from consolation to celebration

Florists and funeral industry professionals provide insight into the changing sympathy industry.
  by Kelsey E. Smith

    Assisting people with beautiful floral farewells is one of the most dignified services that florists can offer. But in addition to the obvious compassion you must have, it is important to know about the preferences of today’s sympathy customers. We consulted the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), as well as florists for whom sympathy accounts for a large portion of their annual sales, to identify the following trends in the sympathy market.

the final event, his or her style
    Personalization is the most notable movement in both the sympathy market and the floral industry as a whole. Like bridal customers who incorporate their personal styles into their weddings, “one size” no longer fits all for sympathy services. Those who celebrate the lives of loved ones increasingly seek flowers that are symbolic to the deceased; keepsakes that represent their families, hobbies or vocations; and new ways to incorporate photos and videos into memorial services.

    In fact, the sympathy industry has almost become part of the special-events industry, as consumers increasingly take a personalized approach to celebrating their loved ones’ lives, says Frank Feysa, AIFD, a Smithers-Oasis designer and owner of Garden Gate Florist in Aurora, Ohio. Although Mr. Feysa recently changed the focus of his business to weddings and special events, sympathy accounted for approximately 40 percent of his annual sales before he closed his retail location last year.

    “We’re seeing a lot of celebrations rather than somber services,” he relates. “Maybe there’s going to be a party or a gathering, whether it be at a party center or a golf course, and the flowers can be used in a celebratory manner. It melds the event business and the sympathy business in a great way that didn’t exist very long ago, and I think younger people are embracing that.”

    Clay Atchison III, who owns McAdams Floral in Victoria, Texas, with his wife, Cynthia, says approximately 15 percent to 20 percent of the shop’s overall sympathy work is personalized, and for pieces ordered by the families of the deceased, that figure jumps to 40 percent. He shares that one of the most memorable tributes he has created was for a rancher. “We took full-size bales of hay and installed cedar fence posts coming out of them that the family brought to us,” he recalls. “Then, we connected floral tributes with barbed wire around the fence posts. It took a lot of effort, but it made a really powerful and inspirational ambience.”

advance planning
    An increasing number of adults today are taking it upon themselves to plan their own services, partly for the purpose of alleviating financial burdens on their families but also so that they can rest assured knowing that their wishes for their funeral or memorial services will be fulfilled. Lester Anthony, AAF, owner of Lester’s Florist in Savannah, Ga., says he began getting requests for advance planning of funeral flowers about 15 years ago from members of his church, where he served as a minister of music, though he admits that he was hesitant to take advance business at first.

    “I said, ‘What if I’m not around or something happens to me by then?’ But the people said they had confidence in me and knew that I would take care of business. That’s why it’s important to have money reserved in case something happens.”

    Sympathy accounts for approximately 75 percent of Lester’s Florist’s annual revenue, which, in the tough economy, has decreased from $1 million a couple years ago to around $800,000. Mr. Anthony says he currently has about six preplanned funerals, and most requests for such arrangements come from the families of people who are terminally ill and are expected to pass away within a short time. There have been times, however, when economic inflation has caused the florist to take a bit of a cut.

    “One person paid me about eight or nine years before the funeral,” he relates. “But even though prices change, you’ve got to stand up to your word. They may pay you $1,000, and by the time the funeral happens, it might be worth $2,000 to do what they requested. You lose on some, but you have to make sure you’re making enough to pay the overhead and pay your suppliers.”

cremation on the rise
    The Cremation Association of North America projects that 38 percent of all deaths this year will be cremations, compared with 26 percent in 2000, and that this method of disposition will grow to nearly 59 percent by 2025.

    Cremation has become increasingly popular for several reasons. In addition to the appeal of cutting traditional funeral costs in half or more and “taking up less space,” it also is a favorable alternative to cemetery burial for today’s transitional society.

    “One of the things that is affecting cremations is that a lot of people who maybe are from up north—New York or Philadelphia, for example—have lived for the last 15 years in Phoenix or someplace in Florida,” Mr. Atchison says. “They don’t have any ties left at home, they never got a burial spot, they don’t have a lot of family and they’ve outlived most of their friends, so a lot of them are just going with cremation or a cremation/memorial.”

    Mr. Feysa says that services with cremation urns can offer tremendous opportunities for florists. “The flowers set the tone for those services,” he says. “An urn offers a wide-open area for florists to hone in on what we’re going to do, whether it’s a wreath or an easel piece that is specifically designed for the person. Flower shops have so many opportunities to sell and upsell and create a niche that wasn’t there too many years ago.”

Click here to read an article from ICCFA (International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association) Magazine about the August 2008 personalized memorial service of David Byerly, owner and president of Lehrer's Flowers in Denver and Lakewood, Colo.

here for lists of the states with the highest and lowest cremation rates.

environmental concern
    The “green” movement seems to be here to stay as well, and just as people want environmentally friendly products in their daily lives, they are considering the impact their floral purchases make. Susan Kaufman, owner of Kaufman’s Flowers in Waynesfield, Ohio, offers to pick up the flowers after funeral services; reassemble them into smaller arrangements; and deliver them to retirement homes, hospitals or other places the families request. “A lot of times, families don’t know what to do with the flowers afterwards, and it makes them feel good to repurpose them,” she says.

    Ms. Kaufman provides this service at no charge and says that, thanks to the backs of her shop’s custom message cards touting Kaufman’s Flowers as being eco-friendly and stating that the business welcomes donations of vases (many of which are brought in following summer garage sales), the only investment to her is labor. And in addition to advertising the service on the shop’s Web site,, Ms. Kaufman says her local funeral director helps get the word out to all families with whom he works.

    Ms. Kaufman adds that, in addition to the good will the popular gesture generates, it also provides a great marketing opportunity for the shop, which counts sympathy flowers and gifts as approximately 65 percent of its sales. Each vase of flowers is delivered with a card that says “Donated in memory of [someone]” and includes the shop’s business card and marketing materials.

    Mr. Feysa says he, too, has seen consumers become more eco-conscious. “People want to be environmentally responsible, and they are asking for things that can be reused such as a plant within a fresh-flower arrangement that can be planted in [the recipient’s] yard or used as a décor piece in their house,” he explains.

working with funeral directors
    Mr. Feysa points out that establishing relationships with funeral directors is an important key to learning about trends in the sympathy business and to capturing more customers. “As florists, we sometimes don’t do a good job reaching out to the funeral directors in our areas,” Mr. Feysa says. “They are the first line of defense as far as the families talking to them, so keeping that line of communication open—whether it’s going out to lunch or just sitting down and talking for an hour—offers a lot of opportunities to showcase what we do and what is new and what is a trend. Many things just don’t happen because consumers are not aware of them.”

    Mr. Atchison agrees that working with funeral directors is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to capture sympathy business. He points out that even if the funeral directors in your area have exclusive deals with other florists—a common complaint among florists who do not have such arrangements—it never hurts to market yourself in case the situation changes.

    One way Mr. Atchison gets to know the funeral directors in his area is to make the deliveries himself and, while at the funeral homes, strike up conversations with the directors. He points out that this also is a great way to check out the arrangements other florists have delivered. “There are only two places where you’re in direct competition in a lineup of arrangements with other florists—the hospital and the funeral home,” he relates. “I go into the room and place the pieces myself instead of leaving them in the hallway. It’s a good way to keep your eye on the competition.”

Contact Kelsey Smith at or (800) 367-4708.

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