By Martha Konstandinidis
Coronavirus has swept most businesses off their feet, including those in the floral industry. Cedar Grove Gardens in Dorchester, Mass., is one of the few shops that beat the odds through customer relationships and the owner’s forward-thinking strategies.
Supermarkets and big box stores were still selling flowers to the public even though florists were shutting down. “I was a little nonplus with the idea that small mom and pop storefronts were under the impression they couldn’t open,” said Richard O’Mara, CEO and shop owner.
O’Mara sought out guidance from some industry friends and was able to get in touch with an attorney to help them stay open. Gourmet and nursery products were among the items found that allowed the business to run during this time, but there were more barriers to reopening with some employees feeling unsafe to work and disruptions in the supply chain.
Finding people willing to work during this uncertain period was O’Mara’s first task. To follow state guidelines, there were only a certain number of employees in the shop at a given time to avoid overcapacity and creating an unsafe environment.
“I didn’t insist that anyone be here if they were uncomfortable. I maybe had three or four people that opted not to come in during the peak of the COVID crisis in Massachusetts, and once the governor allowed us to open for Mother’s Day, I called people back,” said O’Mara.
There were a core group of employees to aid with core tasks like deliveries, curbside pick up, and to keep up with orders and the shop. Staying open wasn’t all roses though, since there were other issues that came with running a shop when most other businesses are closed.
“April we were down about 40 percent without our punch-in work, etc. and just everybody more or less staying home,” said O’Mara. “May was a very strong month for us, we were up about 15 percent for the month over last year. It’s actually our best May in four years.”
Without the usual larger orders for events like funerals, weddings, and other special occasions, the shop was still able to bring in significant business – and even more than in previous years.
The shop found ways to communicate with their audience in order to maintain sales and keep customers updated on operations throughout the duration of the virus.
“We reached out regularly on Facebook, and Instagram, and our shop email list and let people know that we were there to help them. We introduced the old saying there, ‘Say it with flowers,’ it’s the best way to do it,” said O’Mara.
The use of social media was crucial in keeping these connections alive, and informed customers that although many were closed – Cedar Grove Gardens was able to cater to the public through their no-contact services.
Although, the main challenge the shop continued to face was a lack of flower options.
Most wholesalers in Boston were closed but with select locations open they were still able to get product from these areas. “We’re open on a limited basis, we do supply supermarkets, farm stands and garden centers and those are all open and essential businesses,” said Bob Hall, owner of Kelley’s Wholesale in Chelsea, Mass.
Even with this, wholesalers weren’t able to supply certain flower demands because imports weren’t available. In the United States, 80 percent of flowers are imported from international top sellers like Colombia and Ecuador to name a few.
Internationally, flowers weren’t as readily available due to cancelled and delayed shipments after the pandemic began. “The flower business is an international business now, and product comes in from all over the world,” said O’Mara. “It’s everywhere and so our selections were really hurting.”
Temporary solutions were configured until deliveries and shipments from international markets were processed again. Local wholesalers were able to keep the shop supplied with their stock, but the CEO made the decision to only offer designer’s choice arrangements due to the lack of variety.
“Everything fell back to designer’s choice in case we didn’t have the product on hand and couldn’t get the product that you wanted – you needed to trust us to do what we could do,” said O’Mara.
With a lack of product from failed deliveries from companies worldwide, Cedar Grove Gardens still saw sales throughout the months of March, April, and May. The months that were most heavily affected by COVID, were still doing fair in terms of sales and orders. March marked the start of the shutdowns but not for O’Mara and his workers.
“March finished off okay because we made it 21 days out of 30 days, we had been conducting business on a regular basis. The last nine or ten days of the month, we’re obviously down a bit but the month itself finished off alright.”
Even with some lower numbers, there was still enthusiasm in how future months would turn out. The peak of the pandemic hit the states, and Massachusetts in April with surge numbers being reported daily. With this, O’Mara was still receiving orders.
“I think that social media is only going to be better in terms of pulling people in. I’m not an Instagram person, but my staff does Instagram and they’re up there,” said O’Mara. “I’ve had people mention to me, ‘Oh, you have great Instagram posts,’ well, you know, I don’t have them – I do have them because it’s Cedar Grove Garden’s, but I’ll be damned if I know how to do it.”
After 40 years, O’Mara still links many of his victories to being forward looking and supporting technology in order to sustain a successful floral shop. On many of their platforms, customers avidly interact with those running the floral shops social pages. Hopeful to get to the shop to buy more arrangements and gifts, customers like Maryellen Kirby are grateful for the shop’s services.
“I haven’t been able to see my loved ones due to COVID, but Cedar Grove Gardens made it easy to connect to people close to me,” said Kirby. “Brightening someone’s mood with a small gesture such as flowers makes it worth it.”
The crew at Cedar Grove have created community connections through their trusted work and support. Flowers have gone the extra mile this season to bring happiness to the lives of those in Boston area, but businesses like Cedar Grove Gardens have stepped up in the face of adversity to be there for their community.
“It’s been proven through various studies, 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 whether it be at an office or at home,” said O’Mara. “The people that were reaching out to us were very appreciative of the fact that we were able to help them express whatever they wanted to express by using flowers and plants.”
Knowing the names of customers proved the tight-knit family-type business, which kept people coming for more during some of the driest periods in the floral industry. The business has built up a dedicated clientele base and gained the trust of those looking to express themselves when there wasn’t an opportunity to physically be around loved ones with the pandemic in full swing.
Their expertise was still able to shine through in these moments, “I don’t pretend to be an expert on Venus Fly Traps, but the thing is, I do have a degree in Plant and Soil Sciences and I do have the knowledge of where to go to find that information so that I can share that with you.”
“I think that people genuinely care about their neighborhoods and their communities, and sometimes when they’re not thinking, they might be thinking about getting the least expensive version of something they could get,” said O’Mara. “But I feel as though we’ve always been a value oriented shop.”