FLORAL INDUSTRY HIT BY RISING FUEL COSTS

SALT LAKE CITY (FNS) - Rising fuel costs are causing further upheaval in floral transportation, a business already plagued by driver shortages, increasing non-union labor costs and unpredictable delays in receiving imports."It would be great to have more solutions and fewer problems," said Annette Egan, floral buyer for Associated Food Stores here, which serves about 450 stores in six Western states.This

SALT LAKE CITY (FNS) - Rising fuel costs are causing further upheaval in floral transportation, a business already plagued by driver shortages, increasing non-union labor costs and unpredictable delays in receiving imports.

"It would be great to have more solutions and fewer problems," said Annette Egan, floral buyer for Associated Food Stores here, which serves about 450 stores in six Western states.

This year's jump in fuel costs is turning Egan's job of placing orders and calculating costs into a guessing game.

"A load from California can be quoted at $1,400, for example," she said, "but upon delivery, fuel surcharges can be anywhere from 14%-36%" higher than the original estimate. Fuel surcharge costs are tacked on upon delivery, she said.

Egan noted increasing fuel costs also lead to more floor stacking - filling trailers from floor to ceiling in non-palletized fashion - which helps to save fuel, but also results in loading delays and additional labor costs when loads have to be palletized at the arrival docks.

This has resulted in greater reliance on "lumpers" - non-union laborers hired by carriers to unload their trucks.

"Lumper costs have soared and we must pass them on to our customers," said Roger Greenhut, sales manager for TPC, a carrier based in Apopka, Fla.

He described a prevailing reluctance to unload trailers as the source of a "universal problem," which affects drivers, warehouse workers, buyers and managers.

It appears that unloading trucks has been eliminated from most job descriptions, he said.

"There needs to be more control and consistency at the unloading docks," Greenhut added.

"Sometimes drivers have been driving for extended periods and federal regulations require them to take downtime, so they are prohibited from unloading their trailers," Associated's Egan said.

The panel, which was held during the Super Floral Show here, provoked a great deal of comments from the audience.

Attendees remarked on the lack of communication throughout the transportation chain.

"Upper management at retail has no clue about what happens at the docks," one floral buyer grumbled.

Driver shortages have been an ongoing problem for the transportation industry. Truck driving, which requires workers to leave their families for days at a time to drive alone for hours, is not an attractive career option for most people, Egan acknowledged.

On top of that, numerous federal guidelines regulating drivers, plus the stress of hauling perishable, time-sensitive loads, leads to "burnout," Greenhut said.

Delays in receiving imported products also are getting worse, another panelist noted.

While most of the flowers and plants come from California and South America, vases and other non-perishable floral accessories are imported from China and are subject to unpredictable delays, sometimes of up to four months, said Andrew McBride, president of AMA Floral Imports, Aurora, Ontario.