Florists rise to the challenge of high demand and notoriously last-minute clientele

Rising rose prices led customers to experiment with unconventional bouquets this Valentine’s Day

At Brown Floral in Holladay, one of Utah’s longest operating flower shops, the week before Valentine’s Day has the bustling atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen on a booked-out night.

Receptionists take calls and pin orders on a spinning ticket wheel. Florists scuttle in and out of the walk-in cooler with arms full of flowers. Designers scissor-snip rose stems and stab them into vibrant bouquets, which are finished and shimmied to the shelves in back ready for delivery.

Despite the shop’s quick energy, the enchanting scent of fresh flowers and foliage has a calming effect — but don’t let the fragrance fool you, because on the lead up to Valentine’s Day, one of the industry’s biggest moneymakers, floral work is not all roses.

“As we get closer to Valentine’s, we’ll work a little bit later, and then a little bit later, and we’ll be working all weekend and through the evenings, and we might have to stay until 2 a.m. if that’s what we have to do to make sure everything is fresh and beautiful and ready to go out Monday morning,” said Tracie Drage, owner of Brown Floral, who took over the company in 2010.

Drage is among the many florists who had their hands full in preparation for what’s primed to be the second-highest year for Valentine’s Day spending in the country’s history, in which Americans are expected to fork out $23.9 billion, according to the latest study from the National Retail Federation. And with 37% of gift-givers planning to pick up flowers, the world will soon be awash in blooms.

“Flowers are such powerful human connectors. They help us say what’s in our hearts but what me might not be able to put in words. A bouquet of flowers speaks volumes,” Drage said.

Floral designer Abbie Drage works on a flower arrangement at Brown Floral in Holladay on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Thorns in the supply side

Yet the February rush comes against a backdrop of continued supply chain quagmires that’s created challenges for the import-dependent floriculture industry, where a high majority of popular seasonal flowers — like carnations and roses — come from outside U.S. borders, predominantly Central and South America, which has created uncertainty for florist like Drage, who’ve found themselves at the mercy of forces outside their control.

“We’ve had some sleepless nights” since the supply chain issues began, “and sometimes we’ve had to ask, ‘What are we going to do now?’ But then somehow our suppliers come through for us and we get just enough to keep going until the next stretch. And everything is looking really good for Valentine’s Day,” said Drage, who further explained that it isn’t just the perishable inputs that have proven tricky.

“We’ve had trouble getting wire. Spray paint. Easels for funeral arrangements. It’s curious the type of things we’ve had trouble getting. So we’ve had to be aggressive. When things come available we grab them. It’s been tight but we’re making it happen.”

Supply issues are also one of the factors causing the cost of romantic gestures to jump, with the average price for a dozen roses climbing by 22% from last year, which has compelled customers to experiment with less conventional arrangements that include a diversity of blooms.

“The wholesalers know they can get away with it a little bit. They know they can increase the prices and we’ll have to pay it. We try not to pass all that on to the customer, but some of it obviously is passed on to our customers,” Drage said. “The rose continues to be the traditional gifting flower, but because the rose prices have increased quite a bit this year we’re seeing more mixed arrangements that include roses but add other blooms, like hydrangeas and lilies,” Drage said.

Last-minute Valentine’s Day gift buying

In addition to the supply side uncertainties from around the globe, the industry must also cope with a domestic unknown, which is inevitable when a large swath of your clientele are notorious for making last-minute decisions.

“Men tend to push things off to the last minute. It’s not uncommon for men to call the morning of their anniversary and say, ‘I need something for my wife before 3 o’clock. And we help them out because that’s what we do,” Drage said, speaking to an issue that creates uncertainty for other retailers as well, considering as many as 1 in 10 Americans will wait until the day-of to buy a Valentine’s Day gift for their significant other, according to a survey from retail industry group RetailMeNot.

We wish we had a crystal ball, then we could nail it. You can’t get it down to the last flower, or the last bloom, there’s just no way of doing that,” said Drage, who after decades in the business nonetheless feels she’s “pretty dang good at guessing what we’re going to need.”

Roses are pictured in the refrigerator at Brown Floral in Holladay on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

At specialty flower shop Orchid Dynasty, owner Shelly Huynh has noticed the tendency, too.

“If they’re just wanting regular roses because that’s all that they know — then yes, those are going to be your last-minute shoppers,” said Huynh, who went on to point out that planning ahead comes with some perks in this industry. “But if they’re people who appreciate the art and craftsmanship of the stuff that we do, they’ll plan ahead. And usually they’ll get the most beautiful blooms because we save them for those guys.”

Huynh encourages clients to order ahead, and wants to make the holiday “not just one day, but a whole week of love,” and to consider wider varieties of blooms, as if from a seasonally aware food menu.

“I like to compare the flower shop to a restaurant, because everything is perishable. It’s like creating recipes. If a rose isn’t working, maybe we switch to something else. But we’re still selling a color palette, a nude, and a theme, so substitutions are OK as long as you know the customer expectations,” said Huynh, whose Orchid Dynasty, also like some restaurants, has had to prune operations in recent months due to difficulty finding labor.

Even as the floral industry has struggled to adjust to the pandemic’s topsy-turvy economy, florists like Drage and Huynh say the world’s continued uncertainty is precisely what makes their work important, believing flowers are a vital tool for sustaining human relationships in a world that’s taken on distance.

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Drage uses the example of flowers at work in the new remote workplace.

“Even though we’re making fewer deliveries to offices since COVID, we actually saw an increase from managers and owners who are trying to stay connected to their employees, who were working remotely. A lot of bosses and managers are sending flowers to employees at home to bridge that distance,” said Drage.

“They’re expressing gratitude for the willingness of people to be flexible, and they were encouraging workers by helping them beautify their home office space. That is really cool to see it’s still happening. It’s a heartfelt message.”

Floral designer Abbie Drage works on a flower arrangement at Brown Floral in Holladay on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Correction: An earlier version misidentified the National Retail Federation as the National Retail Association. It also misidentified Orchid Dynasty owner Shelly Huynh as Lilly Huynh.

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