SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Thanks to Mother’s Day, high school proms and Syracuse University’s Commencement, it’s a big weekend for the flower business in Central New York.
Local flower shops are slammed with orders, and about half of those orders will go through order-gathering websites, siphoning money from Syracuse’s economy and further squeezing a struggling industry.
Order-gathering websites, such as Teleflora or Gift Services, are out-of-town companies which collect online orders and farm them out to local flower shops (whom they charge to be part of their network). They never touch a flower, but rather act as a middle man on the Web, charging $15-25 in “service fees” for each sale.
They get the business because they tend to top the search results on Google.
Paul Daniels, owner of St. Agnes Floral Shop Inc. in Syracuse, says normally 20 percent of his business comes through these online “order-gatherers,” but before holidays like Mother’s Day, they take up half his business.
“People want to do what’s most convenient for them,” said Daniels. “People want to do it from their cell phone.”
Consider the flower-buying process
A customer remembers Mother’s Day at the last minute. He searches online for “Syracuse flowers” or “Syracuse flower shop.” The first or second hit will likely be a paid ad from an order-gatherer site. Click.
He won’t see the service charge until he’s picked a bouquet and typed out his credit card information. He probably won’t backpedal at that point. That’s where the order-gatherers make bank.
Customers could bypass those charges entirely if they Googled their nearest shop’s address and walked in to place an order, or called directly.
“You get better value, better service and you’re putting dollars in your own community,” Daniels said. “Those order-gatherers are not real florists and they’re not handling any products.”
In some cases, an arrangement may be $5-10 more expensive if called in locally, but the money would go to the shop, not to an online service based elsewhere.
Markowitz Florist owner Jini Cerio gets about 60 percent of her business from order-gathering online services.
“There are still customers who call, but they’re mostly older people,” said Cerio. “On the Internet, they’ll sell flowers that aren’t even in season, which look perfect because they’re Photoshopped. They don’t know flowers like I do.”
‘You can’t do it with them, but you can’t do it without them’
Order-gatherer networks pay for high Internet search rankings. Local florists want to be visible online, so they pay to be a member.
One of the top hits on Google, syracuseflowers.com, is one website owned by Gift Services, a company based in Vancouver, Wash. The website charges a “small transmission fee” on all orders filled through a local florist. On a $44.95 Mother’s Day bouquet, syracuseflowers.com charges $24.95 in service fees.
“This fee helps us deal with the difference of prices found in various U.S. metro area markets,” the syracuseflowers.com website reads.
“That one is very clever,” said Nick Panarites, owner of The Wild Orchid of Manlius. “They register a domain name in every major city and people think they’re local.”
For 28 years, Panarites has been the owner of the Wild Orchid, where half the shop’s sales now come from order-gatherers. The majority of Syracuse florists use Teleflora, which is headquartered in Los Angeles.
“You can’t do it with them, but you can’t do it without them,” he said.
Wire services and order-gatherers can guarantee same-day delivery, or the closest thing to it, which individual florists cannot. They’ll sell a $50 arrangement and contact several local florists within a network’s zip code until one agrees to fill the order.
Florists aren’t obligated to provide arrangements at the service price. In the Telefora network, for example, they can accept or decline an order.
Lately, Panarites has refused most of his Teleflora orders.
“There’s no profit in it,” he said. “They’re making the money. They’re stealing my customers away.”
Calls to Teleflora and Gift Services for this story were not returned.
‘Just a different way to do business’
Nanette Hayner, owner of the Whistlestop Florist in East Syracuse, happily uses Teleflora. She believes it has the flower industry’s long-term future in mind.
“If I can’t provide for an order, I don’t take it,” said Hayner. “Teleflora is a fine company and has rules to abide by like anything else. They have an extremely secure site. They’re the best of the bunch.”
Whistlestop has been in business for 36 years and Hayner sees order-gatherers as just another way to keep going strong. She prefers customers to call or visit her shop, but she believes the order-gatherers have a necessary role to play.
“We’re no different than anyone else suffering from the ease of buying things on the Internet,” Hayner said. “I just look at it like a challenge. It’s just a different way to do business.”
Other florists say the order-gatherers’ rise results in declining flower quality and fewer local flower businesses.
Flower shop closures
The Buy Local movement is strong in Syracuse, but flower shop owners say it hasn’t quite extended to their business.
“Every year, you hear one or two shops close up,” Panarites said. “They cannot adapt to the Internet business. There used to be about four or five shops by Eastwood, now there’s two or three.”
Related: Tipp Hill florist closes after 110 years
Cerio remembers when there were 13 florists operating downtown in the mid-1990s. Now she’s one of a small handful left.
Worst of all, the local shops receiving online wire orders never get to interact with their customers. They can’t forge business relationships, learn names and faces or advise which flowers will be in season for a lush arrangement.
“They [Teleflora] will call us up and place an order of blue, yellow and pink flowers,” Panarites said. “What, a blue Delphinium? Pink carnation? They don’t know, they just read the description from the website. They have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Convenience is king
Until now, speed has never been expected from local flower businesses, where individual flowers must be ordered for special arrangements, designed and arranged by a professional and shipped out. That can take several days.
Cerio blames the Internet for forging a culture of expecting everything instantly.
She predicts supermarkets and big box stores (like Walmart) will be the only places to walk in and buy flowers, 10-15 years from now. Those supermarkets used to be the biggest competition for local florists, but Cerio says Internet order-gatherers have “destroyed the local flower business.”
Panarites remembers a young man who called his shop at 10:30 a.m. and wanted an arrangement delivered at 2 p.m. Panarites apologized and said he couldn’t do it last minute, so the man said, “If you don’t want my business, I’ll go somewhere else.”
“People choose the easiest way to do anything now,” Panarites said. “You adapt to different ways of doing business, but no matter what you do the big guy’s going to win.”
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