[caption id="attachment_25512" align="alignleft" width="650"] John Zimmerman, owner of Jen-Mor Florist in Dover, is one of a handful of independent florists in the state holding their own against on-call flower services. [/caption]
Local florists once had two industry groups where they met to share shoptalk, but they haven't met since the business got really bumpy.
"It's kind of disbanded, because of the number of florists who have gone out," said John Zimmerman, who owns Jen-Mor Florist in Dover. U.S. floral shops are doing a disappearing act. The number of neighborhood shops dropped from 27,341 to 14,161 since 1992.
Sales have been repotted to supermarkets, big box stores that sell live plants and mega-sellers like 1-800-FLOWERS.
Up to 90 percent of those supermarket sales are impulse buys the industry dubs "day brighteners," according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Local florists are resigned to ceding that market to supermarkets and discount stores and warehouse stores, but many take umbrage at the invasion of the mega-sellers they label "order gatherers" because they think the big online companies take advantage of them and of their customers.
"It's the online guys who have six-and-seven-figure advertising budgets, they're the ones that are siphoning off the business from the small brick-and-mortar flower shops," said Chuck Cinaglia, owner of Boyd's Flowers in Wilmington. "They charge their customers an arm and a leg, and their florists don't get hardly anything," said Sandy DeChurch, co-owner of Blossoms Inc. in Dagsboro."
"It's almost like a bait-and-switch thing," said Zimmerman, who won't deal with companies like 1-800-FLOWERS. "You go on the internet and look up florists. They give you the idea they're local. They charge you $80 and then they try to give us $50. We don't even take orders from them. It's really bad because people think they're getting an $80 bouquet and they're getting a $50 one."
"We turn away two to four orders from them a day," Zimmerman said. "If you deal with 1-800-FLOWERS, you'll eventually go out of business. They make the money. You do the work."
1-800-FLOWERS did not respond to a request for comment.
Cinaglia said there's one advantage to mega-sellers. With outsized advertising budgets, they spend on newspaper ads with floral themes and chase consumers around the Internet with pop-up ads that feature colorful arrangements. "The nice part of it is they keep the image and thought of sending flowers in people's minds," he said.
National sales statistics show most flower sales still take place in a bricks-and-mortar store, but that store more often is a warehouse store, a discount store, a convenience store or one of the 43,000-plus supermarkets that now sell fresh flowers.
Grocery stores make up about 48 percent of fresh flower sales and traditional floral shops make up about 35 percent, according to Euromonitor International's Overview of the U.S Floral Market.
Most supermarket shoppers buy cut flowers - 79 percent compared with 30 percent for flower arrangements, according to a Retail Feedback Group Generations Floral Shopping Survey.
Supermarkets with floral departments must deal with two major problems - a lack of qualified, trained store-level talent and floral shrink. In a 2015 Produce Marketing Association survey, 75 percent of supermarket executives said they hoped to increase staff training in their floral departments, and 66 percent said they wanted to reduce shrink, the loss of perishable product.
"As a new supermarket opens up, I go in and look at their flower department, and they look great. Then you go back a year later, and it seems the flowers are an afterthought and there's no personnel there," Cinaglia of Boyd's said.
Just as supermarkets are moving to buff up their floral departments, independent florists are trying workarounds to wrestle business back and trying web gambits to get the word out about what they do best.
Blossom's DeChurch worked up a partnership with The Addy Sea, an oceanfront bed and breakfast in Bethany Beach that is a popular site for spring and fall beach weddings.
Cinaglia uses the internet to woo customers to his 117-year-old Pennsylvania Avenue shop - via Facebook, Pinterest and everything in-between. He snags the attention of passers-by with a low-tech sidewalk sandwich board that says something like, "A free rose if your name is Rose."
If the recipient agrees, he posts a photo on the shop's Facebook page, and many the recipients also post on their pages to show their friends.
"That's kind of on par with, in the past, when you belong to the Kiwanis Club or the Rotary Club. It's still networking in your neighborhood, but now you're doing it on social media," Cinaglia said. "That's a way to keep our face out there in the neighborhood."
National industry groups frankly advise florists to make certain everything about their shops is camera-ready all the time, because they could land on Pinterest or Instagram or Facebook or Twitter on a moment's notice.
"You're on the hook to make sure everything you deliver is look sharp, as well as your vans and your personnel," Cinaglia said. "Pinterest really influences a lot of wedding business, so the challenge is on for us, as florists, to make things look as good as they do on Pinterest."
DeChurch said all floral retailers have to deal with two factors - flowers are a perishable commodity and they are a luxury item so you want to attract customers to buy them while they're fresh. She said word-of-mouth is her No. 1 draw to her shop. A big family came in for a very large funeral this week, steered there by a long-time customer who was a friend of the family.
Independent florists thrive during the December holidays, on Mother's Day, and on Valentine's Day, their largest single day of the year. Jen-Mor dispatches three or four delivery trucks on a normal day, but, on Valentine's Day, it's 17 or 18, Zimmerman said.
They say they sell a better grade of flower than most mass retailers, but their stock-in-trade is service.
"Somebody called here last week at 4:15 p.m. They forgot their anniversary and we were able to get something over to his house by 5 o'clock." Zimmerman said. "One thing that has remained a constant for the independent is quality and service. "
Cignalia put it this way: "We try to make it a delightful experience no matter what the occasion - whether it's happy or sad. We try to make it delightful to send or receive flowers. That has been the object of the business since back when people picked flowers in the field and handed them to someone."