what has happened to our industry?
A look back at the factors and events that helped shape today’s
retail floral trade.
by Kenneth R. Royer, AAF
Editor’s note: After an eight-year hiatus, Ken Royer is returning as
a contributor to Florists’ Review, at this critical time in our
industry’s history, with an exclusive seven-article series, “Florists in
Crisis.” This is the first installment of the series, which will run
through May 2010.
I am concerned about the rapid decline in the number of
retail florists in the U.S. and the perilous financial condition of many
of those who remain in business.
After writing for this magazine for 14 years, authoring a
book in 1998 and serving on the board of Gerald Stevens, Inc., I retired
in the summer of 2001. Since that time, I have remained deeply
interested in the retail flower business and active as a member of the
board of directors of U.S. Retail Flowers, Inc., which operates Royer’s
Flowers & Gifts and Stephenson’s Flowers & Gifts in southeastern
Pennsylvania and Connells Maple Lee Flowers & Gifts in Columbus, Ohio.
I have returned because I am concerned about the current
state of retail florists in this country, and I believe I can be
helpful. I would like to begin with a retrospective, which reveals why
flower retailing is in its current circumstances, then follow up with
subsequent articles that will present tactics that will improve the
situation of the remaining retail florists.
a retrospective: the 1950s and ’60s
My experience in the retail flower business spans more than
60 years. In the 1950s and ’60s, little change took place, and growers,
wholesalers and retailers had very much a seller’s market. A person
wishing to purchase flowers went to a florist. Florists were, with few
exceptions, the only flower vendors in town.
In the early 1960s, change began to take place, beginning a
period during which many profound changes occurred—and at an
During that time, industry segments were clearly defined, and
flower distribution was orderly, if not efficient. Growers were mostly
regional. Florists purchased flowers from growers and wholesalers within
25 miles of their stores, and, sometimes, growers that were both growers
and retail florists provided a portion of their flowers from their own
Growers were slow to adopt laborsaving devices such as
automatic watering and air conditioning. Most were operating greenhouses
that had been constructed years earlier and that were not adaptable to
efficient handling procedures or energy-saving innovations.
Wholesalers were very powerful and controlled the flow of
flowers and floral supplies from the growers and manufacturers to the
florists—except for the small percentage of sales that went directly
from the growers to the retailers.
The wire services also were very powerful, and they were
growing increasingly more powerful as they utilized media advertising to
market arrangements in their own containers, on which they made
During this period, there were few multiple-store retailers.
Most florists were single-store operations and purchased all of their
fresh flowers and hard goods from wholesalers. Funeral flowers was the
largest sales category, but holidays began to grow in importance.
Changes began to take place in the early 1960s, and I believe
there were six profound changes that altered the retail flower business
and impacted segments of the industry. I will focus on the impact on
retail florists specifically.
Profound Change No. 1
During the 1950s and ’60s, Easter was the largest-volume
holiday for many florists in the U.S. There has been an annual decline
from that time; in most communities, Easter floral business is now
minimal. For example, the total sale of Easter corsages in our 24 stores
today does not equal the volume of the single store we operated in the
Profound Change No. 2
In the early 1960s, fundraisers—primarily affiliated with the
environmental movement—discovered the value of using “In lieu of flowers
… ” in funeral notices, followed with the suggestion of making a
contribution to a charity or memorial. Attempts by the floral industry
to discourage the practice met with little success. From that time to
today, the volume of funeral work has declined. In my personal
experience, funeral orders are now only 20 percent of what they were in
the early ’60s.
In addition, beginning in the mid- to late 1980s, the number
of orders for hospital patients—another major business segment for many
retail florists—began to decline, brought about largely by shortened
hospital stays. This is another area of lost business about which most
florists can do—or, perhaps more accurately, have done—little about.
Profound Change No. 3
Offshore production of cut flowers began in the late 1970s.
