Communication is Crucial

Recently I had an opportunity to present floral workshops as part of a national meeting for a natural foods grocery store. For eight hours, groups of 10-15 people sat with us for 25 minutes each as we went over basics of flower handling, disease problems, why it’s important to work clean, ordering from vendors, advantages of dry-pack vs. wet-pack, etc. By way of introduction to these breakout sessions, the director of produce and floral gave a presentation with good ideas and suggestions appropriate for any of us—regardless if we were involved in production or floral sales.

Execution is Key

Execution starts with basic training. How often do we skimp on training, assuming our employees and customers will use common sense in deciding how best to handle our products?  BIG mistake! Most people don’t have a clue about handling flowers. Never assume your harvesters realize how important it is to disinfect tools several times a day to prevent cross-contaminating crops. A common practice in Latin America is to dip cutters into disinfectant at the end of every bed. How often do your shears get cleaned?
What about throwing the hose on the ground between uses rather than hooking it on something above ground level? If you’ve never considered the importance of cleanliness in terms of avoiding diseases, you wouldn’t even realize that a hose nozzle is a disease carrier. How about raking old leaves from between beds? Or cleaning buckets between each use? Many people feel that cleaning buckets with Clorox is sufficient, but Clorox alone is not nearly as efficient as a detergent-Clorox mix. Remind your bucket scrubbers to add some biodegradable detergent to their cleaning solution to get full benefit of their elbow grease! And, unless you scrub both inside and out, don’t stack buckets before they are dry, otherwise you contaminate the clean (moist) inside when nesting it into a dirty outside

Plan for Sales

This idea seems straightforward, but it is amazing how many people call the ASCFG office asking where they can sell their crop – the crop they are almost finished harvesting! Do your homework before planting the seeds. Determine your target market(s) and the logistics of getting your flowers to that market. Talk with local retailers. Visit local wholesale markets and walk around to get a feel of the flow and what is moving and what’s not. If you plan to sell wholesale, be prepared to offer several price structures: by the bunch and volume pricing. Wholesalers expect you to have a 2-tier pricing structure if you are also selling to “their” retailers.
To get your 2 tiers, take your wholesale price and multiply by 1.5 to get an idea of what price the wholesaler plans to resell your stuff to his retail client. Remember, wholesale buyers have few qualms about beating down prices or cherry-picking your offerings – especially if you drop by unannounced. Call ahead and push for pre-orders. Fax or email an availability list (including colors available for any given flower type) to save time at each stop.  

Follow the Plan and Lead by Example

Whether it is in training, cutting specifications or delivery routes, try to establish regular procedures and protocols and stick to them. This concept leads right into the next – lead by example. You are the expert; make sure your employees are encouraged to become experts, too. Can they answer typical questions encountered at your farmers’ market stall or from a retail buyer about when the next crop is due or what is the best solution to use to treat the flowers for maximum performance? Mentor your team. You are their source of information and inspiration. We all know it is expensive both financially and time-wise to hire and lose employees!
Teamwork is important Building a strong team, no matter how large or small, requires  careful planning. Evaluate your needs and look for people who fit those slots. If you love to grow flowers, but hate the public relations involved in selling, consider hiring someone to sell your crops. Maybe you are weak in the area of making notes on which crops were profitable and which were not. Look for someone on your team who is good at details. Assign her task of record keeping.
If training protocols are in place, and you are consistent in your operating procedures, delegation comes much easier. Delegate responsibility and encourage your staff to come up with ideas on ways to improve. Feedback is important. Be it sales promos or staff meetings, incorporating a random spark of creativity gets everyone’s juices flowing. The best ideas come from employees and customers, but people stop giving ideas if they are continually shot down. Recognize those employees who run with the ball. Recognition is motivating. You don’t have to read many business books before you start reading that recognition is our #1 desire in the workplace.
This chain has many of the same expectations I hear from supermarkets and wholesalers alike, so I’ll share a few insights on what they need (and expect) from vendors: competitive pricing. Do your homework so you have an idea of your area’s “trigger” prices for bouquets and consumer bunches. Then plan accordingly. Keep in mind the mantra of all floral buyers: perceived value.

Perceived Value

Since Jane and Joe Public can’t tell the value difference between a marguerite daisy or a gerbera daisy, help them figure it out! Make your assortments pop. If bouquet composition is not your thing, find someone creative to help you out or tear out bouquet pictures from magazines and follow their color schemes. This customer group also expects their vendors to stay abreast of trends and the “in” colors.
They want vendors to have a continual focus on quality. If you are treating flowers in specific ways to improve vase performance, let your customer know. Don’t assume they are aware of the best postharvest handling methods. Take it a step further and offer ideas and solutions about ways they can reduce their shrink or labor hours involved with in-store flower handling. Urge them to color stripe and merchandise flower displays. If they don’t get it, point to the produce department and remind them how consumers are attracted to color and abundance. Give your mixed bouquets creative names. Pull ideas from local colloquialisms, emblems or traditions to separate your wares from imported products.
Flowers are a product the public likes,
is attracted to and wants to buy, but they can’t identify them or determine freshness and they don’t know how to take care of their purchases once they get them home. Information that addresses these areas is information that builds sales!

