BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Fresher cut flowers, longer shelf life and more sales — that's what a new company, Fresh Connections, is aiming for with the opening of a Midwest flower distribution hub here at MidAmerica airport.
The whole idea, consultant Terry Johnson told SN, is to help retailers grow their floral sales by offering flowers that last longer.
Getting customers in the habit of buying flowers for their own homes could boost sales immensely. But the key to that is the flowers' longevity, sources emphasize.
“In Europe and the U.K., the majority of flowers sold are for self-consumption, not just for special occasions,” said Johnson, president of Horticultural Marketing Resources, Mission Viejo, Calif.
“It's just the opposite here. But I know that if people bought flowers for themselves that lasted a couple of weeks, instead of a few days, they'd become repeat customers.”
Johnson and others in the industry have said many times that when flowers are given as a gift, the life span of the flowers is not as important as when they're bought for self-consumption.
“If I didn't think we'd eventually get to that point [where Americans buy a lot of flowers for self-consumption], I wouldn't be in this business,” said Rusty Beazley, vice president, operations, Floral Distribution Inc./A Hy-Vee Company, Des Moines, Iowa.
Beazley is buying flowers flown directly from Colombia to MidAmerica airport, and he said he has been pleased with them.
“It's an experiment, but so, far so good. It has potential. The length of freshness is definitely increased. We've been getting a shipment once a week, and we'd like to grow the percentage of volume that comes in this way.”
Fifty of Hy-Vee's stores in Missouri, Kansas and Illinois have been receiving the flowers since the first shipment to MidAmerica in the fall. They still make up a small percentage of volume.
Until the first shipment to MidAmerica in October, almost all fresh cut flowers imported into the United States came through distribution hubs in Miami. Unless their destination is a retailer in the Southeast, they can have a long road trip ahead of them before they get to retailers.
MidAmerica airport is just 23 miles from downtown St. Louis, located centrally enough to get flowers to many Midwest retailers within 24 hours.
Baisch & Skinner, a St. Louis-based floral wholesaler, worked with airport officials, a management company and a logistics company to put together Fresh Connections.
“We're doing this the right way. There's the proximity of the airport, but also the flowers are handled well. They're precooled, and then placed under a thermal blanket for shipment. When they're unloaded, they are sent through X-ray machines and then directly into a cooler at the airport.” The cooler is designed to hold a planeload of flowers.
Then [U.S.] Customs pulls samples, after which the product is separated and delivered.
“An order that landed Thursday at 6 a.m. was at its destination [retail location] in Chicago by 3 a.m. Friday, less than 24 hours later,” said John Baisch, Baisch & Skinner's chief executive officer.
“We've noticed that the boxes of flowers look fresher upon arrival,” he said, noting that the flowers are handled with particular attention to cold-chain integrity.
“The companies in Miami do a great job, too. We buy a lot from them, but I'm very excited about Fresh Connections. Our goal is to bring in two, maybe three flights a week.”
So far, there's been no marketing of the flowers to let consumers know they're particularly long-lived. However, one of Baisch & Skinner's longtime retail customers said her shoppers seem to be noticing the difference.
“We could tell the difference immediately,” said Carla Emert, who owns Troy Flowers, Troy, Mo., with her husband, Steve. “Some varieties naturally have weak foliage. Low on the stem, the foliage quickly becomes yellow or brownish. That was not true with these,” Emert said.
“There's a noticeable difference in the quality, and my customers tell me they come back to me because these flowers lasted so long.”