Selling Flowers to Bridal Parties – Yes, Do It!

From Joan’s presentation at the 2006 National Conference in San Jose.

For those of you who may be just starting out in the flower growing business, I hope to entice you to add bridal parties to your mix of customers.  For those of you veteran farmers who have never gone into the wedding business, I hope to convince you otherwise.  And for those of you who already sell to bridal parties, I hope to provide one new thought on the subject.                        

Why sell to brides, grooms and/or their mothers??  Because it is good business, that’s why.  How you go about making that sale is completely adaptable to your particular scenario.                

I started growing commercial flowers in Southern Oregon 14 years ago, first on a tiny patch of land for a year, then moving to a bigger plot which included one 96-foot-long cold frame and a flower drying barn.  And then four years ago, when I was wondering how I’d have the courage to get bigger all on my own, I was invited to go into partnership with the biggest certified organic growers in our Valley, a family-run business called Fry Family Farm.  We are a marriage made in heaven, and I think we have redefined corporate America on the basis of mutual trust, friendship, and lots of organically-grown flowers.                    

Right from the start of my farming life I chose to sell mainly and most importantly directly to florists.  To a lesser degree, my business mix includes selling cash and carry bouquets to supermarkets, selling to freelance floral designers, and delivering a fixed-price bucket of flowers on a weekly basis throughout the growing season to a few restaurants and many private homes.  But second to the revenue I make from selling to my florists is that of selling fresh flowers to people who are getting married.

Above All, Sanity
    
Sensitive to the fact that I sell to flower shops, I have never advertised, nor have I ever exhibited at a bridal fair.  I rely exclusively and aggressively on word of mouth.  Choose your form of marketing and stick to it constantly and deliberately.  We growers love to grow, but we can stay in business profitably and for years to come only if we sell everything we grow, we sell more every year, we find new buyers, we cultivate a positive image that gets passed on by word of mouth.  Put a sticky label on your mixed bouquet sleeves, get your business name in the yellow and white pages of the phone directory, give away flowers to your community when they ask, carry your business card in your wallet, your day timer, your glove compartment.  Don’t be shy about what you do—do it well and consistently and seemingly forever.        

Perhaps your business mix allows for direct advertising.  But if it doesn’t, then think about places where you might leave your business card.  For me it is at the growers’ markets.  I am very lucky because my friends at Fry Family Farm are very big in the growers’ markets, they go to three a week, and among other things, they sell pre-made bouquets.  So when a customer asks them something like  “Can I buy flowers from you for my daughter’s wedding which will be on September 15?  She likes only maroon and off-white flowers, and the groom’s mother is allergic deathly allergic to yarrow.”,  I know they are only too happy to turn that mess over to me.  They keep my business card in the cash box.                

From my first year of farming commercial flowers, I received sporadic requests to sell wedding flowers.  I did not want to be a you-pick farm, because I don’t want to be “open to the public” nor do I want to be limited to varieties that are easy to cut.  I like to have bulbs, woodies, greens, perennials, annuals and cold frame production thrown into my mix so that I can adequately serve the flower shops.            

However, for those of you who may want to go that route, know that it is a genuinely wonderful way to make money as a flower grower.  When my  brother was married in upstate New York, that’s where my mother and I went for their flowers.  It was August and there were lots of summer blooms, all pretty hardy and all of them tolerant of non-experienced flower pickers.  There were zinnias, rudbeckias, scabiosas, sunflowers, bells of Ireland, celosias and cosmos.  They were grown as row crops, flood irrigated, tilled in and replanted on a rotational basis.  We picked directly into buckets, the owner lady who sat behind a little table with a cash box counted the buckets, charged a fortune, and everyone was happy.

