Branching Out

It is easy to get stuck in our ways. As business owners, once we have something figured out and it is making us money, it feels safe and easy just to stick with it.

Way back in the day, the first year I grew any flowers to sell, I used to bring a hodgepodge of blooms to the farmers’ market and make bouquets on site. I didn’t really have enough of each ingredient to make lots of bouquets at home, and I didn’t really have the time either. We already had a thriving vegetable booth and the flowers were a recent add-on. I had no clue what I was doing growing wise, design wise or sales wise. But I brought what I had to market, and as I took customers’ requests, the line started backing up. Eventually I had to write down orders and ask people to come back.

I quickly realized that making custom bouquets on site was not working for the booth staffed by just my husband and me. I also didn’t know how to charge accordingly when people would ask for more of this or that in each bouquet, as I had only one price. It was messy and nerve wracking to do all this bouquet making in front of customers’ watchful eyes. So, I threw that initial idea out the window.

We started pre-making all bouquets before market. We also sold straight bunches of flowers. This worked out pretty well for us. As our flower-growing ability improved, we just kept expanding this part of the business. Flowers quickly became a large portion of our farm’s income with a crew of dedicated staff who only harvest and process flowers. With perennials, biennials, bulbs, and greenhouses, we now have blooms 10-plus months of the year. We have added flower CSA shares, wholesale, added (and dropped) weddings, and now do year-round farmers’ markets.

Farmers’ markets are still our number one income generator for both vegetables and flowers. And we still sell our flowers the same way at the market—mixed bouquets and straight bunches. I never wanted to go back to the hassle of making bouquets on site, or letting customers rifle through and damage all our hard-won blooms. We are also one of the few vendors selling flowers in our area. With very little competition, sometimes there is no pressure to change up what you do.

But during a presentation last year at the ASCFG conference in Raleigh, I was inspired to branch out. I was presenting on selling at farmers’ markets with two of my fellow ASCFG board members (check the archives on the website if you want to replay this conference session). I was really surprised to learn that these very established and amazing growers and marketers made bouquets on site at market. I also had several other conversations with ASCFG members who do similar style selling at markets. They had a cadre of bouquet makers at market each week whipping out custom bouquets. They reported that they could charge a lot more for these than they could for pre-made bouquets and that people really loved the individual attention, ability to choose colors and flowers, and the flair that went along with making bouquets in front of a crowd.

I tucked all this information into the back of my mind. Coming home after an ASCFG conference, where your mind is stuffed so full of new information, can be challenging. It usually takes me a couple weeks before I am ready to pore over my notebooks. At that point, I like to make lists of the things I actually want to try to implement from what I have learned. And switching up how we sell at market went on my list.

Even though our market booth is now well staffed with 4-6 people on a given day, I still wasn’t quite ready to do custom bouquet making. But I did want to try something new. It started with tulip season. We had so many tulips I wanted to try to sell them in every way, shape, and form. While we mostly sold them in 10-stem prewrapped bunches, we decided it might be worth selling some by the stem; that way people could mix and match colors and styles to their little hearts’ desires. We created a tulip bar. Buckets of loose stems of every color we had. Some people bought just 2 or 3 stems, others loaded up. And we were charging more per stem than our pre-wrapped bouquets, obviously. And it was a hit!

With the success of the tulip bar, our flower production taking off for the season, and Mother’s Day just around the corner, we decided to take this concept to the next level. We started a weekly flower bar. I washed up a bunch of large vases and brought bunches of extra of whatever we had with us to market. So far, it has felt like practically zero extra work. For some things, we actually pick extra for the flower bar, but for the most part we are just bringing the leftovers from bouquet making. We let shoppers custom-make their own bouquet, then we wrap the blooms in some craft paper for them (if they want) at checkout. It takes up some of our booth space for sure, and requires a little staff time to set up and restock the bar and wrap the flowers, but it is minimal. Of course there are some broken or wilty stems to deal with (but not many). I have learned that people will rarely pick out or want to pay for foliage, so I keep a bucket at the wrap station and throw in a few stems of filler for free.

Mixed bouquets are our best-selling flower item by far. Since we use Square to track our sales at market, we know exactly what we sell in every category. Each week at our staff meetings, I tell the crew what our top five sellers at market were. When flowers are mixed in with all the vegetable sales, sometimes flowers don’t even make it into the top five. It usually takes peony season or a ranunculus sale to get flowers in the #1 sales position. The most surprising thing so far is that the flower bar is consistently coming in at the top five. When I see the volume of flowers that go out, I would never have believed this, but the numbers don’t lie.

Next to the high sales, the other surprising factor is the social experiment I get to witness. Some people buy just a few dainty little stems. When I wrap up their purchase, I think “What a pathetic little bunch, I would never sell this in a million years”. Or they pick (what in my mind) is the most hideous color combination. But they leave supremely happy. Other people can’t quite control themselves and grab large vases of one flower and say “I will take it all—including the vase.” but because they are paying by the stem they pay a whole lot more than they would otherwise. But, they want what they want.

I have actually come to really enjoy watching how people interact with the flower bar. I love that people can get into flowers for a really low price, so college students or little kids might buy just a few stems. Other people want something for a special occasion. They might grab a mixed bouquet or a few straight bunches and then bulk it up with something from the flower bar, leaving with a price in the end way higher than anything we offer otherwise. While some customers really revel in picking out each and every stem, there are others who want me to do it for them. They lack confidence or they are lazy—I’m not sure which. I’ve been roped into this quite a few times already and I can see the writing on the wall. If we have loose ingredients already at market, eventually I will need to offer custom-made bouquets. I am not quite ready to take that on yet, but I see it coming. It means training my market staff to be floral designers, but I feel like I am almost ready to take that on.

I know I still have a lot to learn on pricing, display and marketing. But so far, it’s been a high return for very little investment. And it has been a good reminder to branch out and not stagnate in my business.

Shanti Rade

Whipstone Farm

Shanti Rade Whipstone Farm [email protected]