Florist sticks with tradition in Instagram era
There’s competition, but if you want quality, choice, go local
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.
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.