Floral Traders Work Hard to Remain in the District



Colorful flowers and plants adorn 28th Street in Chelsea. Photo: Stephanie Ott.

Although the floral industry is growing in terms of sales and per capita consumption, New York’s flower district has shrunk by half since the district’s heyday 20 years ago, thanks to consolidation, gentrification and technology.

The flower district in midtown Manhattan is still an urban green sanctuary, albeit a smaller one, with colorful flowers and lush green plants lining the sidewalk. The shops along 28th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway specialize in everything from trees, plants, orchids and silk flowers. However, local wholesale flower shops face many challenges in an increasingly gentrified neighborhood.

Ched Markovic, owner of the shop Noble Planta, started his business 35 years ago in the flower district and said a lot has changed since then.  Two decades ago there were 15 more shops on the street, he said, and people were more interested in flowers. “People are less engaged with nature now,” said Markovic.

Piet Lozer, who emigrated from the Netherlands to New York almost 30 years ago, opened his Dutch Flower Line shop on 150 West 28th Street 25 years ago, and agrees with his neighbor, Markovic. “Back when we first opened the shop, everything was different. People used to buy more flowers and there were more floral shops on the street and there was so much going on: people were queuing in front of the stores,” said Lozer.

Currently, there are 18 shops left in the district, which is about half the size it used to be two decades ago. Big chains are pushing individual stores out of an area where they existed for decades. “Duane Reade is at every corner in the city, but they don’t have a heart like my shop does,” said Markovic.

“Summer is the worst season, because people are away on vacation. Now it’s getting better, especially orchids are selling well,” said Benjamin Ramirez, employee at Foliage Garden. He said business has been a little slower, but is picking up because the holiday season with Thanksgiving and Christmas approaches. Holidays, parties and events, especially in the fall, are the main source of revenue for floral businesses: according to the Society of American Florists, the top five floral buying holidays for fresh cut flowers and plants are Christmas and Hanukkah, as the top sale season, followed by Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Thanksgiving.

The challenge the rest of the year is to get people to spend money on flowers, a non-essential purchase, when money is tight. “The economy is certainly impacting the floral industry, just as any business,” said Jennifer Sparks, vice president of marketing for the Society of American Florists. “There is tough competition, in addition to the state of the economy, but many florists are emphasizing to their customers the personal attention, expert design and consultation, wide selection and high quality of flowers, and same-day delivery that they can provide.”

Markovic thinks that paying attention to his customers keeps his shop alive. “What makes me different from other florists is that I spend time with my customer. I give them advice on what to choose, how to take care of the plants,” he said. Google and Yelp help his business, because when he gets positive reviews from customers, more people come to his shop. Prices are not listed in the store, so he uses his bargaining skills. “The customer’s face is an open book, so I set the price after negotiating a little.”

Markovic said one of is main concerns is the rent for his 800-square-feet shop, which he considers high at around $5,000 a month. He also has to pay insurance, around $900 to $1,000 a year, because he is responsible for the pedestrian strip in front of his shop.

In order to maintain a local flower shop, florists have to adapt quickly. “Those florists who are successful in this tough economy are those who are changing to meet the needs of today’s customer and are finding their niche in their market, whether it be more weddings or event work, online emphasis, and cultivating their local customer with exceptional service and customization,” said Sparks.

According to the Society for American Florists, New York ranks 6th in the nation in per capita consumption of flowers. The number of people buying flowers has steadily increased over the last three years. U.S. per capita consumption of floral products rose from $96.50 in 2009 and $98.50 in 2010 to $102.97 in 2011. And overall, the size of the floriculture industry (cut flowers, houseplants and pot plants) at all outlets continues to grow steadily at $32.1 billion in 2011, compared to $30.5 billion in 2010 and $29.6 billion in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

But according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau County Business Patterns from 2010, the most recent numbers available, the number of floral shops is shrinking. There were 16,182 florists in the U.S. In comparison, in 1999, there were 24,798 florists. Soaring real estate prices are not the only woe for local flower shops. The decline is due in part to florists going out of business, as well as consolidation in the industry, which means “florists with multiple locations consolidating to fewer physical locations because of added emphasis on their Internet business,” said Sparks.

Piet Lozer, the owner of the Dutch Flower Line, depends on events, especially weddings and parties, to keep his business healthy and his 12 staffers busy. Event planners come into his shop and buy hundreds of flowers and flower arrangements, but even they face new obstacles. “Business used to be easier. When a truck delivers flowers to us he has to park in front of the shop, but often he gets a parking ticket for that in a matter of minutes, which is driving business away,” said Lozer.

Many shops open at 5 a.m. and close at around 5 p.m. All floral shops get their deliveries early in the morning to have fresh flowers and plants ready for the customers. “It’s tough work and really busy. We have to get up early to be in when the flowers get delivered from our greenhouse in Blue Point,” said Benjamin Ramirez, a 12-year employee at Foliage Garden.

And at least one florist sees an advantage to the sluggish economy — people stay home more. “Because of the recession, people can’t afford to go out for dinner five times a week anymore, so they want to make their apartment as nice as possible, which is why many buy flowers, because they spend more time at home,” said Markovic.

“I buy my flowers and plants in the flower district about 60 percent of the time,” said Jaqueline Zip, a jewelry street vendor from Brooklyn. She was browsing through the Noble Planta shop in the flower district, looking for a plant for her apartment. “I buy plants monthly. Some are pricey and of course food comes first, but I opt for the babies which are usually under 10 bucks.”

Flowers also have a positive impact on our mood. A 2006 behavioral research study at Harvard University titled “Home Ecology of Flowers” found that flowers have a strong effect on people’s emotional well-being. The study revealed that people who have fresh cut flowers in their house feel more compassion and kindness for others, experience less worry and anxiety, feel less depressed and have more enthusiasm and energy at work.

“Flowers and plants are great to have in the house, because they make you smile and don’t talk back at you,” said Markovic.