In a wilting industry, Fleur de Lis has battled an onslaught of online discounters and supermarkets putting a squeeze on small flower shops.
Owner Robin Rivard has survived by carving out a niche of distinctive handcrafted and artful bouquets at her Selby Avenue storefront in St. Paul.
“We don’t have a big slice of the market,” she said, “but we have a really loyal part of it.”
Valentine’s Day ranks as one of the U.S. floral industry’s biggest days of the year, but the market for independent retailers is far from rosy. Survival requires shop owners to offer a premium product or superior customer service.
Those who fall short don’t last. Flower sales already were drooping when the recession hit in 2008, and they have yet to return to their pre-recession peak. Employment in the $5.8 billion industry has dropped nearly 52 percent from 2001 to the end of 2014, according to federal data.
While not a sizable contributor to the local economy to begin with, Minnesota’s floral industry took the nation’s third-largest per capita hit during that time — losing nearly 65 percent of its jobs, according to a state-by-state comparison from the University of Florida and LawnStarter. Minnesota had about 3,100 retail floral jobs in 2001, which dropped to about 1,100 in 2014.
“It’s all part of this jobless recovery,” said Alan Hodges, a researcher with the University of Florida’s Food and Resource Economics Department who compiled the data. “A lot of businesses during the recession saw reduced demand, and took the opportunity to reduce their workforce and then become a lot leaner and smarter.”
Part of the trend, he said, has to do with a decadelong drop in consumption of cut flowers, which remains the ultimate of discretionary purchases.
“They’re not saying it with flowers,” Hodges quipped, riffing on FTD’s famous ad slogan. “They’re saying it with some other kind of gift.”
But a bigger threat to the traditional flower shop stems from the proliferation of cut flowers now available at grocery stores and a power play by online retailers, such as 1-800-Flowers.com and FTD, which control 55 percent of the market, according to the market research firm IBISWorld.
Rivard and other florists scornfully call them “order gatherers,” as they take a percentage off the top and leave the local florists scrambling to make a profit after accounting for the cost of flowers, labor and delivery. She has mostly opted out. But for some flower shops, that’s not an easy decision.
Jackie Bockwitz, owner of Forever Floral in Coon Rapids, rejects sales through 1-800-Flowers and has aligned with the Flower Shop Network, another national wire service network she sees as more supportive to homegrown independents.
“We can’t compete with those guys with advertising and web presence,” said Bockwitz, who closed a second location in 2011 and has five full-time and five part-time workers. “A lot of people don’t understand they’re ordering online and using paid ads that may look local, but they’re going to a call center. Some are in this country, some are out of the country. There’s an additional middleman, which keeps a percentage. By the time you figure out your expenses, there’s no profit at the end.”
For Bachman’s, the Twin Cities’ largest family-owned florist and landscaper, a prescient move in 1968 to open a flower stand in the Byerly’s grocery store in Golden Valley has helped the company dominate the local market as consumers’ tastes and buying preferences changed.
The company pulled out of 12 mall locations in the early 1990s as national retailers pushed rents up and small players out. And in 2008, at the height of the recession, it acquired Minneapolis Floral, which had a foothold in Lunds stores. Bachman’s now has a presence in 35 locations, including six floral centers and 27 Lunds & Byerlys stores in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud.
“We’ve seen the economy change, and we’ve seen the marketplace change,” said CEO Dale Bachman, whose workers have crafted 7,500 flower arrangements for Valentine’s Day, which falls behind Mother’s Day and Christmas in annual sales. “We’ve tried to adapt and change over those years.”
As fifth-generation family members move into leadership at Bachman’s, the challenge for the company and others is to attract younger customers, particularly millennials who are starting to marry and buy homes.
“The next generation is interested in more than just beauty,” Bachman said. “They want to know what is it going to do for the environment. Will a properly planted shade tree help reduce air conditioning costs? Is it edible and not just beautiful? They have different questions than boomers.”
By most accounts, the independent florist faces a labored future, despite strong demand from funeral homes and the wedding industry. Major online players are increasingly bypassing local mom-and-pops by buying through distribution centers or directly from flower farms. IBISWorld forecasts that the $4.5 billion online flower industry will continue to grow and gain market share at an annual clip of 5 percent to the end of the decade, while the brick-and-mortar business will continue to shrink.
Rivard, however, feels more secure than most at her Fleur de Lis’ location in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood. She bought the building in 1983 and doesn’t have to fear rising rents. She runs a restaurant, the French Hen, on the other side, which cross-pollinates both businesses.
She believes she has found a way to bloom through a strong contingent of consumers who appreciate more choice, flexibility and quality than a pre-assembled bouquet.
“Target can sell the poinsettias and Easter lilies,” she said. “They can’t take away the artistic aspect and creative design that we love to do. They also can’t do the service, which is a huge part of our business.”