Denver Florists Ready for Growing Demand on Valentine's Day

Claire Duncombe
Belle Mendenhall has worked in the flower industry for 21 years and at Bonnie Brae for fourteen.
For florists, Valentine’s Day is always a bit of a gamble. How many flowers are enough? How much extra staff is needed? What price will customers pay? It’s a Goldilocks kind of holiday that florists want to get just right, since February 14 is typically their single biggest sales day of the year.

Florists anticipate sales to be high in 2021, too. But consumers will discover that some prices have gone up and availability is down.

Many florists have enjoyed solid business through the pandemic. Flowers have been one way to continue to extend kindness and connection while practicing social distancing, explains Belle Mendenhall, a manager at Bonnie Brae Flowers. “Emotions are running really high," she points out, "and that’s kind of what flowers are: a way to send and visualize your emotions.”

She's optimistic about Valentine's Day sales, because people have fewer choices when it comes to marking the holiday this year. “People still aren’t able to go out to restaurants and movies. There still aren’t as many good date [options]. Travel is still not as easy; it doesn’t feel as safe as it did in the past,” notes Mendenhall, who has worked in the flower industry for 21 years — fourteen of them at Bonnie Brae.

For florists, planning for Valentine’s Day is partly an attempt at guessing consumer sentiment and mostly an analysis of past numbers. Traditionally, they base their orders on the number and kinds of flowers sold during previous Valentine's Days and on the day of the week that February 14 falls on. Typically, a Sunday is the slowest Valentine’s Day because many couples have all weekend to look for different date activities; weekdays are much busier because many people send flowers to a loved one’s workplace. While this year's Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday, many in the business are aiming for Saturday numbers — not as slow as a typical Sunday and not as busy as a weekday. In 2020, Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday.

click to enlarge Florists and wholesalers are planning on a busy Valentine's Day, as couples have limited options for celebrating this year. - CLAIRE DUNCOMBE
Florists and wholesalers are planning on a busy Valentine's Day, as couples have limited options for celebrating this year.
Claire Duncombe
This anticipation is mirrored throughout the flower-supply chain. Tim Lister, a buyer-seller for M&M Cut Flora, an eleven-year-old Denver wholesaler that serves around 150 florists in Colorado and Wyoming, says that “Valentine’s Day is shaping up to be a much stronger holiday than it was last year."

Lister has worked in the industry for a decade; he started as a driver at a warehouse in Mobile, Alabama, and worked his way up to his current position. Right now he sources from about twenty farms, and begins placing his Valentine’s Day orders in early December. That’s when farms start to “pinch back” — cutting normal production to plant more crops for the holiday, with roses usually in the majority. That gives the flowers about six to eight weeks to grow before they’re cut and shipped to international destinations.

The bulk of Valentine’s Day roses come from Ecuador and Colombia. In 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crops reports, 98 percent of the roses shipped through Miami in the three weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day came from those two countries. Such production explains why Valentine’s Day roses, as well as most flowers, are typically more expensive around February 14.

This year, Lister anticipates prices being even higher than normal. One reason is the classic scenario of supply and demand exacerbated by the pandemic: Fewer flowers were grown. “This year’s a challenge, because [farms] are already running on smaller productions,” he says, adding that he estimates there's been about a 30 percent reduction in workforce. Many farms are afraid to plant too many flowers, and haven’t hired back a full staff since shutdowns in March 2020.

click to enlarge Bonnie Brae Flowers is one of many Denver flower shops that are doing their best to anticipate the demands of the holiday. - CLAIRE DUNCOMBE
Bonnie Brae Flowers is one of many Denver flower shops that are doing their best to anticipate the demands of the holiday.
Claire Duncombe
Another reason for higher prices is that the cost of freight has gone up, while the number of flights carrying freight has gone down. More industries are now competing for space on available flights, Lister says, and some companies are offering more money than the flower business typically pays. “Airlines are trying to figure out how to make up [for] the lost revenue,” he adds.

He estimates that there’s been a 20 to 30 percent increase in freight cost, which tacks an additional 27 to 42 cents onto the price of a rose (20 cents is the usual price of shipping).

The other big issue has been weather. “Weather in Ecuador, specifically, has been extremely cold and not conducive to rose growing,” he explains. “Some farms are telling me that they are expecting to produce around 30 percent of what they were initially projecting for the holiday because of this.” Some of his orders have even been canceled, says Lister, and he estimates that M&M is about 12,000 roses short of what he hoped to order. But the wholesaler still has 25,000 red roses pre-booked for florists, and he anticipates selling an additional 5,000 to 10,000 stems. He predicts that M&M will sell 20,000 to 30,000 roses of different colors, as well.

Lister has also found it hard to acquire other standard flowers, such as alstroemeria, pom pons, hypericum, spray roses, statice and aster. Alstroemeria, in particular, is nowhere to be found, and some farms have communicated that their production of all flowers is down 50 percent — not just because of COVID. Because of the weather, he explains, “many farms are predicting their crops to produce after the holiday or even during the middle of that week. So we’re going to see a flood of flowers in the week or two after the holiday.”

click to enlarge A host of circumstances will result in fewer Valentine's Day flowers and higher prices. - CLAIRE DUNCOMBE
A host of circumstances will result in fewer Valentine's Day flowers and higher prices.
Claire Duncombe
According to Mendenhall, obtaining specific blooms has been a problem during the entirety of the pandemic; that's been particularly noticeable to customers who order arrangements online and don’t get exactly the same bouquet they viewed on the website. “It won’t be [the same] because of the issues with supply and demand,” she says. The online images are just a suggestion of what bouquets will look like; stores can’t make identical arrangements, because they’re working with living products and have to make do with what’s available.

But there are still plenty of ways to be creative, and Bonnie Brae is planning for many of its arrangements and bouquets to be pre-ordered through its website. It's even trying to keep this year's Valentine’s Day prices consistent with typical Valentine’s Day prices — $69.99 per dozen medium-stem roses and $80 per dozen long-stem roses. That's a gift to customers who have been incredibly loyal over the past year, Mendenhall says. Normally, non-Valentine’s roses are $49.99 for the medium-stem variety and $69.99 for long stems.

While that gesture is not something every florist can make, Lister notes that buying early is the best way for small flower shops to plan for the holiday, and for customers to get guaranteed availability. Wait too long, and florists — like farmers — may err on the side of ordering less. “If they get stuck with a bunch of extra product, that kills everything they make for Valentine’s Day,” he says.