Two strategies to stand out: specialization and spectacular service

Flowers in Little India in Singapore (Shopkeeper Stories)

Waving hello to the flower guy – Koonu Samy – while passing by in the Little India neighbourhood

Why we love flowers

Things are just “things” — plain physical stuff that litter our material world — but humans have a relentless obsession for attaching deeper meaning and symbolic significance to the objects around us.

We are sometimes manipulated by corporate powers into believing these stories of significance. For example, “Diamonds are forever” was an insistent marketing strategy by De Beers to convince us that a diamond is the ultimate expression of lasting romance. We absorb these seemingly timeless myths of humanity and use these constructed truths to validate our sense of self in the vastness of existence.

Flowers are the total opposite of diamonds; they are ephemeral and fragile. Not exactly the qualities we seek in love, yet flowers express an other-wordly beauty at once delicate and delightful: a hint at the playful pleasures of romance.

Flowers are especially bewitching because of their diverse uses and contradictions: we turn to the softness of flowers to speak our emotions during the heartache of funerals, and we use them again to celebrate the mirth of weddings.

In the sacred silence of temples, we wear our garlands and pray; in the profane debauchery of raves, we wear our leis and party.

Koonu Samy (meaning “Eye God”) – in the picture above – sells fresh flowers and garlands under the massive shadow of Mustafa Centre across the street. Mustafa Centre is one of Singapore’s biggest malls.

His location provides an easy pick-up for Hindus on their way to the temple.

“Most people bring these flowers to the temple so we make the garlands fresh every morning. Some of these flowers are for death, birth, romance, all things.”

While Mustafa Centre easily has the resources for a flower department in its maze of goods, there remains a precious place in our neighbourhood for the intimacy of a street florist. How else will we get to stop and smell the roses?

Selling flowers

However, flowers are now available at a click of a button. Instead of going to your local florist and exchanging a friendly chit-chat, you can browse choices on your phone, lie on your sofa, and wait for the bouquet to be delivered to your door.

How can florists and wholesalers in the brick and mortar world sustain their business in the face of online competitors?

Two concepts shine in importance: specialization & service.

The Economist printed an entertaining piece on the flower industry in New York City. Here are some of the key extracts.

“Behind each stem is (everyone agrees) absolutely the worst, shittiest, most fantastic business in the entire goddamn world.”

How the flower business used to work

The flower market at 28th Street is the historic heart of America’s $18 billion flower industry. Its traditional structure was simple: local florists bought from wholesalers in the markets, who in turn sourced flowers from growers or their agents.

How the flower business is changing

When people think of creative destruction in the economy, steel or Detroit’s car industry spring to mind. But flowers have felt Schumpeter’s scythe just as sharply.

In 1970 Americans shopped at local florists, who were supplied by wholesale markets, which bought from American farms. Now Americans buy 80% of their flowers from abroad, with about 66 cents of every dollar spent in supermarkets or online.

Since 1992 the number of florist shops in America has fallen from 27,000 to 15,000. In 1985 Manhattan’s telephone directory listed 636 stores; Google Maps shows under 300 today. Florists complain they are becoming captives of internet order-aggregators, who use them to fulfil orders but take an unfair cut.

Tip #1: Specialization

Identify a unique speciality that you do best, and becomes the best at it.

To survive, wholesalers have specialised. Cas Trap at Dutch Flower Line prides himself on his botanical knowledge. Mr Page’s store is popular with designers and party planners. Associated is skewed towards florists. Louie Theofanis sells branches and blossom. Chris King, a giant who says he once acted in Sergio Leone’s films (“they always killed me off before the end of the movie. I was too good looking”), offers Dracaena Arborea, a jungle tree he grows on his farm in Florida and rents out for parties. The secret is to feed the trees ground fish, he says.

Tip #2: Spectacular Service

Do you know what’s hard to replicate? Attentive care to how people feel and what they need. Give people that attention, and they will trust you to provide for them.

Service is outstanding: the typical wholesaler knows over 500 customers by sight. They are walking, talking charisma machines who will text you price updates from Quito and feel your pain. No website ever did that.

Florists and myriads of other traders have been smacked hard in the fight with online commerce. In this Darwinian world, the best will survive, and it looks like the ones who survive — and soar — are the ones who express a sincere attention to people: showing a textured understanding for our needs in a way that online clicking doesn’t wholly achieve. You can read more about NYC’s flower business in this article in The Economist.


Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners and their trades around the world, sharing insights, stories and views. You can see all the posts on Instagram and Facebook @ShopkeeperStories. Enjoy!




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