feature story
 
SYMPATHY
               SPECIALISTS

Five florists share their winning strategies to boost tribute sales.

by AMY BAUER


The reasons for pursuing added sympathy sales are many: the chance to make a difference for a grieving family; to show your skills in direct relation to the competition’s work sitting across the room; to add a steady source of orders and profit. But today, mourning rituals are changing, and florists face the challenge of keeping flowers at the forefront. Fewer visitations and an increased number of cremations have meant a reduction in fresh flower orders in some parts of the country. For others, the value of keepsake arrangements is growing.

While the average shop attributes about 18 percent of its sales volume to sympathy work, according to a recent Society of American Florists (SAF) online poll, we spoke with florists who are pushing that percentage. Many say they are in areas where flowers remain valued as sympathy expressions. But the role these entrepreneurs play in actively pursuing sympathy sales and striving to provide exceptional service no doubt can be credited as well.

setting up shop
Some simple adjustments may be all it takes to make your shop more attuned to attracting sympathy sales. Allen Addison, LMF, owner of Leesville Florist in Leesville, La., is in a unique position, having expertise not only from decades in the floral business but also from having spent 12 of those years as a funeral director himself.

His shop has a consultation room away from the bustle of the main sales area. “It needs to be a time the family can feel a little more confidential, a little more private,” he says. In addition to the traditional sympathy books, he has set up a computer that scrolls images of designs his shop has created.

Fioravanti Florist Inc. in Rochester, N.Y., also has a dedicated consultation area. If any sympathy pieces are in the shop being arranged at the time, “we’ll show them the real McCoy; they don’t just have to look at a picture in a book,” owner Wayne Perlo explains.

At Leesville Florist, four staff members, including Mr. Addison, have attended grief training to help them work with sympathy clients. While any staff member can take a family’s order, the schedule is arranged so one of these four is on duty at all times.

catching online sales
At McAdams Floral in Victoria, Texas, owner Clay Atchison III recently expanded the sympathy portion of his Web site, creating an independent section accessible both from his home page, www.mcadamsfloral.com, and through www.mcadamsfuneralflorist.com. “Sympathy has its own complexity,” Mr. Atchison explains. His site breaks into sections the different floral tributes—such as casket sprays, easel sprays, sympathy baskets, urn wreaths—to make it simpler for customers to find what they need rather than clicking through pages of photos.

To keep his site ranking higher on search engines—and appearing when people search for area funeral homes—Mr. Atchison is adding a section with pages for each home, including a picture, contact information, a link to map the location and a brief description of tribute products McAdams Floral provides. “By just listing the name Rosewood Funeral Home on the delivery page of our main Web site, we come up on the first page of a Google search” for Rosewood Funeral Home, Mr. Atchison relates.

Major work on the site has been done by a tech-savvy friend, which has helped lower the development costs. Mr. Atchison estimates he has spent $1,500 creating the sympathy site, about half what he would have paid on the open market. For every order Mr. Atchison receives online, he has three to four call-in or walk-in orders from people who browsed the site. “So I would say the Web site is helping us sell as much as 9 percent or 10 percent,” he says. McAdams Floral grosses about $1 million annually, about 24 percent from sympathy sales. The shop receives some orders directly from funeral homes, and on those involving a funeral-home package deal, a percentage commission is given.

Parie Villyard, owner of Secret Garden Fine Flowers in Amarillo, Texas, also is harnessing the reach of the Internet. She has partnered with the Amarillo Globe News to be featured exclusively on the obituary portion of its Web site, www.amarillo.com. Accompanying each obituary is a flower icon and link reading “Send a Sympathy Floral Arrangement” that takes people to www.secretgardenfineflowers.com’s sympathy design page. Villyard pays $30 a month and a percentage—about 20 percent—on each order.

She says record-keeping has been the biggest challenge, tracking which sales are generated by the site. Ms. Villyard estimates she’s received an average of 20 orders a month from the newspaper Web site link. Sympathy work is a growing portion of her roughly $500,000 in annual sales.

customer service is key
Once the orders have been placed, Fioravanti’s Mr. Perlo says attention to detail cements relationships with funeral homes. “You have to be on time. Your pieces can’t be leaking water, and the cards have to be visible,” he describes. “But being on time is the No. 1 way to treat a funeral-home director.” For Mr. Perlo’s staff, that means arriving two hours before the service or calling hours, at a minimum.
 
 
The Funeral Rule
 
 
 
The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, established in 1984, doesn’t prohibit funeral homes from receiving compensation for taking flower orders. “Cash advance” items are those a funeral home obtains from a third party, such as a florist, and pays for on the consumer’s behalf.

The Funeral Rule says funeral homes must disclose if they are charging more for such purchases or receiving a discount, rebate or commission, though the exact amount isn’t required to be disclosed. The following statement is required on the bill if an item is listed as a cash advance: “We charge you for our services in obtaining: (specify cash advance items).”

The full text of the rule is online at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/funeral.htm. A handful of states do prohibit mark-ups on cash advance items. Check with your state board of mortuary arts. Commissions for referrals aren’t governed under the Funeral Rule.

