Seven years ago, Amy Stewart made fur fly in the flower world with Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers. The book resulted in posturing between those involved with selling imported flowers versus those heralding U.S. grown product. Stewart raised challenging questions which dovetailed nicely with the rising interest in certification programs for sustainable flower production. She asked “…should we care that roses have lost their scent? Or that most flowers are sprayed with pesticides? In a global marketplace, is there such a thing as a socially responsible flower?”

Has anything changed since then? Are wholesalers and florists clamoring for stuff grown down the road rather than across the ocean? I’ve been thinking about this as I watch the development of the locally grown flower movement. To gain insight, I surveyed colleagues outside the ASCFG family circle for input on how local products relate to their business. But first, a little more background. 

What Was Happening Then?

Flower sales were flat in 2006. An oversupply of product depressed prices (and margins) as sales stalled. Rising energy costs, questionable job security, and the housing bubble about to burst all made consumers skittish about spending discretionary income. 2007 saw some improvement, but the recession in 2008 ground flower consumption to a halt, as we all scrambled to make sense of derivatives and banking debacles. The economic black cloud affected the burgeoning appreciation for home-grown, sustainable, low carbon footprint flowers. Company consolidations, store closures, internet sales, expanded floral options in box stores, and aggressive revamping of floral departments into lifestyle centers among a few leading supermarket chains continued to change the face of flower sales.

Stan Pohmer is CEO of the Pohmer Consulting Group, and Executive Director of FPO, the Flower Promotion Organization, an alliance of Colombian and U.S. cut flower producers devoted to increasing the consumption of flowers. He has written that the industry experienced “channel chaos”—many companies trying to find ways to cannibalize a shrinking pie to gain a larger share.

Although floral channels and revenues were experiencing chaos, sales of organic and/or sustainable foods were not. Sales in this category have increased by more than 10% every year since 2006, and a 14% increase is predicted from 2013 to 2018.The number of farmers’ markets have doubled across the country over the past five years, from 4,685 in 2008 to 8,144 in 2013, according to the USDA statistics.

Following in Amy Stewart’s footsteps five years later, Debra Prinzing wrote her book, The 50 Mile Bouquet, celebrating the beauty of seasonal, home-grown blooms, and celebrating interest in the concept of “slow flowers” describing it as “…the artisanal, anti-mass-market approach to celebrations, festivities and floral gifts of love. I value my local sources.” Her web site connects consumers with growers and helps raise the bar about the beauty of local flowers in much the same way Michelle Obama’s interest in nutrition stimulated interest in backyard gardening.

How Does it Translate to Business?

I turned to my industry peers—floral wholesalers, retail florists, and growers—with these questions:

1. Is the desire for locally grown and/or U.S. grown flowers affecting your buying decisions?
2. Can you measure the success of the slow flower movement, California Grown and American Grown programs through sales increases, stronger prices, or pre-order requests?

The replies are interesting and insightful.

Tacoma, Washington Wholesaler
Yes, the locally grown movement is gaining some traction. We are seeing more local product in the cooler and it sells well. I think it sells well due to the fact that our sales staff uses the “locally grown” aspect as a selling point rather than customers asking specifically for it. If we take the time to tell them where it is coming from, then it matters. We have several customers who would always prefer to purchase locally sourced product, but the majority have not been vocal about it. Few specifically ask.
It is still a struggle here to get (my staff) buyers on board. No one wants to cut off (Latin American) vendors who are able to supply us all year and with whom we have standing orders, even when I can show that it saves money and increases our shelf life. It can be a hard sell.

Metro Dallas, Texas Retailer
Although we would prefer local or U.S. grown stems, it is not a trump card in our decision-making process. We would be willing to pay a little more for the local. For us, size and quality are super important. Some flowers like roses are just bigger and better from South America.

Princeton, New Jersey Retailer
Yes, I am noticing a bit more interest in U.S. grown flowers, although, I have to say, as the owner and main purchaser, I am passionate about wanting to buy American flowers whenever possible. I also try to educate my customers and when time allows, we put little American flags on the price tags of American grown flowers so the customer knows.

Interestingly though, when I’ve tried to buy flowers grown in New Jersey, I was very nicely told that they don’t sell to retails, only to big box stores. We didn’t even get to talk about how much I would buy, they just said they don’t sell to businesses like ours.

Oxnard, California Grower/Bouquet Maker/Shipper
In our world it has made an impact in sales only in the mass market arena (Whole Foods) with a request for labeling promoting locally grown. Our wholesale sales are across the country so the CA GROWN label has impacted better than locally grown. Hopefully American Grown will help us across the country.

Ferndale, Michigan (Detroit suburb) Retailer
We do have some requests for local “Michigan grown”; in fact we actually purchase garden flowers locally from a couple of farmers during the farming season. There is a very large and active local farmers’ market in Detroit, the Eastern Market. Its biggest draw is that it is very regional. Therein lies the attraction. I don’t know that the “U.S. grown” has really had any stronger promotion. With the right push, if the prices are not extremely higher than imports, then I think it would be something that might be of interest.

Watsonville, California, Grower/Shipper
Company President:
 I believe “local” is like “organic”. All things being equal, many customers would prefer local. “All things being equal” means price and quality. However, most traditional wholesalers and retailers couldn’t care less; the ones who care are supermarkets and event people. I see flowers as in the same category as produce. Locally grown is very sexy in produce, we are trying to get on that bandwagon.

Company Sales Manager:
I polled the salespeople and only one mentioned that they had a customer who preferred “local” product when available and of equal price and quality. For almost all wholesalers and retailers it is a non-issue. This is true of almost all of our event customers also. Their main priority is availability, followed by quality, then price. The only time the issue comes up is from those enthusiastically pushing the program. 

