Hearts of Gold: All Romance Aside, Valentine’s Day Can Be Frantic — and Lucrative

ҬA Washington Florist Bolsters His Staff for the Holiday; He Is Also Very Discreet РFilling a 747 With Roses

The Wall Street Journal
Rochelle Sharpe

WASHINGTON – Standing in a mound of bruised rose petals and thorny stem slices, Michael McCann supervises the chaos that erupts at his Greenworks flower shop during the Valentine’s Day rush.

An upset customer phones to say her delivery was one rose short of a dozen, so Mr. McCann dispatches a courier with the last flower.

A designer can’t find any pink carnations, so he orders him to spray-paint some white ones.

A bleary-eyed worker tries to decipher a handwritten message for a greeting card: “How do you spell Snagglepuss?” she asks, referring to the ’60s cartoon character.

“This is a mess,” Mr. McCann says. It was becoming clear this Valentine’s Day would be twice as busy as last, and he wouldn’t be able to meet all the demands for deliveries. “People are frantic. I don’t know what to tell them.”

For all its sweetness and romance, Valentine’s Day is a small-business owner’s dream, bordering on a nightmare: so many people to keep happy, so many flowers to keep alive. Perform well under the pressure, and you build a clientele loyal for generations. Mess up, and you can kiss your customers goodbye.

No one knows that better than Mr. McCann, who owns the three Greenworks shops in Washington. He expected to sell more than 30,000 roses this holiday. To accommodate the demand, he added 12 phone lines to the usual 10, brought in 20 couriers to back up his regular fleet of six trucks, and even budgeted $400 for parking tickets.

Mr. McCann, 39, has been in the floral business since 1976; early in his career he sold roses from the trunk of his Pontiac Firebird for $5 a dozen. Now his shops, with 32 full-time employees, do $2 million in sales a year.

This Valentine’s Day was his busiest ever. Among the reasons: The holiday fell on a Wednesday, prime time for those who want to say it with flowers. When Valentine’s Day is on a weekend, flowers can’t be delivered to offices, and lovers are more inclined to celebrate with a romantic outing. If it’s on a Monday, there’s less preholiday buzz. But when it falls midweek, most people have heard the hints around the office and are often too busy to do much else than send roses.

The frantic pace is felt throughout the economy. The holiday represents about 5% of sales for the average floral shop that grosses $210,000 a year, says the Society of American Florists. Card and candy businesses boom as well. One billion of the 7.4 billion greeting cards produced each year are sold for the holiday, a trade group estimates, making it second only to Christmas. Candy stores expect to sell about $687 million in sweets, or nearly 9% of their annual business, the National Confectioners Association says.

It’s all a long way from the 1800s, when people would send flowers on Valentine’s Day to illiterate lovers who couldn’t read a card. And the industry is changing rapidly.

For many years, almost all roses purchased in the U.S. were grown domestically. But the oil crisis of the ’70s drove up heating costs at greenhouses, and business shifted south. Colombia and Ecuador, with their cheap labor and ideal climate, took over the market.

Now, 61% of all roses bought in the U.S. come from abroad. U.S. carnation growers were also hit: They numbered 1,525 in 1971, and now there are only 93 in this country – a drop of 94%.

All those flowers in South America are a boon for freight companies. Tampa Airlines, based in Colombia, doubles its flights to 14 a day for the three weeks preceding the holiday, renting jumbo jets to meet demand. One 747 can carry 3.6 million roses. Federal Express dedicated two DC-10s to its Valentine’s Day shipments this year.

For many retail florists, though, the competitive global marketplace isn’t nearly as worrisome as a rival much closer to home: the local supermarket. Flower sales at grocery stores have more than doubled during the past decade, to $167 million in 1994, up from $79 million in 1986.

The competition has hurt some shops, but Mr. McCann views supermarkets as complementing his business, expanding consumer demand for flowers.

Mr. McCann believes aggressive marketing is the only way to survive. For the first time, he sent catalogs to customers last month, bringing in dozens of orders. And he recently began tracking clients’ purchases on a computer, so he can send customers reminders of, for instance, coming birthdays.

At Greenworks, Valentine’s preparations began in earnest on Sunday, when the first 12,000 roses arrived. Workers lifted bundles of flowers out of ice-filled cartons and hacked away at stems and leaves. They removed the green glop from their hands with a spritz of Mess Master, an aerosol that smells like paint thinner. By Monday, designers tended to the roses, scraping off imperfect petals and sharp thorns.

Most of the requests were for the usual dozen red roses, though Greenworks offers them in 10 colors, including copper and peach. Women ordered a lot of flowers, with one spending $1,000 to send her husband 100 red roses in an elegant white vase.

The huge demand brought some high costs to Mr. McCann; he was paying couriers $200 a day, and many of his employees were already on overtime by Tuesday night. But it also enabled him to bump up prices. On Monday he raised the cost of the Valentine’s package of a dozen roses from $80 to $85.

The holiday has always been a chance for extravagance.

A few years ago, a Greenworks customer spent $2,000 on 30 dozen roses; he planned to pull off the petals and spread them over his bed. Another Washington florist remembers the man who ordered only rose stems for his girlfriend, along with a card saying, “You’re going to have to work for the blooms.”

And then there are what Mr. McCann diplomatically calls “multiples” – that is, men who send flowers to more than one woman. He estimates such orders constitute about 15% of his Valentine’s business.

Those customers require special care. The workers try not to mix up the cards, but occasionally, it happens. Last year, a man sending four arrangements insisted on sealing the cards himself – and confused the ones intended for his wife and lover, Mr. McCann said. When the wife found out, the customer blamed the florist.

Sometimes, Mr. McCann gets calls from spouses wanting to know the destination of flowers that mysteriously appeared as a charge on the family’s credit-card bill. They can be blunt. Said one, “I need evidence. I need to go to court.”

“We don’t ask questions,” Mr. McCann says. “In this business, you learn not to.”

And then there are the customers who just won’t be pleased. Yesterday afternoon, a woman called to complain the roses her daughter had sent were too long. “They overpower my space,” she told the clerk, who patiently suggested that the woman try them in her foyer. Undeterred, the customer wanted them removed immediately. Greenworks obliged.

But for all the hassle, most customers picked up on the message of the holiday. Many of them shrieked in delight when their flowers arrived.

Says Mr. McCann, “We have very few traditions left. Of everything we’ve lost in our lives over the years, the red rose will be there forever.”