Work Smarter, Not Harder: Early Season Lessons

Spring brings showers, flowers, and hard-won lessons.

April and May are always sobering months for us. Expenses are at their highest, while farm income struggles to keep up. The tax season offers us an ultra-clear financial snapshot that magnifies the imbalances. I need only fill our cargo van gas tank a few times to realize the impact the current economy is having on us. It seems an overwhelming task to increase sales, reduce expenses, and control operating costs, but it’s a reality we must face if we hope to survive and grow our business.
Rather than focus on the uncertain economy around us, we chose to focus on the economy of our farm—be it economy of scale, effort, or cost. For the past few months we’ve examined all areas of production for opportunities to improve. We targeted four areas: communication, sales, presentation, and efficiency.

Improved Communication Increases Wholesale Sales

We wanted to increase the number of wholesale customer in the face of tough competition in an area where talented growers (many ASCFG members) abound.  
Nothing makes the point like a picture, so we developed a floral database (in FileMaker Pro) that automatically generates a weekly price and availability list with complete with pictures of each product. Linked to our harvest list, in under five minutes, we can generate and e-mail price lists for our wholesale customers. Color photos have proven invaluable to designers, resulting in a 570% increase in wholesale sales over the same period last year.
Increasing and improving our retail sales required a different strategy.

New Markets (Hopefully) Increase Retail Sales

In addition to our three existing farmers’ markets in the D.C. area, this year we are participating in the American Market at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, Maryland.  On the banks of the Potomac River, this $2 billion, waterfront mega-development, anchored by the 2,000-room Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, the largest non-gaming convention center on the East Coast, promises to be a lucrative market for us in the future. Right now the dearth of residents seems inversely proportional to the potential of this market.
While the developers of National Harbor say that buyers have put down deposits on all but 48 of the 450 condo units for sale in the first phase of the retail-residential hybrid project, a favorable sign in a downward economy, this is not a producer-only market, so we must compete with wholesalers. New professional displays, clear signage indicating “locally grown” and banner signs showing our farm during peak dahlia season, we hope, will attract those customers looking for fresh local product.  This year at least, our profit from this fledgling waterside market might not outweigh its substantial participation costs, but as residents move in and the word amongst the local population spreads we believe it is a valuable investment toward a more profitable future.
Nonetheless, we have finally crossed the physical and mental barrier of participating in multiple markets on the same day. Realistically, twice the markets equal twice the set-up, twice the staff, and twice the product; our challenge was to NOT make it feel like twice the work.

Practical, Pleasant Presentation

In previous years we have used a combination of folding tables draped with black tablecloths and crates to achieve a tiered floral display. Although the display looked nice, it took too much time and effort to set up.
Heavy-duty folding tables rode flat in the cargo van, with crates of flowers on top during transport that then slide out easily, negating the need to crawl into the van to unload. However, we had to unload all the crates and flowers onto the ground before we could set up the tables. This meant that buckets were handled twice during setup—not as efficient as the new system.
To improve our efficiency and presentation and reduce labor, we recently purchased wooden, folding, tiered displays from, a greenhouse/nursery bench company. Lightweight and easy to handle, they fold flat, and at just four feet in length, take up little room in the van. Now we can remove and erect the tents, followed by the display stands, and then the flowers. Setup takes approximately 15 minutes, with half the effort required as before. Not only has the overall presentation improved, but so has our efficiency.
Improving our overall presentation was calculated; improving our presentation of individual flowers happened somewhat by accident.

If the Vase Fits!

Typically, we present our product in an array of black floral cooler buckets sized accordingly for each crop/stem length.  We are happy with this presentation, but have been frustrated this season by the sales of our tiniest blooms.
We have been rewarded with a bumper crop of sweet peas with beautiful long stems (9-15”).  We proudly brought these to market in our shortest black cooler buckets only to have them sit relatively untouched. Early sales were usually confined to those customers who specifically looked for them, rather than the masses.
Disappointed, I would come home and place unsold stems in a beautiful glass vase and place them on my mother-in-law’s buffet for all to admire.  The vase was perfect for tiny flowers, resembling a typical 5”x5” glass cube that had been squeezed like a paper bag toward the top creating a smaller opening.  The sweet peas fan out in every direction, each individual stem clearly visible through the glass and each bloom along each stem gloriously displayed.
Luckily I had extra vases and I boldly brought two to one of my windiest markets. Luckily they have very thick bases and a relatively low profile.  Nervously I watched and waited.  At $1 each (10 stems for $8) stems virtually flew out of the market, accounting for $200+ of our sales that day. I was in sweet pea heaven.  By this time the sweet peas are long gone but I’ve learned my lesson: improving presentation even on the smallest scale can make a big difference.
I wish all of our members continued success this season and look forward to the sharing of ideas at our upcoming Regional Meeting and the fabulous annual National Conference!