Flexible, but Realistic
    
I like to sell by appointment only.  In my first few years, I invited bridal parties to come to my farm when it was convenient to them, and we walked the land together, noting what should be cut for them.  To be honest, that took a lot of time because people really get into the novelty of walking around a flower farm.  It was also a problem if the field had just been irrigated (wet feet) or if we were between mowings (wild and wooly walkways).  But people’s excitement at being on a farm did inspire me to “rent” a space on our field where bridal parties could come put their flowers together, leaving all the clippings behind and sharing the birthplace of their flowers with family and friends.  I could collect a little extra cash out of the transaction that way.            

At some point later on I changed flower viewing from any time that works for you, to the times that work for me, which is early in the morning on the days I go to the flower shops (Tuesdays and Thursdays).  Instead of walking around the field, we met at my walk-in cooler and viewed the flowers that had been cut the day before for the flower shops.  Two seasons ago we got a refrigerated delivery truck, so I moved all my appointments to the truck itself.  I get on the road  immediately after my bridal appointment; sometimes I have up to three back-to-back appointments.        

Let me digress a little to say that at some point I responded to the need for an expert to put together wedding flower bouquets.  It seemed like a good way for me to add value to my bulk flowers.  As I am positively hopeless at putting together anything formal like a wedding bouquet, boutonniere, or large altar piece, and more importantly since I do not want to blatantly compete with my main customers, the flower shops, I welcomed a freelance designer into my business mix.  I hired my friend Barbara as an independent contractor, I paid her an hourly fee, and she was willing to work with the seasonality of our flowers.  Yes, I made lots more money with weddings then, but I also had to spend every weekend helping Barb get the final arrangements to far-flung wedding sites, and hang around with floral tape, wire cutters and ladders as chief gofer.  To tell you the truth, it was really fun while it lasted.                    

When Barb decided she was done with wedding work, I welcomed the opportunity to redefine my niche, and so this is where I am now:  I wholesale bulk flowers which are cut to order based on what the bridal party saw in my truck.  Period.  Wedding orders get stored in our walk-in refrigerator for pickup by the bridal party—I don’t deliver them at all.  We do not lock our farm or the walk-in so I don’t even have to be present at the time of pickup.  Yes, I do have to trust that all will go well and in honesty.  One time I had a real disaster when a harried father picked up the wrong order, so I learned from that incident to separate orders as much as my walk-in allows, and to put enormous gigantic signs over each bucket clearly indicating the name of the buyer and what the total number of buckets are in the order. Leave nothing to chance when dealing with downright hysterical wedding parties.  They are quite past being able to read the small print of an invoice.

Twenty—or More—Questions
    
Let’s talk a little about pricing.  I DO mark up the flowers I sell to weddings.  How much varies from flower to flower and is based more on instinct and perception of value.  For instance I might mark up a stem of peony or delphinium 100%, whereas a stem of snapdragons I may mark up only 30%.  I don’t give it away, that’s for sure, but I am not into price gouging either, because what I want to do is to sell what I have while I have it, to sell lots of it, and to make money on that sale.                    

This is the routine of my interview with a bridal party: “What day will you be picking up your flowers?  What is your budget?  No budget?  Okay, in your dream of dreams what is the most you would like to spend and still get the flowers you want to get?”  As they view the flowers in the truck I write down everything they like, in no particular order.  Then I find out what they are trying to accomplish with their flowers and roughly figure out how many bunches they will need.  With a markup in mind, I figure out a rough figure—if it is way over the budget, we cut down together, and that’s when you find out that most are willing to go a little above because they have become smitten with the flowers.  If you have tons of leeway then it’s easy.        

Never, ever make a comment like “Well, it’s going to come to a lot of money, I hope that’s okay with you.” A lot to you may be a drop in the bucket to your buyer.  Stay quiet and give them an honest rough estimate.                    

Stay in the business of growing beautiful flowers for years, become your area’s flower grower and provider, define your niche and be willing to adjust it and refine it.                    

I can’t end this session without telling you that the only part of my niche I will never change is being an organic grower.  Our flowers are beautiful, healthy and safe to our workers, their children, the florists who handle them, and the brides who make them a part of their wedding day.  In the past few years the number of people seeking out our flowers specifically because they are organically grown  has increased most significantly, so I intend to keep cultivating that message about them.


