Florists gather to discuss tapping into online market DANA SANCHEZ Herald Staff Writer LIDO KEY – There are more than 20,000 florists in the country, but try doing a Google search for florist, and you’ll probably get 33 million results. If you type in Bradenton, it could bring up about 88,000. Type in the name of the florist, and it’ll pop right up. The stunning panorama of Lido Beach formed a backdrop for a congregation of florists, gathered this week from across the nation to brainstorm on how to regain market share. Tapping into the Internet is key to driving more business their way, say florist shop owners facing stiff competition from wire-service giants, grocery stores and growers who ship directly to the consumer. “The industry is really in trouble,” said Cheryl Pacheco, owner of Carlson Wildwood Flowers in Belleair, a suburb of Clearwater. “Everybody’s selling flowers these days. You see a lot of shops closing.” Like most florists she knows, Pacheco is not a technical person. “A lot of people who own florists are floral designers,” she said. “They’re not business people. It’s very difficult for them.”
There wasn’t a computer in sight when Pacheco bought her Pinellas County shop in 2002. The building lacked Internet access and none of the staff knew how to use a computer. Pacheco and more than 40 florists from across the nation went to The Holiday Inn Lido Key on Monday to learn how to market their businesses from a man they consider a technical guru in the industry. Art Conforti owns Beneva Flowers in Sarasota with 50 employees, seven delivery trucks and 12 floral designers. A former bus driver for Sarasota County Area Transit, Conforti joined the family business and four years ago developed a Web site that is attracting national attention from his peers. For $36,000, Conforti will license a florist to use the software. Designed by a local company, Gravity Free, it offers customer service modules, recipient marketing tools and features designed exclusively for each licensee. But the buck doesn’t stop there. Added charges include monthly maintenance, marketing fees and ongoing education. Users say they don’t mind. Pacheco estimates her business has grown 30 percent in the 1½ years since she started using the software. David McLamb, owner of Bice’s Florist in Fort Worth, Texas, said the tool is one of a kind. “There are other products out there that are not as customized,” McLamb said. “This is a cut above.” A popular feature on the Web site is the floral equivalent of frequent flier miles called petal points, offering incentives to customers to buy more flowers. Conforti sees the ability to react to consumer demand is the biggest problem facing florist shops. “Today’s consumer is more demanding,” he said. “They expect you to remember their birthdays and anniversaries. They want to be reminded of upcoming holidays and they don’t want you to ask the same questions each time they call.” His software allows florists to punch a key on the computer that calls a customer’s cell phone or sends an e-mail reminding him that it’s his sister’s birthday.
Eating away at profits Chipping away at florists profits are service fees charged by wire services like Teleflora and FTD, Pacheco said. Then there’s a $9.95 service fee commonly charged for ordering online. Pacheco estimates she sees $37.50 on a $60 order, and makes the argument for ordering directly through the local florist and cutting out the middleman. “If a local florist is going to deliver their flowers, they might as well call the local florist,” she said. “There’s people that just chip away at your flowers.” While she acknowledges that technology is crucial for the industry, floral designer and industry spokeswoman, Carol Caggiano, isn’t convinced the florist industry is computer-driven. Computer driven? Caggiano is on the board of the Society of American Florists, a Virginia-based organization with 12,000 members including florists, wire services, wholesalers and suppliers. She also works as an education specialist for Teleflora. Familiar with Conforti’s Web-based technology, Caggiano said a personal relationship with customers and superior service are vital to the health of local florists. “Art is going for Internet business, which everybody feels is the great frontier in retailing,” she said. “But I feel everybody isn’t computer driven. People love to shop. I send flowers a lot. I like to know the florist knows me.” Wire services like FTD and Teleflora help the entire industry with their tremendous marketing clout, said Jenny Stromann, manager of consumer marketing for the Society of American Florists. “The wire services do a wonderful job keeping flowers top of mind, reminding consumers that flowers are an affordable and convenient way of expressing your feelings to a loved one,” Stromann said.
People find Pacheco by doing a keyword search, like Clearwater Florist. Type in those words, and her shop pops up as No. 2. “I pop up and a whole lot of other florists who aren’t local pop up,” Pacheco said. Pacheco gets customer calls from South Africa, Australia and Scotland. They’re all people who want to send flowers to friends or relatives in the Clearwater area and want to make sure they’ll be taken care of, she said. “People from South Africa would never have found us without that Google search,” she said. The technology is a means to an end for a generally technologically-challenged group, said Scott Heaps, owner of Sarasota-based Gravity Free and designer of the Web site. “It’s just as easy to send an e-mail to 100,000 as to send one,” Heaps said. “And if he sends 100,000 e-mails, he’s going to get 80 orders.” Whether its flowers, pins or clogs you’re selling, you want to set the site up properly, said David Grace, a Lakewood Ranch Web services specialist. But a high keyword ranking doesn’t diminish the need to offer good service to customers, he said.