For many of us, the art of flower arranging connotes peace and serenity, and a trip to the local florist conjures up thoughts of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day.
But talk with floral designer Jill Mehl, owner of Flowers Galore and More on Main Street in Butler, and you’ll learn that florists today are struggling in an industry that has been dominated by Internet third party services over the past decade, and may soon be hard to find altogether.
Mehl, who lives in West Milford, has been a floral designer for over 30 years. She started out in 1972 as a checker at Alexander’s Garden Center in Paramus. She was told she had an eye for design and was sent for training in floral design and construction.
“The instructor was a prominent designer at the time,” said Mehl. “If you went to his school, whoever hired you knew that you knew the basics. He would take our arrangement and turn it upside down. If nothing fell out, you passed the construction part of the course."
Mehl said floral designers each have their own look and style, and people should choose a florist based on their artistry and customer service.
“Years ago, how you picked your florist was whether you liked their style and their work,” she said. “I try not to be typical. I learned that every flower has a face and it deserves to be seen.
"I work a lot with feelings. It’s not only red white and blue, or pinks and purples. It’s ‘Does she have a favorite color? Does she have a favorite flower?’ The customer might say, ‘ I know she loves roses.’ Ok, can I mix roses with something else? ‘Yeah – now that you mention it, she does like that.’ So when I talk to my customers one on one, they’re totally confident, by the time they hang up, that what I do for them will be of my best.”
Mehl said customer service often requires extreme sensitivity.
“We hand-write the cards and suggest to customers at the counter what to say, right down to consoling the family that has lost somebody dear," she said.
According to Mehl, purchasing flowers is complicated by the fact that they are perishable, fragile, seasonal, and imported. They don't arrive ready to use.
“Nothing comes in looking like the flowers you see. Everything is prepped because it’s all shipped overnight in an airplane from Ecuador, South America, Australia, Holland, all over the world. So they’re picked at time that they’re not completely beautiful and shipped dry,” she said. “When I get it, I have to continue the drinking process, so everything gets cut under water.
“Flowers like to be treated certain ways," said Mehl. "Some are snapped and scratched. Others are cut. Some you can’t break the bark. It’s a very intricate process. Everything’s done at the sink.”
Mehl said she gets some flowers locally, but most come from wholesalers. She says a few things are on special order at certain times of the year.
"Right now it’s starting to be tulip season in Holland," she said. "We’ll be getting tulips for the Christmas season. In midsummer when people want tulips, they’re $5 to $6 a stem because I have to import them."
Mehl said the farms control the supply, and growers in South America will charge triple the price for roses for Valentine’s Day than on any other time of the year.
Mehl said she has learned all this from her many years in the industry. That's why it frustrates her that third parties like FTD, Teleflora and 1-800 Flowers have taken over the industry.
“They’re ruining us,” said Mehl. ”They took over Google. FTD, Teleflora, and 1-800 own the words florist, flowers, plants, baskets — whatever words they think you’re gonna punch in to look for a florist. So when you Google, “Flowers in Butler,” your first three choices are those three companies. The local florists are below it, if you look closely, but when customers call us, we have to tell them, “I am a brick and mortar building. I am not an order-taker.”
Mehl said the people taking online order know nothing about flowers. They take the order, look at a list of florist in that region, and place the order. The local florists pay a fee to be on that list, but they don’t get to communicate with the customers.
“Teleflora has hired what we call ‘dogs' (domestic order gatherers),” Mehl said. “They’re phone workers. They have no clue what an alstroemeria is, probably never touched one in their life. They couldn’t tell you what flower it is. They own a computer, take a piece of paper from point A and put it into point B, and send it to their local florist.
“They’re taking $15 from the consumer and 20 percent from me," she added. "Plus, I pay them another thousand dollars a month membership fees. So on a $35 arrangement, they’re making more on the arrangement than I am, and all they did was point and click.”
Mehl said when florists accept these orders, they get no creative input. It involves recreating a two-dimensional photograph of an arrangement in a catalogue, with instructions for putting it together.
