Florist sticks with tra­di­tion in In­sta­gram era

There’s com­pe­ti­tion, but if you want qual­ity, choice, go lo­cal

The Hamilton Spectator - - CAREERS - ALLY MAROTTI Chicago Tri­bune

CHICAGO — With Mother’s Day fast ap­proach­ing, the Phillip’s Flow­ers & Gifts de­sign shop is in full bloom.

Pink glad­i­o­lus and yel­low daisies stand at the ready, wait­ing to be plucked from their buck­ets and trimmed. Walk-in cool­ers full of blos­soms from South Amer­ica are brim­ming. Women sta­tioned among flower trim­mings craft bou­quets of pur­ple, while a co­worker un­spools rib­bon nearby.

The 200-em­ployee Chicago-area com­pany swells with sea­sonal work­ers this time of year, when an­niver­saries roll around, scores of stu­dents gussy up for prom and moth­ers are pam­pered, said Don Phillip, pres­i­dent of the fam­ily-owned flower busi­ness.

In the sub­ur­ban de­sign cen­tre, Phillip, 61, talked about busi­ness these days. Ev­ery­thing from how kids ap­proach buy­ing flow­ers for mom, to his skep­ti­cism of so­cial me­dia and how the busi­ness has sur­vived in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion from Ama­zon and other on­line re­tail­ers. The in­ter­view has been edited for length and clar­ity.

Q: Your grand­fa­ther, a First World War vet­eran, started the busi­ness in 1923. How did he get into flow­ers?

A: That was James A. and He­len (Phillip). They lived be­hind a cur­tain in the back of their lit­tle rented flower shop for the first few years, and then he built the build­ing. He got in and out of the flower busi­ness 10 times. He kept com­ing back to it. The busi­ness grew from one store.

Q: Now we live in a world where Ama­zon de­liv­ers gifts lick­ety-split. What has that done to the in­dus­try?

A: There’s about half the num­ber of tra­di­tional florists in the coun­try than there were 15 years ago. There are so many more al­ter­na­tive gift-buy­ing chan­nels. You can go to Costco or (the gro­cery store) or any­where else to get flow­ers. It used to be send­ing flow­ers was the pri­mary way to get a same-day gift de­liv­ered. Not true any­more. The ad­vent of FedEx changed the de­liv­ery busi­ness; the ad­vent of Ama­zon changed the de­liv­ery busi­ness. Ev­ery­body wants to see now a pic­ture (be­fore or­der­ing).

Q: Is the em­pha­sis on Pin­ter­est and In­sta­gram help­ful or a hin­drance?

A: (It) is great in a lot of ways. If you’re a bride and you bring me a pic­ture, I kind of get it. It’s also bad be­cause they only want that. The in­fer­ence is that any­body can have what­ever they want, when­ever they want, and it’s just not true. What we need to do is ed­u­cate the cus­tomer and say, “Fine. You want to get mar­ried in Septem­ber. Peonies are out of sea­son.” My favourite line is: “You got a prob­lem with that, talk to God. He’s the one who de­signed it that way.” We try to have some hu­mour. Q: How do you man­age ex­pec­ta­tions? A: We work in a col­lab­o­ra­tive man­ner: “What can we do to use our stuff to help you meet your vi­sion?” It’s re­ally no dif­fer­ent than it was, but be­fore it was all ver­bal. We didn’t nec­es­sar­ily have a lot of pic­tures, and we had to imag­ine stuff in our heads.

Q: Phillip’s doesn’t use Twit­ter or In­sta­gram much. Why not?

A: We’re neo­phytes in that. We’re play­ing around with (so­cial me­dia). But we think it’s largely a waste of time. Ev­ery or­ga­ni­za­tion has to kind of de­cide how to spend its en­er­gies, and we tend to fo­cus on run­ning our busi­ness. We need to spend more time on it, but I think that’s one of the chal­lenges of the flower busi­ness. It has be­come more and more tech-de­pen­dent, and the re­sources are not re­ally jus­ti­fi­able. Q: How has Phillip’s adapted? A: How­ever it shifts, we try to be a player. Be­ing a strong brand in Chicago and a dom­i­nant player here has worked to our favour. We used to gather a lot of or­ders to go out na­tion­wide. That’s now be­ing dom­i­nated by other play­ers, and that’s OK. They have deeper pock­ets than we do. So now we’re fo­cus­ing on lo­cal, gather­ing or­ders for lo­cal de­liv­ery and from around the coun­try.

Q: What’s the trick for cut­ting costs in a busi­ness that re­quires shipping flow­ers from far-flung lo­cales?

A: We can get a lot of work done in a low-over­head fa­cil­ity so our (seven) re­tail stores don’t have to be as big or ex­pen­sive. Our prod­uct is bulky and messy and takes time, so if we can take care of a lot of that (at our de­sign cen­tre), plus get some buy­ing ad­van­tages by con­sol­i­dat­ing our pur­chas­ing, then we’re ahead of the game.

Q: Mother’s Day is com­ing up. Is this the busiest time of year for Phillip’s?

A: Valen­tine’s is the big­gest day; Mother’s day is the big­gest weekend; Christ­mas is the big­gest month. How­ever, the spring sea­son ap­proaches De­cem­ber be­cause it’s more of a marathon. This goes from some­time in March to early June. You add wed­dings, an­niver­saries, proms and grad­u­a­tions, plus first Com­mu­nions, all the other an­cil­lary things that go on, our spring sea­son is a long marathon for us.

Q: Do you deal with a lot of kids try­ing to skimp on gifts for Mom?

A: Al­most no­body ap­proaches it that way. We of­fer all kinds of price points from a sin­gle rose for $3.50 up to a $300 trop­i­cal ar­range­ment that Dad might pay for. We’d like to think if you spend your $20 here, you’ll get some­thing dif­fer­ent and bet­ter.

JAMES C. SVEHLA, CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Don Phillip, pres­i­dent of Phillip’s Flow­ers, in the com­pany’s de­sign cen­tre in West­mont, Ill. “Ev­ery or­ga­ni­za­tion has to kind of de­cide how to spend its en­er­gies,” he says.

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