By Martha Konstandinidis
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, Boston-area florists continue to reinvent themselves to stay alive.
Local businesses, as a whole, have taken a hit with safety closings and lack of income throughout this period. Businesses throughout the Boston area have seen mixed outcomes even with the pandemic in full swing. With unessential businesses being closed by the Massachusetts state government, some chose to close shop, while others went through the trials of staying open.
The $6 billion industry has seen a decrease in sales in recent years, but with COVID-19 it is expected that the industry will see its largest decline at 6.2 percent in 2020, according to IBISWorld, an industry market research organization. In comparison to the annual 1.9 percent seen in recent years, sales have drastically reduced. Some contributing factors that play a key part in the decline during coronavirus include competition and the inability to shop retail at full capacity.
Challenges Arise From The Start
“It was extremely difficult, I mean we’re a perishable company, so we had to throw out and donate a bunch of goods and you know, we lost a lot of money,” said Edin Maslesa, CEO of Fall River Florist Supply Company.
Caring for perishables has unseen obstacles and concerns when getting rid of paid products, declining sales, and less funding to buy more inventory. Individual shops rely on wholesale services in order to operate, so when they were forced to close floral shops were faced with another adversity.
Closings began in March to reduce health concerns and it wasn’t until early May that many florists were finally given the “okay” to move forward with making their arrangements. Those who remained uncomfortable had the option to stay closed or work remotely if possible.
“Shutting things down, turning things on takes time and takes a lot of money. It’s definitely extremely challenging but it would be devastating to see another shut down again,” said Maslesa
Another economic fallout where closings are required will be difficult as the industry is largely based on consumer demand and spending – thus affecting future purchases within local shops and wholesale.
“We were open on a limited basis because we do supply supermarkets, farm stands, and garden centers and those are all open and considered essential businesses,” said Bob Hall, owner of Kelley’s Wholesale Florists in Chelsea, Mass.
Some wholesalers were able to take over until there were more steps in Massachusetts’s reopening plan that included additional safety precautions. While wholesale purchases were limited, local shops were forced to find alternatives.
“Frankly, I don’t know how any florists survive that haven’t been around as long as we have because with the prices at Shaw’s, and all the supermarkets and things going on – it’s been difficult,” said Martha Ben-David, co-owner of Flowers by Ami, located in Canton, Mass.
What was previously known as the Halls of Tara in West Roxbury, was bought out and rebranded in February as The Centerpiece Flower Shop. Angel Diaz, the new business owner faced a variety of complications, but closing was never an option. With no government or state loan options, minimal options on flowers, and being the only employee in his shop – it was time to make some changes.
“There was another challenge because I was doing everything by myself. I was doing deliveries by myself,” said Diaz. “I was taking orders, making the arrangements, cleaning out the space, and making things the way you see it now and of course, I’m with the same energy the whole time.”
On the other hand, there are local shops that were able to function throughout the pandemic with restrictions from the state. Cedar Grove Gardens in Dorchester was delivering to customers when most shutdowns were taking place. Later on, pick-ups became available per state guidelines.
“We were able to open the garden center and of course, by doing that, we also brought in pansies and early spring flower and plants to the garden center,” said Richard O’Mara, owner of Cedar Grove Gardens. “We stayed open primarily on the exterior, on the interior we basically ran a curbside pick-up initially.”
As the year continues, many still haven’t returned to work while local florists have been devising plans to get all their employees slowly back into work.
“We still have a significant number of employees that are not directly related to product handling or delivery, working from home. We’re still trying to take the health and safety aspect of the pandemic very seriously while trying to provide good service,” said Maslesa.
Focus on Local
“One thing I didn’t quite expect was how important local is to people around here. Like many people have come in and been like ‘I just want to support a local business’,” said Needham School teacher and Diaz’s husband, Stephen Guerrero.
With a variety of conflicts hitting the floral industry, between throwing away perishables to following regulations for safety – there were two common factors that kept every floral shop going. Their passion for florals, and their customers.
“So, you call this online florist, then they have a deal with the local florist so they might be marking it up and then the local florist isn’t making the money and they have to work on volume,” said Jamie Leger, customer at Flowers by Ami. “I don’t trust the online as much as I do the local.”
