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Valentine’s Day shopping brings boom in bloom industry

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After 15 years as a florist, Naomi Fleetwood-Pyle has seen it all on Valentine’s Day — gooey greetings to loved ones, candy bar bouquets, guys phoning in multiple orders of red roses for their ladies and even a little heartfelt romance.

“We had one customer who ordered two dozen roses, 12 for one woman and 12 for someone else. The card with one said: ‘I’m so looking forward to finding out where this relationship might go;’ while the other card said: ‘So sorry it has to end this way,’” said Fleetwood-Pyle, a part-time clogging instructor and full-time owner of Flowers from the Woods florist shops in Columbus and Seymour.

Or consider the husband who signed his Valentine’s Day card to his wife this way: “You are the biscuit for my gravy.”

Romantic? You be the judge.

“People write some of the craziest, silly stuff,” said Fleetwood-Pyle, who is wrapping up her busiest week of the year with what figures to be 300 or more flower orders today alone.

She’s not complaining.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but this is the time of year we knock it out of the park. This gets us through the lean months. It’s our Black Friday, literally,” Fleetwood-Pyle said at midweek as the pace of orders started to soar to a fever pitch.

“I have soldiers calling me from Iraq on their cellphones ordering for their honey back home,” she said.

Valentine’s Day is an

$18.6 billion a year industry, with at least $1.9 billion of that spent on flowers nationwide, mainly roses, according to the Society of American Florists.

Men are the biggest buyers, the society adds, ordering anywhere from two-thirds to three-fourths of all the roses purchased in any given year.

“When the recession hit, every flower shop took a hit because buying a dozen roses is really a luxury. If it comes down to buying milk or flowers, you buy the milk,” Fleetwood-Pyle said. “I had to lay off two (floral) designers back then. But this year is shaping up as the best Valentine’s Day we’ve had in the past five years.”

The improved economic picture has coaxed some newcomers into the holiday fray.

Three months ago, Gina Martin started a boutique company — Pomp & Bloom — that designs floral arrangements for special events. Four days before Valentine’s Day she moved into an airy, second-floor office in the 400 block of Fifth Street.

“I like to do something a little bit more creative than the online florists offer,” said Martin, who studied graphic design at Vincennes University and then attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan for graduate studies.

Instead of the standard red roses in a vase, Martin is more likely to do a dozen roses mixed with hydrangeas and sprinkled with red foil hearts for the holiday. She’ll do only 30 designs for this Valentine’s Day, though, in part because of her late start.

“I strive to be unique and different,” said Martin, whose main business is floral designs for weddings, corporate events and parties. She shares space with a hair and makeup specialist and a photographer, all of whom have joined forces to provide one-stop shopping for brides-to-be.

Get an early start

Valentine’s Day preparations start early for most florists.

Fleetwood-Pyle ordered her Valentine’s Day roses immediately after Jan. 1 this year to guarantee a supply of quality blooms from her chief suppliers in Cincinnati and Indianapolis.

She prefers roses with stems about 23 to 28 inches long to make a good show in a vase.

“I like them big,” Fleetwood-Pyle said. “I’m very particular. Every order that goes out the back door of my shop has my name on it. It reflects on me.”

These days, most roses that end up in a loved one’s arms are grown in California or South America before being shipped to big-city wholesalers, who truck the flowers to local shops for sale.

Fleetwood-Pyle orders a variety of flowers — tulips, Gerbera daisies and lilies among them — in addition to lots of red, yellow and pink roses (her top Valentine’s Day sellers in descending order).

“Most of the flowers arrive boxed in dry packs,” she said.

Step one is to place the flowers — many of which haven’t yet fully bloomed — in warm water to clear the sap from their stems and rehydrate the plants. Most flowers remain in the warm bath about a half-hour, although roses take a little longer to process.

Next, Fleetwood-Pyle and her two main helpers remove thorns from the rose stems.

“I can de-thorn a dozen roses in less than a minute. I’ve done a gazillion of them,” Fleetwood-Pyle said.

She uses a knife blade to whack off the sticky thorns, taking care not to damage the stem. Some florists remove thorns using a thorn stripper — a metal device that looks a lot like a staple remover.

But Fleetwood-Pyle said the handheld devices strip too much of the rose’s stem away along with the thorns, and she thinks it detracts from the beauty of the eventual arrangement.

After stems are prepared, the flowers go into a walk-in cooler with the temperature set at 42 degrees to keep blooms fresh until they are sold.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, florists work longer and longer hours.

At Flowers from the Woods, it’s not unusual for Fleetwood-Pyle and at least two helpers to work until midnight two or three nights in a row before Valentine’s Day preparing the next day’s orders for delivery.

Fleetwood-Pyle said she expected to work as late as 2 a.m. today and then rise at 6 a.m. to make it to the finish line. Deliveries are likely to continue until the early evening.

Her shop will be wall-to-wall blooms, packed and ready for delivery or for last-minute walk-in sales.

In one corner of the room will be flowers heading to a loved one’s workplace. In another corner will be blooms destined for hospital rooms. And over there are roses targeted for residential delivery.

“There’s a method to our madness,” Fleetwood-Pyle said, adding that she hires two extra delivery drivers to keep things moving on Valentine’s Day.

“On Saturday, we’ll breathe a sigh of relief and collapse. I expect to be pretty much a vegetable by then,” she said.

Online sales grow

Fleetwood-Pyle’s two shops also belong to the Teleflora online network, a Los Angeles-based confederation that counts 16,000 florists across North America among its worldwide members.

But she prefers customers to walk in or call her directly to place orders. She makes more money that way.

That’s because Teleflora takes certain fees out of toll-free phone or online orders. The flower shop chosen to fill a customer’s order generally gets no more than 80 percent of the listed purchase price.

Prices for prime red roses typically rise as Valentine’s Day approaches. This year, customers can expect to pay around $65 for one dozen red roses, up from $55 at other, less demanding times of

the year.

Fleetwood-Pyle has been in the flower business 15 years. Along with her husband, Dave, she bought Flowers from the Woods from original owners Clyde and Virginia Wood about 15 years ago. The shop is located at State and Mapleton streets in one corner of a small strip-shopping center.

“I knew nothing about flowers at the time, but that didn’t deter me,” said Fleetwood-Pyle, who opened a second store in Seymour in 2000. “I feel like I can make anything work if I put my mind to it.”

Fleetwood-Pyle said Valentine’s Day orders often include special arrangements and even a few gag gifts at times.

“We have a variety of mixed arrangements in addition to roses,” she said. “We have candy bars or balloons mixed in at times.”

She also processes a growing number of orders for same-sex couples on Valentine’s Day.

“I have one young man who orders for his significant other all the time,” she said.

And what was the oddest request she ever received?

“I had a request to prepare a junk food basket with a six-pack centerpiece. I pictured the recipient laying on the couch waiting for his bonbons and a cold beer,” Fleetwood-Pyle chuckled. “But I couldn’t fill the order. I don’t have a license to sell alcohol.”

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