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Will there be flowers for Christmas?

Caroline Marshall-Foster, Editor of The Florist Trade Magazine speaks to key players in the industry to find out how they're dealing with the supply situation.

Read some social media posts and you could be forgiven for thinking the end was nigh, flowers were going to be virtually non-existent, what was available would be incredibly expensive (or even more expensive than they have been for the last year!) and manky quality. Never mind wonky stems ... if it has stems at all we should all be grateful!!

OK we are being a tad frivolous about what is obviously a very tricky situation. However truth is it cannot be explained in a simple Facebook post nor will any article be completely accurate. A similar feature in American trade magazine Florist Review ends in a question mark, so will ours!

Because in reality no one really knows what will happen with production and prices over the coming weeks and months simply because it is such an ever changing story and so much depends on other factors; like the war in Ukraine, the economic position around the world – it’s not just the UK that’s having problems – and ultimately how consumers react.

Three weeks ago it was a seriously dire picture and even the most optimistic were being challenged to think positively. Crop reduction on certain lines in the Netherlands (mostly Chrysanthemum, roses and lisi) was being punted at anything between 25 and 45% as growers planned to switch off the lights, the number of Dutch growers filing for bankruptcy were predicted to reach record levels, a crashing pound meant everything cost more – be it from the Netherlands or other countries - and the head of the Royal FloraHolland was putting out seriously dismal videos demanding Dutch Government help.

This week and at the time of writing (27/10/22) the position is a bit better.

The pound has rallied, energy prices in the Netherlands have come down so growers are changing their minds and carrying on - or were never impacted in the first place - prices weren't horrendous, indeed there were good prices to be had and the Dutch Government announced some rescue plans - although whether they will be enough only time will tell.

Which is why it is just so hard to predict or accurately report the position and why you need to be really careful in how you interpret what the real impact is on your business.

Because what is happening in the flower supply sector – particularly in The Netherlands - differs very much between growers who supply the high end, bespoke florist market and those who serve the retail end – the generic terms for supermarket and online players; i.e. high volumes, not necessarily high quality.

And that’s why Ronald van den Burg of Florismartdirect was keen to emphasise at Good Florist Event that Dutch growers serving the high end buyer like bespoke florists are still growing as normal. They are the ones who have either forward bought their energy or – like leading rose growers Porta Nova and Van den Rozen and top end Lisianthus producer Lugt invested in LED lights that not only save money but actually produces a better flower and higher production levels.

A view shared by Eddy Deighan of FleuraMetz who felt it wasn’t as bad as some were making out and that out of their 300 preferred suppliers to their florist buyers only a handful were anticipating issues.

And the reason we keep referencing the Netherlands is because, just at the moment, it is a very Dutch – and European problem in terms of increased cost.

Yes South American sources like Colombia and Ecuador along with African countries like Kenya are facing big rises in transport costs but when it comes to energy the Dutch have been particularly hard hit by rising costs; at one point it was standing at a staggering €1.70 pcm compared with a previous low of €0.20c pcm.

But like so many things in this crazy world – be it flowers, finance or politicians – things can change weekly, daily or hourly and what goes up can often come down and vice versa.

In fact it is almost moving faster than we can type as Nick Hudson of leading Bristol based wholesaler Flowervision explained. “Three weeks ago I wrote to all our customers explaining the impact of global price pressures – including the weaker pound and the fact that some Dutch growers would be reducing their production levels. Fast forward to this week and sterling is looking better and some of the growers have changed their minds as gas prices have eased.

To say it’s an evolving situation would be an understatement but we have put in place a lot of contingency plans and our buyers in non-European countries are sourcing well so for us it is business as usual albeit with a different mix of flowers and at prices that are still sensible.”

Because whilst production may be down so is demand as John Davidson of Tom Brown Wholesale who also has branches in Huddersfield and Carlisle told us. “Most of the main growers we use will be at full production, and those that are not we can find a substitute for. However I think it is worth reflecting that as wholesalers we are already seeing a contraction in the UK industry of around 10 to 13% and All Saints didn’t produce the normal spike either which meant prices have levelled off. The challenge will be winter and in particular Christmas to see where consumers choose to spend their money.”

And given there is already a contraction in the supermarket and online sector that too could play a big role in what will happen as Merel van den Burg from FlorismartDirect explained:

“Looking forward a lot will depend on how the supermarkets and online players react given the majority of the growers looking to go cold and reduce stem count are predominantly their suppliers. If supermarkets buy at the same rate and if too many of their normal suppliers go cold then they will need to source from growers who traditionally supply florists which will impact on prices. If however supermarket sales are squeezed as a result of the cost of living crises and they buy less then prices will remain relatively normal.”