Due to the pandemic, consumers have put a focus on shopping locally. Many state and county officials like Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker are urging shoppers to go local to prevent smaller businesses in the area from closing. While many florists are using their creations to bring the community together.
“I started getting emails from customers saying that they were with me on this, and people were saying keep going because your work is amazing and we love your work,” said Diaz.
Floral shops all around Massachusetts were receiving warm messages waiting for the arrival of these retailers in the newer phases of re-opening. Even with the cancellation of major events like weddings, funerals, and other special occasions – holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were still flooded with orders for arrangements.
Some businesses like Flowers by Ami, were able to completely operate due to community involvement in the company versus having to worry about sales for big events.
“For large events, it’s more funerals and people coming in for weddings which they’re still doing. Mostly, our business, the bulk of it is just people ‘Happy Anniversary’, ‘Happy Birthday’, you know life cycle things that repeat,” said Ben-David.
Buying personal arrangements during these times of isolations to send to family members, or simply for oneself has been trending more in local businesses.
“During the shutdown, there were a lot of birthdays, holidays, and life events that I felt terrible missing. I had actually ordered flowers for a friend’s birthday right in the beginning of the shutdown using a national service and was super disappointed in the quality,” said Casey Kavanaugh, customer of The Centerpiece Flower Shop.
Maintaining bonds during the pandemic is crucial, which was why Kavanagh was putting her trust into corporate floral companies. This ultimately proved how local shops were the right decision for many reasons.
Community Connections Blossom
Emotional health has been a topic of concern during the pandemic, the Community for Disease Control and Prevention even suggests that connections with others and your community can help with stress. Rutgers University conducted research on the link between flowers and emotional health in a 10-month study where the findings revealed three health benefits from receiving and having flowers in one’s home.
“It’s been proven through various studies that over the years that flowers, and plants do a lot to help people’s moods be lifted and create an environment that’s a little bit refreshing and bright and positive for people,” said O’Mara.
Flowers have an immediate impact on happiness, they have a long-term positive effect on moods, and flowers make intimate connections, according to the Rutgers University research that was published on About Flowers, a website that gathers statistics that is hosted by the Society of American Flowers. Those who participated in this research expressed true excitement upon receiving flowers and reported feeling less depressed or anxious upon receiving the arrangement.
“He even just yesterday, had a woman call up, she’s in one of the rehab centers and said, you know, ‘Every time I look at it, it makes me so happy to see,’ and isn’t that the goal?” Guerrero said.
Each individual state has guidelines and restrictions based on outbreaks and numbers in their area. Floral organizations like the Society of American Florists, Massachusetts Flower Growers Association, Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, and the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association offer online resources and guidelines as well, in order to operate with safety and health in mind.
Other resources available to local businesses include the Payment Protection Program, Coronavirus Small Business Guide and Loan Resource, and CARES Act Emergency Funding for Farm Businesses.
“Whoever gets through this period with their business intact, I think it’s gonna have a tremendous future going forward. Even though we’re not food, we are the next best thing. We are always there for peoples most important times in their lives, so our business has a highly emotional component,” said Maslesa.
Following state guidelines like wearing a mask, keeping stations sanitized, and limiting contact will be critical in the process but many have been searching for ways to gain more business.
As more phases of the reopening plan unfold in Massachusetts, there is a massive shift into marketing resources for florists. SAF highlights advice to those looking to increase their sales during this period in an article Marketing Messages That Sell, which explains that there can never be enough marketing.
“Online shopping is going to be an important thing. I think that social media is only gonna be better in terms of pulling people in,” said O’Mara. “I believe in technology and I always did and I think that’s where business is going to go.”
Staying alive is the goal, so gaining more business after a period of minimal to zero funding is critical to making it to the next step. Social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and even Pinterest offer platforms for companies to showcase their work and connect with customers in the area.
Being forced to make sudden transitions and handling more than one job – florists everywhere have been shaken by the virus. With a long road ahead, the industry is enthusiastic in its return and will continue to fight to serve the public safely.
“They actually spread his name [Diaz] around other funeral homes to do live streams. So, he’s actually brought all his video equipment to funerals, or the religious service, sometimes the burial, and filmed them. Then he’ll edit and produce like a thumb drive that the family can distribute among themselves,” said Guerrero.