People say you can’t expect anything in life for free – if you want to be successful, you have to make your own way. But for those of us who love floristry, who delight in the creative process, who relish the challenge of devising glorious arrangements for our clients, and who do this as independent florists, what does that really mean in a changing world?
I’ve been a freelance florist for a number of years now, living a double life which saw me spend many hours in a high-powered corporate setting and unleash my creative flair the rest of the time. Unlike many of today’s independent florists, I didn’t leave school, train up on my art, and then immediately start from scratch. I had a keen awareness of business matters, an understanding of how markets evolve. Crucially, I saw how a new trend in a particular business sector can bring about a sea change in an entire industry. And I’ve watched it happen in the world of floristry.
Cast your mind back a bit and you’ll see what I mean. Once upon a time – and I’m really not going back all that far, as you’ll see – you shopped locally. You went to the butcher to buy your cuts of meat. You’d call at the greengrocer’s shop to buy your fruit and veg for the week, and you’d buy what was in season at the time – and, moreover, what was in season in this country. “No kumquats this week, madam… nor, for that matter, anytime soon. This is northern Europe, not southern Asia.” So you went from one shop to another, to local farmers, local growers, local providers, up and down the high street and beyond, to get what you wanted.
Now, however, the big names (they know who they are) have taken over the world. Everything’s centralised. Many supermarkets have their own in-house butcher, fishmonger, florist, baker, even clothing range. From a shopper’s point of view it makes perfect sense – why traipse up and down the high street when you could get everything in one place? – but from the point of view of all those independent shopkeepers we used to know and love, it’s disastrous.
You might argue that this kind of thing was the inevitable end point of our age of convenience. I disagree. There’s a change in the air. As consumers become ever more savvy and aware of their choices, they aren’t just looking for ease of purchase or discounted prices any more. They can get that at any supermarket or department store you’d care to name. What they want now is quality and service. And that’s where the independents have the upper hand.
Independent businesses have the power of specialisation, the passion for a focused line of products and services that can outclass all the cookie-cutter training programmes in the world. In their drive to save us time by bringing our shopping practices under one roof, the big names have failed to recreate the vibrant soul of the high street. Shoppers can buy pretty much whatever they want, but their experience of doing so is a dull one. Standalone businesses can make the whole process special.
Let’s look at this from within our own industry. When someone asks us to create an arrangement for any occasion, they want it to be a memorable arrangement. They want someone who cares about how the flowers look. They want to hand their ideas over to someone with genuine expertise and the benefit of years of training. They want to know that the flowers have been chosen with care and looked after properly. What they don’t want is someone who’s watching the clock until hometime.
Don’t get me wrong, I know there are plenty of people working at floristry counters in supermarkets or department stores who do a great job and care about what they do. But they don’t – indeed, they simply can’t – have the same drive for success that we independents do. They’re part of a bigger business system and don’t have the autonomy to make truly bespoke floral arrangements.
When someone comes to me, they don’t just get a set number of hours allocated to them. They get my years of skill, and my understanding of how to please the senses with a floral presentation. I’m not following templates; I’m following my instincts, knowledge and experience. It stands to reason that a cheaper arrangement from a supermarket cannot possibly come up to the same standard.
It’s important to remember that markets change, and what looks achingly fashionable this season can become dated and naff faster than you can say “talent show winner”. Independent florists have the advantage of being more nimble in responding to changing tastes. We have relationships with growers – and I mean productive relationships that aren’t based around forcing them to reduce their prices by threatening to take our business elsewhere. We can be both reactive and proactive in the way we run things; and this is something consumers cherish. It’s also something the corporate giants can’t do anywhere near as effectively.
When all is said and done, florists are a community of creative businesses. Although that might pit some of us against each other, we have a duty to ourselves and to other independent businesses not to lose our nerve in the face of the big-business onslaught. Artisan businesses are no longer a quaint diversion in the country’s shopping habits; they’re a key part of our economy, and by showing the buying public what we can do, we can nurture the growth of our niche businesses. This will further strengthen our position in the wider trading landscape, and allow us to keep on offering our skills, talents and unique products to generations of consumers. This isn’t the time to fight shy of promoting ourselves as sole traders or small businesses; it’s time to shout about the many benefits this brings, both to us and to our beloved customers.