The blooming single currency

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WHILE Europeans come to terms with the name "euro" for the proposed single currency, another single currency already operates across the world. It is not the crown, shilling or florin but the fleurin, the currency of Interflora - and it celebrates 50 years of service this year.

Interflora was founded in 1923 and embraces 59,000 florists in 160 countries. As this network grew, Interflora introduced its own currency in 1946.

Only 14 per cent of Interflora's business in Britain involves overseas transactions, and in America it is 1 per cent. Nevertheless, with several thousand orders crossing national boundaries each day, it is still worth simplifying the currency calculations.

There are parallels between the fleurin and the euro. The fleurin is used by florists handling international orders in much the same way as European central banks might use the euro when settling accounts.

But the fleurin is not a fully fledged currency. Nor is it tied to the commodity value of flowers in the way that national currencies were once tied to the Gold Standard. "The fleurin exchange rate remains unaffected by variations in flower prices due to seasonal changes," according to a spokesman at Interflora's British unit at Sleaford, Lincolnshire. "We supply standard products to ensure value for money."

Instead, the fleurin is tied to the Swiss franc with a margin of plus or minus 2.5 per cent. The link explains why one fleurin is worth 57 pence - up against the pound by a third in five years.

British Interflora monitors the movement of sterling against the Swiss franc each day and once a month a sterling/fleurin rate is set for the next month.

With no account taken in the currency valuation of variations in flower prices, it is the profit margin on Interflora's "standard products with set minimum value" that must absorb fluctuations. In principle, Interflora could profit by its currency dealing as well as by flower trading but it professes no such ambition. "We take a zero risk approach, our aim being to facilitate international transactions, not to take positions on currency movements," the spokesman says.

The Swiss franc does not necessarily vary smoothly against currencies of the major flower buying and selling countries, so Interflora has considered whether to set the fleurin value against a basket of currencies. The euro might offer one way forward. But some believe there would be greater advantage in a dollar tie. Converting between two currencies often involves the dollar as an intermediary with the doubled conversion costs passed on to the consumer. By basing the fleurin on the dollar, one set of conversions would be avoided.

For the time being, however, there are no plans for a change. So the fleurin continues in its modest role as a labour-saving device for florists.

A customer in one country places an order and pays a pounds 5.89 international transmission charge plus the value of the flowers. The florist converts this into fleurins and transmits the order. The florist in the recipient country then puts together the order using local flowers bought in the local currency but with the fleurin rate against that currency as a guide.

Until recently, even an international order between Australia and New Zealand would have been routed through Britain, but Interflora has now upgraded its communications network.

Today international orders placed at local florists are routed to a national computer, where they are checked before being released into Interflora's global communications network.

This network directs the orders to the computers in the headquarters of destination countries and from there to local florists.

If florists have got along with the fleurin for 50 years, surely Europeans could do likewise with the euro.

However, Interflora succeeded in one respect where Europe's finance ministers have failed. An individual florist dreamt up the inspired name.