Along the Northwest Italian coast lies the region of Liguria.  It extends from La Spezsia (near Pisa) in the east in the area known as Cinque Terre, to Ventimiglia in the west.  The entire region is also referred to as the Ligurian Riviera.  The far western region is called the Riviera di Fiori (Riviera of Flowers).  San Remo is centrally located in the Riviera di Fiori, and for good reason, the area boasts the historical beginnings of commercial cut flower production in Italy.
Commercial cut flower production along the Riviera began with the building of the railroads.  The initial growing centers began around Nice, France in the 1850’s.  It took 25 years for the railroad to be extended into Italy.   While the French production around Nice has declined in the last 25 years due to urban development, floriculture production in Italy flourished with over 6,000 operations in the San Remo area.  In fact, when one views the mountains extending up from the Italian coast, they are covered with a patchwork of family run greenhouses.  The average size for an operation is 0.6 hectares [ha] (a little over 1 acre), which combines both protected (greenhouse and saran) and outdoor production.
Early production was primarily cut carnations.  The mild Mediterrean climate was the perfect environment for outdoor production.  Marketing was unique in that growers sold directly to buyers in open piazza (plazza) markets.  Flower to be sold were grouped by type (carnations, chrystanthemums, etc.).  Growers would stand in front of their buckets of cut flowers and negogiate directly with buyers.  Selling would progress in organized fashion around the piazza until all the flowers were sold.  The majority of cut flowers are shipped to northern European cities on the railroads.
The same selling arrangement still exists today within the large marketing hall called the Mercato dei Fiori (Flower Market) in San Remo, although only 5 to 10% of the cuts grown in the area are sold this way (Figure 2).  Direct selling to wholesalers has replaced much of the Mercato sales.  The principle market for San Remo flowers is Germany.  Today the San Remo area produces around 25% of the total Italian cut flower crop, but 80% of all Italian flowers are marketed through San Remo.
Floriculture is truly an international business, and the Riviera di Fiori region has also been affected.   Similar to the United States, growing cut carnations is now practially nonexistent with production shifting to countries with lower labor costs such as Kenya and South America.  In 1960 there were 2,000 ha of cut carnations and by 2004 most of it had mostly disappeared  with only 42 ha remaining (Figure 3).  A remnant of the past glory of carnations still remains though, some of the most important carnation breeders in the world (Baratta, Brea, Di Giorgio, Moraglia, Nobbio, Santamaria, Sapia, and others) are still located in the San Remo area.  
Adapting to the change of marketing conditions, the emphasis of cut carnation production was replaced with roses.  In 1980 there were over 200 ha of cut roses and that production increased to over 500 ha by 1991 (Figure 3).  Roses are also feeling the economic pressure of the international market and that production is now estimated to be around 300 ha.  
The current emphasis is ornamental cut foliage which is used in cut flower bouquets.  Cut foliage replaced the production of cut flowers (Figure 4).  The major crops grown in the 1980’s were cut asparagus, palms and eucalyptus, which were respectively at 192, 51, and 174 ha (Figure 5).  These crops were the primary cut foliage crops of the 1980’s, but also have been deemphasized because of increases in overseas production and the shift to other novel cuts by Italian growers to meet the ever changing consumer preferences.  The major cut foliages grown now are three species of white genista (Genista monosperma) [400 ha], Acacia spp. [380 ha], and ruscus (Danae racemosa) [and estimated to be 300 ha] (Figure 6).  These have been cultivated for a number of years in northern Italy as a minor crop, but their use have increased dramatically in the recent years.
With diversification, well over 120 minor species are also being grown in the Riviera di Fiori.  They also include Eucalyptus parvifolia, E. cinerea, E. gunnii, E. Baby blue, aucuba, privet, aspidistra, myrtus, ferns, ivy, viburnum, CocculusAsparagus spp., FatsiaOreopanaxPittosporum tenuifolium cv. ‘Silver Queen’, and Grevillea.  The importance of minor species can be seen by the way Pittosporum tenuifolium, an English selection of a New Zealand species, has become a major crop in the past in 20 years by increasing to 200,000 plants (Figure 7).
The future will continue to see changes to the floriculture industry of the San Remo area.  Due to the small size of operations, mountainous conditions which limit automation, and the importation of cuts from countries with lower labor costs, growers are feeling significant economic pressure.  For the present and the future, diversification into new cut foliage and specialty cut flower production will continue to be important.

Figure 7. Pittosporum tenuifolium has become a major emphasis of the cut foliage industry in the past in 20 years.  (Photo: Fiorenzo Gimelli) 

Figure. 3. The production trends of cut carnations and roses in the San Remo area (published and unpublished data from F. Gimelli).

Figure 4.  Over time, cut foliage production has replaced cut flowers in the San Remo area (published and unpublished data from F. Gimelli).

Figure 5.  Production trends of traditional cut foliage crops in the San Remo area (F. Gimelli, 1998).

Figure 6.  Production trends of new types of cut foliage crops in the San Remo area (published and unpublished data from F. Gimelli). (Data for cut ruscus after 1996 are no longer being reported separately.)