Here are a few more thoughts for you to ponder:

•Be grateful to Martha Stewart, who expanded the bridal palette from white to chartreuse, eggplant, fuchsia and rust.

•Glance at her magazines from time to time, especially the January bridal issue. You might get an idea of colors coming down the pike, of the floral styles being espoused—are flower arrangements going to be tight or flouncy, do they include seeds and pods, grasses and twigs? etc.

•Grow as many varieties of flowers as you can, go beyond what you think you can afford, to make sure you are covered for the whole length of your growing season—it happens to be wedding season too.

•Remember that a plant can offer a flower, but its foliage might also be worth cutting, and that the berries it may bear need not necessarily be “ripe” to be picked—we took to picking our symphoricarpus green this year which extended its selling season substantially, we start selling hypericum in bloom before it ever sets a seed, we sell bunches of physostegia foliage way before the flower forms, we cut peony leaves in the fall when they turn color, and viburnum branches throughout the summer.  Think outside the box, and listen to your new pickers who will definitely help you do so as they come to the job with no preconceived ideas.

•Grow delphinium all season long.  They come in blue, that ubiquitous color which is not available in many flower varieties (I am waiting for the ASCFG Research Fund to help breed a blue snapdragon, zinnia or dahlia).  Delphinium are essential for height in arrangements, they provide florettes for boutonnieres and corsages, and they fetch a good price.

•Learn about the flowers you grow so that you can answer questions such as “Will this flower hold up in foam, will this flower do well in full sun at 4:00 in the afternoon, can I make up my arrangements two days before the wedding?”  Remember that a wilted veronica or droopy eucalyptus tip will really ruin the whole bouquet.  I once saw some pretty sad-looking boutonnieres made from crocosmia, a flower that is so spectacular, when in water.

•Grow long rows of the basics:  statice sinuata, sunflowers, cosmos, bells of Ireland, asters, rudbeckia, gladiolus, delphinium, gomphrena, cockscombs.  But also enhance your offerings with closely monitored “others” such as peonies, buddleia, turtle flowers, phlox, hypericum, crocosmia, lisianthus, roses, dahlias, amaranths of all sorts, pineapple mint, dusty miller and lamb’s ear, viburnum and weigela, etc.

•You can get really good and easy money for greens, so don’t be afraid to show them off. Bridal parties rarely think of greens so it is up to you to suggest them.  I always carry on my truck bunches of dusty miller, curly willow, bear grass, bells of Ireland, ribbon grass, eucalyptus,  mints, peppermint and spearmint, rosemary, lamb’s ear, and spirea boughs.

•Grow lisianthus and charge for them.  Brides find them pretty irresistible.  The same goes for dahlias, grow lots of them.

•Grow roses if you can afford the price and the space.  Aside from selling the perfect bloom, many people just want the petals.  It is effortless and lucrative to pick a bucket full of blown-open flower heads, and let the buyer do the plucking.

•Never sell a red flower over the phone—you and the buyer need to agree on what that sought-after red really looks like.  There are blue reds and yellow reds, and they are vastly different to those who care about the difference.

•Never hand out a price sheet to a buyer from the public.

•Keep word of mouth always in your thoughts.  Provide an outstanding product and be patient in your dealings.  Offer serenity and beauty with your flowers—emotions run high and awry at the time of weddings.

•Keep your sense of aesthetics to yourself.  Remember that beauty is in the eye of beholder and this holds true in the way brides pick their flowers.

•Pick for the wedding day— the flowers have to look at their best on that day, so pick and/or store accordingly.

•Hand out your business card to the entire entourage that shows up at your farm.  Act with confidence as you will be offering reassurance at a fairly chaotic time.

Joan Thorndike

Joan Thorndike is the owner of Le Mera Gardens, Ashland, Oregon.Contact her at [email protected]