When Covid hit, Suzanna Cameron, the owner of Stems, a floral shop in East Williamsburg, received a swift cancellation of the wedding bookings that typically account for 50% of her store’s revenue.
“Initially I thought, well, this is the end of my business,” Cameron said.
She wasn’t alone. When the country went into lockdown, with non-essential businesses closed last March, the effects rippled through the global $5.8 billion floral industry. In the U.S., the floral business experienced an unprecedented slump, falling by 24.2% in 2020, according to a report from IBISWorld, a market research company.
Although the industry is expected to recover partially in 2021, and has already rebounded by 6.2%, “revenue will likely remain below pre pandemic levels,” according to the IBISWorld report.
For floral designers in New York City who specialize in weddings, this has meant pivoting their businesses to find new sources of revenue and recalibrating to meet current customer demand despite the limited availability of imported flowers due to the pandemic.
“Once I was able to reopen safely, we saw a huge increase in demand for flowers in a way that I had never seen before,” said Cameron. “People were desperately wanting to send flowers because they couldn’t physically be with their friends or their family or their loved ones. People were still having babies and having birthdays and having a lot of death. We did a lot of bereavement, obviously, during COVID.”
Although the events portion of her business initially froze, Cameron said her retail business doubled.
Yet now, even as Cameron approaches a “summer full of weddings,” (with 47% of couples who planned to wed in 2020 now celebrating in 2021 or later, according to a survey by The Knot), the bookings that have been postponed for the “first, second, or third, or fourth time” have posed operational challenges.
“It’s impossible to take on new clients when you’re still moving around dates from the previous year,” Cameron said, noting that she effectively is losing two years of revenue.
Supply has been an additional challenge. For wholesalers located in New York City’s flower district, importing flowers during the pandemic was problematic.
Gary Page, of G. Page Wholesale Flowers, the business he has run since 1984, said that limited flights from South American countries, Holland and other major growing areas affected the cost of freight, which is still at a high. In addition, an atypical planting season, with too few employees to plant at flower farms abroad, resulted in an “off” harvest season.
While the global market has long meant that consumers’ desired buds are virtually all available year-round, many designers – and consumers – have a new appreciation for seasonality. That appreciation as well as the scarcity and increased pricing of imported flowers have shifted attention towards the local flower movement.
“The uptick in demand has been felt by local growers,” said Michael Atkinson, the farm manager at Van Dyk Brothers, a third generation farm in Millville, New Jersey, known especially for its tulips, sunflowers, peonies and irises.
“I do expect this summer to be a boon based on pent up demand from rescheduled events coupled with worldwide market and shipping disruptions,” Atkinson said.
Stems, which billed itself as a “community-minded, eco-conscious florist” from the start, had always emphasized working with local farmers, though it never exclusively relied on local. “We’re not 100 percent purists,” Cameron said.
So when COVID hit, Cameron had relationships in place and was able to access flowers. “I was getting phone calls from stores in Florida or New York, asking me how I was getting flowers,” she said. “We had built a business based on local access.”
One supplier she sourced from was Hautau & Sons in Branchville, New Jersey, a specialty grower that has long provided blooms to wholesale stores in the flower district. “People had to turn towards local product, because that was all that was available,” said Kimberly Hautau, president of Hautau & Sons.
Hautau is known for its swan-like white calla lilies (a bulb that has been grown by the Hautau family since the 1920s), its dusty-colored hellebore with petals that open as if they are whispering a secret, as well as ranunculus, sweet peas and tulips.
“Our sales are obviously better than they were last year, because last year things were shut down at this time,” said Hautau. “But they’re nowhere near where they were the year before. Ninety-nine percent of our business was event-driven prior to the pandemic.”
Determined independent floral designers, with low overhead and a strong sense of optimism, have developed creative approaches to navigate the market fluctuations.
Leatal Cohen, owner of Pic and Petal, a floral event design company moved away from the more traditional wedding palette of pink and white flowers in order to adapt to current availability.
For several stoop weddings, Cohen created color-blocked, ultra-bright set-ups to adorn the outdoor bannisters. The design was reminiscent of the rainbow art New Yorkers hung in their windows in the early days of the pandemic, she said. “It felt like a visual symbol of hope.”
Despite the challenges of the past year, that hopefulness remains.
“There was a lot of discussion in the floral industry at the start of lockdown about whether florals were ‘essential’ or not,” said Cameron. “I realized this year how essential they are for people to communicate and to connect in a year when everyone was so disconnected.”