaller than the number of business closures, which was unprecedented at the time.
Most businesses in the flower industry have been impacted, with retailers losing lots of money, many forced to close, and those remaining open having trouble filling their needs due to supply-chain problems caused by COVID. While new hope arrived with the release of vaccines at the end of 2020, continued economic uncertainty threatens to kill the ambitions of entrepreneurs who may have thought about opening a flower shop in the foreseeable future.
In the U.S., small businesses generate approximately 50 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP)—the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country during one year— and they also employ half the workforce, so these businesses are vital to the health of the economy.
Mayra Spillane, owner of The Singing Florist in Chula Vista, Calif., has altered her business in many ways throughout the pandemic, including offering contactless deliveries and consultations, wedding “mini-monies,” small holiday dinners and more. “I’ve made a variety of changes to my business throughout the pandemic,” she says. “I have had to adapt to canceled weddings and events and pivot my services to cater to elopements and mini ceremonies and even sympathy business.”
Spillane feels fortunate to have a long-established business, which has resulted in continued customer orders and referrals as well as a rise in business from those wanting to support small businesses. And she is determined to stay in business.
“While the pandemic has affected not only my business but also so many others, I’m still just as passionate, if not more so, about my business,” she shares. “I truly love to connect with my customers, and offer ways to put smiles on their faces during turbulent times. The business is my second home and is what keeps my life full.”
Rick Canale, managing director of Exotic Flowers in Boston, Mass.—which has been family owned for 90 years—wasn’t about to let something like the pandemic kill his legacy although, he admits, the pandemic has made him rethink everything. To stay afloat during the darker days, he eliminated loss leaders, shortened store hours and cut off same-day deliveries earlier.
“Our efficiency has increased 10-fold,” Canale reports. “We are thankful for the immediate access to the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), which helped us weather the initial impact and loss of revenue in April and May, our busiest months.”
Wendi Phillips is an entrepreneur who learned that 2020 wasn’t the best time to open a small business. “We had operated as a wedding and event studio florist for the last eight years, working primarily out of our home and remotely,” she informs. “We decided to take the leap and open a brick-and-mortar shop in January 2020, when COVID was only a whisper and we were in full-steam-ahead mode with our shop plans. We had a full wedding calendar booked and had built our team to take on all that 2020 had to offer.”
Phillips’ Sweetness & Light Floral Design store opened, as planned in January of last year, in Benicia, Calif., and since then, Phillips has had to pivot the business multiple times in order to maintain compliance with local, state and national guidelines for health and safety.
“We started offering flower subscriptions, put many of our favorite products online, invested in more website improvements and have been spending so much time developing a solid social media presence—primarily Instagram—so that our community can be ‘in the shop’ with us even if they aren’t able to be here physically,” she says. “We’ve tried workshops via Zoom, which pose their own challenges, and we’ve also moved to a socially distanced outdoor model for workshops.”
Phillips also had to lay off all her staff; however, she was able to rehire some of them as things got busier—but not at the levels she had anticipated needing before the pandemic struck. Still, she’s not giving up and will continue in the industry she loves.
“There are days when I think I took the biggest risk of my life, but then there are constant reminders from the outside world that I was born to do exactly this,” Phillips relates. “I love people. I love bringing them joy; helping them solve problems; and, this year, helping them send love when they can’t be there. The thing that keeps me going is the love I see shared between people through flowers.”
Ashley Greer, owner of Atelier Ashley Flowers in Alexandria, Va., isn’t giving up on the business either, but she, too, has changed her business model, transitioning from exclusively events and weddings to a more traditional retail flower shop model, complete with daily deliveries and gift items.
“The pandemic had not made me rethink being in business, just how I have been doing business so far,” she says. “In late March, 2020, neighbors and followers started to reach out, to see if we could deliver flowers to them on a weekly basis to brighten and bring joy into their homes. From there, we gradually morphed into having a greater online presence and opening ordering to the public. It has been a complete shift to taking daily orders and delivering with a quick turnaround. Oddly enough, it has been an amazing shift and one that has, in many ways, revitalized the business.”
Art Arutyunyan, owner of My Glendale Florist in Glendale, Calif., says he closed his store to all walk-ins, to reduce the risk of exposure, and has asked everyone to place their orders on the company’s website or by phone. “We started providing free delivery to help people with some of the burden,” he shares. “Also, we are fortunate to have a parking lot where we can provide curbside pickup.”
Arutyunyan applied for several assistance loans, including various SBA and PPP loans, to stay in business. “As with anything you do, there will always be difficult times and thoughts of the grass being greener,” he offers. “I love this business and would never give it up. The joy my parents get by going to the flower market every morning and purchasing flowers [before COVID] can’t be matched by anything else. Our lives are full of gratification when we can provide a service that instantly provides joy to our clients and recipients.”
Joost Bongaerts, CEO of Florabundance, a flower wholesaler in Carpinteria, Calif., says logistics has been challenging throughout the pandemic due to FedEx delays, flight cancellations and workers getting sick. “We never closed one day, but it was a challenge to deal with canceled events and weddings,” he says. “But we also found new avenues to sell flowers nationwide. We added supplies and dried flowers to our programs online.”
Bongaerts knows it’s important for small retail shops to stay in business for the good of the floral industry, and Florabundance has been ensuring it can reach them and fill their needs. “I think we will see continued gradual retail florists moving from Main Street to what we call ‘back street’—a warehouse, at a lower rent,” Bongaerts suggests.
Tim Dewey, vice-president of procurement for Delaware Valley Floral Group, headquartered in Sewell, N.J., notes that the supply chain was impacted fairly significantly during the first months of the pandemic as passenger flights from Europe stopped, affecting the ability to procure products from Holland, Italy and other important flower-growing areas.
“The freighter service between South America and North America was impacted severely for two months or so,” he reports. “Cut flower production was interrupted due to farms introducing COVID safety protocols during the first few months. Many farms didn’t know what to produce or harvest because future demand was so uncertain.”
Additionally, during the first two months of the pandemic in the Northeast, many of Delaware Valley’s retail florist customers were either forced to close due to local restrictions or found their business severely decreased due to cancellations of funerals, proms and weddings.
“Our wholesale distribution company has served small, primarily family-owned florists for more than 60 years, and we are in awe of the resilience and entrepreneurial drive of our customers who have found ways to do business during an incredibly tough period,” Dewey exclaims. “Retail florists and event florists serve their local communities, for the most part, and the services they provide have been essential with life looking so different for everyone, especially in the hardest-hit areas of the country.”