Say profit with flowers

Small florists could suffer in a booming market
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This week around 170,000 gardening enthusiasts will descend locust- fashion on the horticultural beanfeast of the Chelsea Flower Show. The event is one of the premier occasions of the gardening year and is guaranteed to pull big crowds, queueing to see sumptuous floral displays and show gardens.

Gardening as a national pastime continues to boom and spending on everything from shrubs to sun loungers adds up to a market worth around pounds 3bn annually. But when it comes to buying cut flowers, the nation's spending is more restrained outside key dates such as Valentine's Day and Mothers' Day, despite changes that have brought a much wider choice of fresh flowers to the high street.

Around 70 per cent of the flowers sold in the UK are now imported, which means that where once florists depended on the seasonal offerings of UK growers, now they can count on a supply from newer growing markets in Africa, South America and India, where the climate is warm and the labour cheap.

The recession is also partly to blame for slowing the growth in cut flower and pot plant sales. Between 1986 and 1989 growth was in double figures. Although overall the market has doubled over the past 10 years to pounds 1.2bn annually, the average spend on fresh flowers is still very low, putting the UK near the bottom of the international league.

The average, apparently unspontaneous, Briton spends just pounds 15 a year on fresh flowers and pounds 7 on pot plants, which pales into insignificance alongside the flamboyant Swiss, who splashes out pounds 66 on flowers and pounds 36 on plants.

But there are signs of a change. Post-recession consumer spending is recovering which is reflected by groups such as Interflora, which says sales through its 3,000 outlets were up 12 per cent in April.

Leading the way are the supermarkets and other multiple retailers whose role, unusually, is being welcomed by the flower growers, suppliers and even traditional high street florists.

Although relatively recent arrivals - most leading supermarkets only began selling fresh flowers seven years ago - the chains have been credited with expanding the market for fresh, impulse-buy flowers and raising standards by demanding better quality from growers. "The multiples are not jumping on the bandwagon, rather they have helped create new demand. For years UK consumption of fresh flowers has been pathetic," says Guy Moreton, marketing director of Zwetslott, a leading UK grower and supplier to both supermarkets and florists.

"The multiples have put good quality flowers in front of a mass market. Customers are able to browse without pressure and by offering guarantees of freshness, they have taken the worry out of buying flowers."

Leading retailers such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury are coy about revealing sales figures on fresh flowers but clearly identify the market as one with enormous potential.

At present the supermarkets account for about 25 per cent of the cut flower market, but only around 2 per cent of their customers buy flowers, leaving huge scope for improvement.

Whereas many florists buywholesale from Covent Garden, or from suppliers in Holland, supermarkets often buy direct from growers. This, says Tesco, cuts costs and lead times which translates into longer-lasting flowers that customers want.

Supermarkets also use large flower-packing companies which buy in from all over the world and prepare bouquets and selections according to the exact standards demanded by the large retailers looking to guarantee freshness and quality.

"The growth in supermarket sales has reduced the florist's share, but supermarkets have also made the cake bigger," says Rowland Davies, president of the British Retail and Professional Florists Association.

More worrying for florists is the growth of the flowers-by-post services which, says Mr Davies, are more of a threat and have taken market share.

Jersey-based Flying Flowers is the largest in the market with a share of over 50 per cent. Indeed business has been transformed since the mid- 1980s from a loss-making carnation grower supplying only the wholesale market. Profits last year rose 45 per cent to pounds 2.64m and spotting the potential has made managing director Tim Dunningham a millionaire several times over.

Flying Flowers also supplies supermarkets such as Waitrose with flowers and indoor plants, and has a business selling to garages and convenience stores.

Few predict the disappearance of the traditional florist from the high street. But it is clear that as the expected growth in the market appears, florists will have to fight harder to secure their share of the business - particularly once we are all Europeans and buying our flowers without a second thought.