 
 

While some funeral homes simply refer customers, others take orders directly and pass them on to Fioravanti. No commissions are involved. Mr. Perlo attributes the relationships to his shop’s 86-year history and track record. “We try to make them look good,” he says of the funeral directors. “Like Vidal Sassoon tries to make people look good, we try to make our customers look good if they’re referring somebody else to us.”

While Mr. Perlo declined to share his shop’s annual sales, he says the shop averages 100 funerals a month, with sympathy work accounting for about 50 percent of annual sales. The average mixed casket spray sold is $125, and the average family funeral bill is $200 to $350, he says.

Mr. Perlo’s advice to younger florists looking to increase their funeral-home referrals is to focus on quality. “Just do the best you can, and if it’s pleasing to the funeral director, more than likely, he’ll call you back,” he states.

Ms. Villyard knows firsthand the challenge of being the new florist on the block. She says it has taken her shop 12 of its 14 years to establish strong relationships with area funeral homes. “It took me just showing them time and time again I was going to do what I said I was going to do,” she says.

She has eschewed any commissions to funeral homes though she has been approached in the past. She gets referrals from locally owned funeral homes, and she says she thinks a lot of directors don’t want to get into flower ordering if they don’t have to. “It’s one more step for them,” she says.

marketing methods
Ms. Villyard also devotes time to one-on-one marketing, such as dropping off coffee for the funeral directors or sending a desktop arrangement for the receptionists. Like the other florists interviewed, Ms. Villyard ensures funeral directors have a way to reach her at all hours. On holidays and long weekends, she calls to remind them. “I want to let them know that they can call me, and not to feel bad to call me,” she says.

Mr. Addison provides complimentary sprays in white daisies or carnations as a service to families who can’t afford to pay, and his staff provides silk sprays to the funeral homes for display in the casket rooms or in a pinch for services. His shop also does all of the decorating inside the funeral homes, such as in estate rooms and hallways, and is allowed to place business cards nearby. He, too, does not provide commissions to the funeral homes, but his strategies have made sympathy sales 58 percent of his approximately $400,000 in annual sales.

changing tastes
Bonnie McGoron, owner of Weber’s Florist & Gifts in Ironton, Ohio, says sympathy work accounts for about 50 percent of her nearly $1 million annual sales volume, but she notes that the types of orders are changing. Fresh flower orders are declining and keepsakes are growing in importance.

Her 103-year-old shop provides casket sprays for the three Ironton funeral homes, giving them a 20 percent commission for taking those orders from the families. Any other funeral work may be billed through the funeral homes, but no commission is involved. Families can choose another florist, and they can also visit Ms. McGoron’s shop directly.

With two greenhouses, Weber’s does a large volume of blooming plant baskets—which like the average fresh sympathy tribute average about $40 apiece. Also, Ms. McGoron says permanent florals surrounding Cake Candles™ or small silicone-bulbed lamps, ranging from $35 to $50, have transitioned from gift items into popular sympathy orders.

Mr. Atchison also takes advantage of specialty items popular in his market. Themed tributes are in demand, so he carries forms of all sorts. And he was pleased to find that a gift item he began stocking—a butterfly by Holbrook and Co. that uses electrical current to slowly open and close its wings—is being requested for casket sprays and sympathy arrangements. Not only is it a $19.95 addition to a sale, it makes the designs stand out at services.

Mr. Atchison also is working with a manufacturer to develop a decorative scrolled wire easel to set his shop’s presentations apart. It would be offered with his higher-end sprays—$120 and above.
 
 
10 tips to spark sales
 
 
 
1 Be on time. Fioravanti Florist Inc. in Rochester, N.Y., makes it a policy to have flowers at their destination at least two hours before calling hours or the service.

2 Clean up designs. Ensure your designs have the proper mechanics to catch any drips. Also, check carefully for protruding wires or picks that could catch on clothing or skin.

3 Offer assistance. Some florists send staff members to mist flowers and refresh designs that must last an extended period. Some also offer vans and drivers to help funeral homes transport arrangements for large services.

4 Keep in touch. Deliver funeral flowers yourself occasionally, and take time to chat with funeral directors. Make a point to ask what you can do to make their work easier, then do it.

5 Show appreciation. Small tokens of goodwill to funeral homes’ staff ensure your shop is more likely to be top of mind for recommendations.

6 Be empathetic. Consider setting up a dedicated consultation area away from the busy counter. Enroll some of your staff in grief counseling training, or bring in a specialist for a short seminar.

7 Display your best work. Don’t send out anything that wouldn’t meet the standards you would apply if it were your own family.

8 Watch the wording. Bonnie McGoron, owner of Weber’s Florist & Gifts in Ironton, Ohio, follows up with funeral homes and newspapers if “in lieu of flowers” appears in obituaries. Suggest neutral wording: “Memorial contributions may be made to ...”

9 Focus online. McAdams Floral in Victoria, Texas, added more pages to its Web site’s sympathy section so different types of floral tributes are easier to find.

10 Know your market. Adapt your best-sellers to a one-of-a-kind sympathy application. McAdams Floral is developing a decorative easel; Ms. McGoron has adapted her candle and lamp arrangements as sympathy keepsakes.

 
 


You can contact Amy Bauer at abauer@floristsreview.com or by phone at (800) 367-4708.



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