Inspiration Leads to Innovation

The Raleigh Conference wasn’t just my first ASCFG event. It was a chance to meet Val Schirmer, Southeast Regional Director, for whom I credit my entry into selling flowers to a retail store.

I was a new member, having just joined in early 2017 on the recommendation of my friend and fellow flower farmer, Gail Zorn of Daybreak Flower Farm. In April 2017, I had grown a basic crop of tender annuals: sunflowers, zinnias, and gomphrena with low but consistent sales to wholesalers. The sales were just enough to keep me interested in continuing to grow flowers.

By the end of my first season in October, I received the fall issue of The Cut Flower Quarterly. I hadn’t read the previous one because I had been so busy, but I remembered the cost of my membership and said to myself, “I should read this”. I enjoyed the columns from each Regional Director but was especially interested to read Val’s article since I live in Georgia, part of her Region. Her article outlined increasing sales during slow times and how to achieve that through holiday sales.

My imagination was captured! Val very clearly and generously explained how she was successful by forcing amaryllis and paperwhites to bloom, making forcing kits, and assembling bulbs in burlap bags. It was a perfect blueprint for low, medium, and high price points. After I finished reading, I said to myself, “I can do that.”

I immediately registered for nearby holiday festivals scheduled for early December. I had to source everything at the retail level because I was starting so much later for the holiday season. I had no idea if this was going to work but wanted to give it a try. I followed up by researching where I was going to purchase terra cotta pots, soil, ribbon, and tags. I went to Home Depot for terra cotta pots; Michaels and Hobby Lobby for ribbon and pot covers; and a local grower outlet for bulbs. I put it all together for the first festival in Rutledge, Georgia.

One of the pleasures was to hear customers reminisce that their mother or grandmother would always buy a blooming amaryllis for Christmas. I didn’t sell out, but sold enough that I was looking forward to the next weekend, a local two-day festival.

That Monday, after the Rutledge festival, I happened to stop at Striplings, a local general store, for their chicken pot pie—a staple in our home. I’d shopped there over the years and noticed that they featured local vendors of bread, cakes, soaps, jams, and jellies.

Standing there at the cash register with my chicken pot pie I took a leap of faith and asked the cashier, “I have a local business. How do you get to be a vendor here?” She took me to meet the owner, Andrea. I showed her pictures of my products from the Rutledge festival, which she really liked. I was heartened because it felt as though I was babbling.

Andrea’s only hesitation was where to put the display. We walked through the store looking for possible locations. Her initial idea for the display was in a space in the airlock, a set of double entry doors. Andrea asked for pricing and told me that she would get back to me later in the week.

As I drove home I thought, “Is this real? Pinch me!” I put together proposed pricing and better pictures that very night, and with great hopefulness tempered by a bit of nervousness, sent them to her. By Wednesday we had agreed on pricing and quantity and I sold her 30 units. When I showed up on Friday to deliver, the display area set aside for me was not in the airlock but rather inside the store between the two cash registers. That was retail gold! The products sold so well that they requested 12 more. All units but 5 sold by the end of December.

Successful Seasonal Offerings

Based on that success, we turned to Valentine’s Day. I worked with a local wholesaler to bring in roses, baby’s breath, and leatherleaf. What an eye-opener it was to order wholesale. I had to mark up so that there was enough profit for me but also for an attractive price for the store to then mark up and sell to the final consumer. Andrea ordered 42 and was able to sell 37 units. The other aspect of retail that I learned was “shrinkage”, the inability to sell product because of either shoplifting or perishability.

Our next holiday to tackle was Easter. This seemed to be a perfect time for pots of tulips since my flowers were not ready to harvest. Sales were good but not as successful as Valentine’s Day. Between Easter and Mother’s Day I was invited to the store’s annual Taste of Georgia. This event allows Striplings’ vendors to greet and mingle with customers to promote both Striplings’ and the vendors’ products. It was a great opportunity to meet current and future customers.

Easter success then gave way to Mother’s Day, for which I supplied bouquets from my flower farm. They were filled with agrostemma, nigella, cornflowers, and bupleurum, and created a riot of fresh color that I was hopeful would be a hit. It was such a success that the demand exceeded my ability to supply!

By this time, Andrea and I were meeting regularly to exchange ideas for upcoming holidays and events. After Mother’s Day, I had a standing order for bouquets every week, which has continued throughout the year. Spring bouquets gave way to summer ones filled with sunflowers, zinnias, celosia, gomphrena, and basil. The store will take flowers for as long as I am able to grow them during the year.

From June through today I have been supplying bouquets and sunflower bunches each week to Striplings. The sales have been steady with very little shrinkage. The display area is still at the front of the store, in a prime spot, between the two cash register stations. I have added a placard with our farm story and how we grow our flowers. Feedback from customers has been inspiring and heartening. They have been delighted to learn that the flowers they buy are grown locally.

It’s the Flower Lady!

I am so grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity to supply Valentine’s Day flowers, Easter tulips, Mother’s Day bouquets, graduation flowers, and weekly bouquets and bunches. As a result, my relationship with Striplings and the customers has changed over time. I have learned the importance of dependability, consistency, and communication. I am not as anxious as I used to be about every bouquet selling, and I have learned about the ebb and flow of buying patterns.

I especially get a kick out of delivering to the store and being greeted by, “Here’s the flower lady!” I have even had customers call me and start the conversation with, “Are you the flower lady?” Just before the Raleigh conference, Andrea hired me to design, install and maintain the planters in front of the store. I am thrilled to now have a new hat to wear, that of “seasonal color specialist”.

As we are coming up on almost a year, I can look back and assess the successful and less-than-successful offerings so that products and display can be improved. For this year, holiday flowers will be offered earlier, at the store’s holiday open house in November. In addition to the products that were sold last year I will be offering larger planters of blooming amaryllis and paperwhites, suitable for centerpieces or entries. The selections of pot covers will expand beyond galvanized tin buckets. The burlap bags will contain simple instructions so that a purchaser will not feel intimidated about planting them. I will now buy the holiday products wholesale rather than retail.

I have started ranunculus and anemones to sell during the dark days of January and February when people crave flowers. For Valentine’s Day there will be three price points, which should appeal to more customers. We may even try to sell flowers for St. Patrick’s Day in 2019.

I was able to meet Val Schirmer at the Conference, tell her my story, and thank her. All of this because I read her Regional Report in The Cut Flower Quarterly. So thank you, Val; thank you ASCFG; and thank goodness for chicken pot pie!

Dancing Hearts Homestead in Monroe, Georgia, is the dream of Kevin and Mary Stephanie Kilroe. After many decades of hobby gardening we decided to put our experience and knowledge to the test and grow flowers. We grow sustainably among a community of like-minded farmers. Our five-acre farm reflects this life philosophy in our commitment to the bees that make the honey; to the flowers that provide the nectar; to the earth that supports the flower. We never use pesticides and fertilize only naturally with fish emulsion, our own chicken manure, worm compost, and comfrey that is grown right here on the farm.