In terms of supply, like all our panel she is less concerned as Florismartdirect have strong overseas links as does John Davidson at Tom Brown who are looking to increase their sourcing from both South America and direct from Italy while Nick at Flowervision who’s sister company Duyvenvoorde has its own import department with staff in Colombia and Ecuador, can monitor quality, conditions, transport, logistics to offer an increasing assortment of import stock.

However a couple of observations here. As Simon Cromey of All Seasons, a leading import company specialising in South American flowers points out, Colombia and Ecuador may have flowers but freight costs are still rising – currently he is seeing it at 10 – 15% higher than last year and that’s a cost that has to be passed on so we’re not talking cheap cheap even if it’s not Dutch grown.

The same applies to Kenyan and other African sourced varieties and of course there are always space issues on flights and why the Sea Container System is being pushed big time to bring some relief to the situation.

The other note of caution is that for Colombia particularly, the US is by far their biggest customer and must – as Augusto Solano, head of Asocolflores and President of Union Fleurs, said in a recent interview, take priority.

Obviously they are conscious of the increased European demand and will do whatever they can to help but to suddenly fill large gaps would be tricky which is why UK florists need to buy from wholesalers and importers who already have strong links into South America.

For FleuraMetz – whilst they also have offices in Ecuador and are one of the biggest South American buyers – they are also looking closer to home to secure the situation and now committing to buying whole crops from Dutch growers to both help reduce the growers risk as they go through tough times and ensure availability.

All of which means that there are, and will most definitely be, flowers and plants up to Christmas and beyond.

However all our panel agreed that florists will need to be canny and a lot more pro-active if they are going to get the best value and range.

For Merel, who was a florist herself the advice is “Really think about your buying and look at products, like carnations, that come in from outside the EU. Don’t just buy the same old, same old because it’s what you’ve always done/stocked. Think differently and buy in advance when you can ... like foliages which you can buy now at good prices and keep them stored for a long time. Oh yes and be more creative with your designs. Use less product but use more space to create light airy designs that look big and luxurious but are still economical.”

And she’s a firm advocate of grabbing lines when you can. “If you can buy in advance do it ... if you see a good price take it and don’t speculate it will go down because it probably won’t.”

Indeed her prediction is that things aren’t going to improve any time soon so perfecting the art of creative buying is going to be paramount. “The challenges will carry on beyond Valentine’s in my opinion so it’s uncertain how prices will develop and I expect the markets to be very sensitive with large prices difference that may not be easily explained.”

John too urges flexibility ... and faith!! “Be adaptable and have faith in your supplier. Social media is a great tool for good and bad but before it started we seemed less worried about things and just trusted our suppliers. Too much information can be damaging. Florists need to focus on their businesses and make sure they are putting their efforts on making, marketing and selling and trust their wholesalers to get the product; it’s what we do day in, day out and how we make our living so we are absolutely on top of the situation. “

Nick agrees and also says it’s about “being honest with your own customers and explaining the situation because honesty with facts and info goes a long way.”

And both he and Eddy – indeed all wholesalers - plead with florists to be flexible and organised. Which means not getting hung up on a particular variety or grower but trusting your wholesaler will have put together a range of products at the best prices even if it may be a bit different to what you’re used to.

But if you HAVE to have a specific flower then PLEASE give the wholesaler at least a weeks’ notice ... i.e. don’t order that special wedding combination you have had on the clip for weeks the night before and expect it to arrive 100% right. They will all do their best ... and many do pull out the stops and make it happen ... but with the pressures they are under the more notice you can give the kinder it will be.

Most of all they urge pragmatism .. and a degree of fun! As John says “For me it’s the same advice as for Brexit and Covid. You can only deal with the here and now so there is no point fretting about 3 or 6 months out. If a product isn’t available it isn’t available. We can’t change that but we can work with what is to hand.”

Because one of the huge advantages that bespoke florists have compared to the by the mile operators who only deal in certain lines, is their ability to duck and dive, be creative with whatever flower or foliage is available at the right price and produce designs that look a million dollars whether it contains germini or not, uses spray roses instead of standard or is simply a beautifully presented wrap of a single variety because it was available at a good price.

After all that’s what being a bespoke florist is all about ... isn’t it?




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