Portland, Oregon Wholesaler
The short answer is yes, customers are increasingly asking for more local products. We have two local growers who bring us product every week, both have their own spots on the sales floor. Every week customers will often wait until the product arrives before they do the remainder of their shopping. Almost always we sell out of everything that comes in. We have also noticed that floral purchasers will ask “Can you get these roses from (local grower)”, or “Can you get lilies from (local grower)?”, so not only are they asking for local products, but often are requesting a specific farm they are familiar with.

That said there is still the demand for “I need what I need”. While the first choice may be local, if it’s not available most are willing to take product from wherever we can get it to “please the bride”. I think the “slow flowers” trend is gaining popularity and is likely to remain a hot trend as more attention is being focused on it.

Butler, Pennsylvania Grower/Retailer
I have the privilege of seeing both sides of the coin, so to speak. As a florist creating flowers for weddings and events I have had a number of brides come to me with the desire to source local flowers wherever possible. The farm-to-vase look that is trending is a leading reason for this, as brides want that natural yet lush look. On the other hand, I am growing cut flowers on about a half-acre in the field plus a few thousand square feet in greenhouse space. I have been selling to florists, groceries, and to consumers with great success. I hear from more florists that they like to get local whenever possible. Partly this is to get better quality product, especially for items that don’t travel well (dahlias, zinnias, fresh herbs, etc.), but also just because it holds better and looks better than the long-distance flowers. 

Eugene, Oregon Retail Florist
We have great sources in Oregon. Even down here in Eugene we get a lot of wonderful product locally, starting in January through the fall. We try to buy local when we can. The products from our sources are exceptional. Sometimes they are a little higher priced, but the quality outweighs any concerns of whether they will sell or not. We also carry product from California. Yes, we are seeing more and more people asking if we carry local or grown in America flowers and plants, and on a daily basis we are proud to say “Yes, we do!” We love helping local businesses as well. 

Seminole, Florida Retail Florist
In regards to flower buying, I love, love, love it when I can get locally grown flowers. I have a couple vendors who bring us glads and snaps which are grown within 30 miles of my shops. They are the best glads and snaps ever—particularly the snaps—grown by an old farmer who doesn’t realize that he is producing a spectacular snapdragon. But that’s it. Honestly, I think that if we at the retail level had consistently high sales throughout the year, we might start to become more selective about where our flowers come from. But that seems like a luxury. For me, with the way business is, I have to purchase the best possible quality flowers for the best price. 

Williamsville, New York Retail Florist and Garden Center (Buffalo suburb)
We get a lot of product grown locally (within 100 miles) but it does come from Canada. We purchase from a company that offer truck routes where you can pre-order or buy off the truck, gerbera, snaps, anthurium etc. but we also get pomps and lots of minor crops. This year for Mother’s Day we went exclusively with Canadian pomps and while we pay a premium price for them, the freshness cannot be beat.

Wholesaler in San Francisco Flower Mart
If my clients say their clients want it, we need to get it, at any cost. We do have clients who notice and appreciate the whole CA GROWN or LOCAL thing but I do not see it as a defining factor in whether they purchase the item or not. It’s still color, flower, look, uniqueness. When people ask “Where is this coming from?”, it’s often for their knowledge or because they have contracts with vendors that state the flowers must be labeled with origin. And if a product is not available, the first thing they ask “Can you get it from South America (or wherever)?” I would be out of business if I only followed the “local”, “slow”, or “organic” movement. And while I do believe and support the movement when I can, I see it as nearly impossible as weather, transportation and so many other factors affect crops. How can a florist in Detroit or Green Bay expect to buy local in January? I do think there is a niche and a need but I don’t see it as taking over our industry as a whole.

Change happens, but not in a vacuum. Interest in local flowers requires ongoing assertions, and connection and discourse by growers and vendors alike describing the attributes of local flowers as fresher, sustainable, and seasonal. I respect Debra Prinzing’s sentiment of “Having a relationship with the grower who planted and nurtured each flower is nothing short of magical…”, but I think she’s the exception rather than the rule. As creatures of habit, wholesalers and retailers are used to California and imported flowers dominating product offerings. They know the patterns of ordering and delivery logistics, and may not be clamoring for stuff grown 50 miles down the road simply because they don’t know what it is, how to handle it, or when it’s available.

Regardless, awareness of all things local continues to flourish with help from lifestyle marketing campaigns, fascination with cooking shows, the boom in farmers’ markets, and the pull-through power of consumer purchasing dollars. Boxes of inanimate carnations and scentless roses will likely predominate in mass-market venues.

Local flowers will not replace imported product in national chains, but just as organic produce is now displayed side by side with conventional produce, the allure of local, seasonal flowers is far from waning. Local continues to capture consumers’ interest and their discretionary income.

All things being equal, many customers would prefer local.  “All things being equal” means price and quality.

Yes, florists are interested in purchasing local whenever possible. Quality and longevity are the driving factors.

Yes, local product sells well when presented as local. Customers don’t always ask, but they do respond positively when told.

Yes, customers are increasingly asking for more local products. But “I need what I need.” still drives many decisions.

Sales driven by “everyday” rather than “gift” purchases would allow florists more flexibility to buy local. Considering holiday peaks and valleys, purchasing is all about getting the best possible quality flowers for the best price at the time they’re needed.

Yes, there is an uptick in brides asking for local flowers wherever possible. The farm-to-vase look is pushing that trend. Brides want that natural, yet lush look.

Gay Smith

Technical Consulting Manager

Gay Smith is the Technical Consulting Manager for Chrysal USA. Contact her at [email protected]