By 1979, after occasionally receiving flowers that were grown in
Colombia, I decided to go see what was taking place. I traveled to
Bogotá and Medellin in 1979, where I saw that the world of flower
retailing was about to change drastically. Royer’s immediately initiated
direct shipments of cut flowers from Colombia. By 1982, we had sold our
greenhouses, which had been fulfilling 80 percent of our needs for cut
flowers and plants.
Flower growing was quickly becoming an international business
and was gravitating to countries with ideal year-round conditions and
low wages. As cargo planes grew larger, and as airport refrigeration and
handling facilities improved, the advantages of buying from offshore
producers grew proportionally.
During the 1980s and ’90s, virtually all cut-flower
greenhouses on the East Coast were idled, and growers across the country
felt the impact.
The volume of imported flowers rapidly grew from a trickle to
a flood, which overwhelmed the demand for cut flowers in the U.S.
Unfortunately, the existing retail flower industry in the U.S. showed
little desire to accept the challenge to market those flowers.
Profound Change No. 4
Grocery stores entered the floral marketplace. The large
volume of offshore flowers entering the U.S. made it possible, for the
first time, for supermarkets to obtain a consistent supply of low-cost
flowers to stock floral departments. By the mid-1970s, many progressive
supermarkets began to experiment with floral departments, and the vast
majority of supermarkets quickly followed. Supermarkets soon owned a 10
percent share of the retail floral market.
Profound Change No. 5
In the late 1980s, credit cards and overnight shipping of
flowers provided by Federal Express (the name was changed to FedEx in
1994) came into wide usage. Consumers no longer were loyal to “their
florists,” with whom they had established charge accounts. Credit cards
gave them the freedom to change their selections of florists or Internet
suppliers at will. Federal Express made it possible for anyone in the
U.S. to provide next-day service.
Credit cards also removed the payment obstacle for customers
who wanted to place out-of-town orders directly with florists
themselves. This change altered the relevance of wire services, which
later led to rebates. In order to pay the rebates, wire services
reallocated funds that had been used for national advertising. The wire
services’ rebate programs created a fertile financial environment that
spawned the “order gatherers,” and the wire services began to compete
with the florists that helped build them.
Profound Change No. 6
Internet marketers joined the fray in the mid- to late 1990s.
Once again, the oversupply of flowers worldwide provided an opportunity
for vendors who could sell them to consumers in the proper form at the
right price. Also, Internet usage was growing exponentially, and more
and more consumers were shopping from their computers.
The Yellow Pages marketers (sometimes called “order
gatherers” because they do not fulfill orders) were the predecessors to
the pure Internet marketers. They offered 24-hour toll-free phone
service and sent the orders they gathered to established florists for
fulfillment. They were followed by pure Internet marketers, who opened
their own distribution centers and imported their own flowers, which
FedEx delivered overnight.
florists were slow to react
All these “profound changes” had an impact on retail
florists; their market share shrank, and it continues to shrink. And
while all these changes were taking place, the average florist changed
I think florists were slow to react to these changes because
they didn’t fully understand the business they are in, and they didn’t
understand the real desires of the consumers they were attempting to
serve. Those important issues will be addressed in my next article, and
later in this series, I will provide actionable steps that retail
florists can take now to reposition themselves for the current and
To comment on this article, send an e-mail to
Kenneth R. Royer, AAF, is
a lifetime florist who expanded the business started by his mother in
1937 into what is now, arguably, the largest traditional florist
business in the United States—U.S. Retail Flowers, Inc.—which is
operated today by his three sons.
Throughout his career, Mr. Royer has served the industry in numerous
ways—holding positions with the Society of American Florists (SAF), the
American Floral Marketing Council (AFMC) and the American Floral
Endowment (AFE); conducting seminars; writing articles; and authoring a
book, Retailing Flowers Profitably.
Mr. Royer also is the recipient of many awards, including SAF’s Golden
Bouquet Award (now named the Paul Ecke Jr. Award) and lifetime
achievement awards from FTD and Teleflora.