“Pictures come with recipes — three stems of this, four stems of that,” she said. “However, every flower is faced to the front in the picture. My job is to make that same picture all the way around. I can’t do miracles. That’s false advertising. You’re telling that customer that their piece is gonna look exactly like that, and it’s not.”
Mehl said supermarkets have also taken a bite out of the industry, buying flower farms and selling flowers for less, without the customer service.
“Supermarkets are buying flower farms and hiring the locals for pennies to pick flowers,” said Mehl. “That’s how they get cheap flowers. If you’re buying your flowers at the supermarket, go ahead, but if you come down and buy from me, I bet I’ll win you over, because my flowers last.”
Mehl sells her $6 bouquets last so long that people don’t know what to do with them.
“People yell at me. They last too long. 'Three weeks — I’m throwing it out because I’m sick of looking at it.’" I’m like, really?”
Another impact on florists, according to Mehl, is that fewer funerals are being held, which were once considered the “bread and butter” of the industry. Florists had to be prepared to supply flowers as needed. She said Flowers Galore used to work closely with Morrison’s Funeral Home.
“When it comes to funeral work, you don’t ask and you don’t say no,” said Mehl. “You say, ‘How high do you want me to jump?’ When I first started out, it was two- and three-day funerals. Money was no object. Thousands of dollars were spent in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. You went and you spritzed and took care of everything in between.
“The refrigerator had your tall and your short, carnations, pompoms, gladiolas, roses — everything you needed based upon funeral work. If a funeral would walk in the door and say it’s tomorrow at two o’clock and this is what I want, and I didn’t have it, I’d have to run to the wholesaler.”
Mehl said she has adapted by coming up with different types of floral arrangements.
“These days, because of costs of funerals, people have elected to be cremated, with no services. In lieu of flowers, donations are given to charity. We’ve had to adapt. We’ve come up with a nice urn arrangement."
She has also adapted by e-commerce website instead of accepting third party work.
“We have our own website that people can order from. I use to say ‘Are you a third party?’ They would say, ‘I don’t know what you mean by that.' I’d say, ‘Are you sitting behind a desk with a headset on, or are you standing behind a counter with a knife in your hand?’ She'd say, 'I’m sitting at a desk.' I say ‘Well then, I don’t want your order.’”
In light of all these changes, Mehl needs to downsize her business. Flowers Galore has been a full service florist since 1979. The space it occupies was once two separate stores. In 2000, the owner took over the adjoining store and opened it up. Mehl bought the business in 2008, and says she needs to give up one space in order to pay the rent.
“What I have in my head now is to ask myself what I need to do to make this space make money," she said. "The economy just fell through. The volume was not here,” she said.
She realized over the summer that something needed to change.
“This past summer was the clincher. As soon as Irene hit, monies went to survival mode, especially in this area. We were so hard hit that people were losing their homes. Nobody had extra money for flowers, for sure,” she said.
“I realized that it wasn’t gonna get any better, and if I didn’t do something about it now, I’m gonna be in worse shape next summer, because this is my busy season."
Mehl moved all her inventory to one side, and plans to sublease the other, or offer vendors space for tables on weekends. She says if nothing changes, she will be forced to leave by Jan 1, 2012 and abolish Flowers Galore and More, LLC.
She has started a “Florist for Change” organization in hopes of eliminating third parties and raising awareness. She no longer accepts work from them.
“If they call me with an order, I’m not interested. Eventually, florists are gonna refuse enough orders and they’ll have nobody to do their work for them.”
Mehl said she often puts in long hours to do to run the business, including making deliveries. She still loves what she does.
“It can be a 16-hour day easily. I’m open seven days a week to accommodate any funeral work. I haven’t had time off in four years," she said.
“I’m doing what I love to do. And why I do deliveries? To see the smile on the receiver. That alone is a gift in itself. To hear ‘Thank you, it’s beautiful,’ because my heart goes into every piece I do.“