Getting Down to Business on Valentine’s Day

Roses mean a lot more than romance when you have sold flowers for a living. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Part of the Good Earth Plant Company Anniversary Series

Even if you’ve had a Valentine’s Day or two that was a disappointment, most people have overall pleasant memories for their Valentine’s Days over the years. My own memories of Valentine’s Day have nothing to do with love stories or gifts. They are all about business. And how many dozen roses in a vase I could make in an hour (14).

Valentine’s Day means business when you are a florist. In just a couple of days, three months of sales are achieved. My first few years in business were running a flower stand named “Good Earth Plant & Flower Co.” – very different from what we do today as we approach our 40th anniversary. Valentine’s Day taught me some of my most important early business lessons. It was hearts and flowers in a completely different way than most people!

Even at 20 years old, I knew that I could do pretty big sales from my Good Earth flower stand for Valentine’s Day. So my very first year, I bought up a whole bunch (to me) of roses. Red Roses. Long-stemmed Red Roses. Red Roses with ribbons and bows, with babies’ breath.

I was in for a little bit of a shock when I made my way to the major wholesale floral warehouse in San Diego, which at the time was San Lorenzo run by the Shinoda family  downtown near the intersection of Market and Union Street. The wholesale price of roses had doubled overnight! Red roses were even MORE expensive. And they were allocated on past purchases. I bought what I could with my funds and got ready for the rush.

It was fantastic. I sold roses like crazy. It hardly even mattered how they were displayed or what they looked like. Desperate guys (yes, almost all men) would buy anything in front of them to stay out of the doghouse on Valentine’s Day. By 2 p.m., Good Earth was completely sold out. Hot dog, I closed up my flower stand and went home. I had a free afternoon off in front of me!

I called a friend to see if I could scare up some company for some fun, and got in touch with my buddy Bob. He seemed really confused to hear from me. “I expected you to be way too busy to call me today, Jim.” I remember how pleased with myself I was when I told him, “Hey man, I already sold out of everything!”

Then he said, “Well why didn’t you go get MORE flowers and make some more money dude?” Duh, that stopped me cold. No kidding, I could have raked it in if I’d sent someone over to see what might be left at San Lorenzo and get it on my shelves. What a lost opportunity. Now I wasn’t happy about my afternoon off. I was pretty bummed at how stupid I’d been. That was an expensive lesson learned, but it’s stuck after nearly 40 years.

It wasn’t my only Valentine’s Day business lesson over the years, although it was the biggest one.

I had no idea Good Earth was selling “dirty roses” until a customer filled me in. Whoops!

One of the side effects of working with roses was getting nailed by the thorny stems. I had duct tape for band aids on every finger from wicked thorn bites. Then one of my customers pointed out I was selling “dirty roses.” Dirty roses? That’s the term used for floral quality long stemmed roses with the thorns and leaves still on the stems. I had never bought roses from a florist and I had no idea that you were supposed to strip them off to prevent your customer from getting stuck with the thorns. There’s even a stripping tool designed specifically for this purpose. No kidding, that was a lifesaving moment!

The truth is, a lot of florists barely even need this tool. You build up some serious calluses on your hands, and they can be so tough you can strip off thorns from rose stems nearly with your bare hands. Once, after several drinks, I tried this as a bar trick and without getting into the gory details it didn’t go well.

In my very first year in business, I decided to buy  a case of these popular little vases that were mega-cool in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were glass tubes with a base or multiple little swirls up from small glass globes nestled together. Each “swirl” held a single flower stem. Remember those? They were sure cute. But they held hardly any water and ran dry immediately. They were also easy to tip over and break in the wind. What a nightmare. Another business lesson learned: not every trend is a good fit for your business model.

I had to learn some business lessons the hard way, but eventually Good Earth blossomed into a thriving business.

Eventually, I learned to anticipate sales volume, invest in the right inventory, and price it according to supply and demand to cover increased costs. I prepared for weeks to be able to store all my roses and plan out all the deliveries we needed to make. The week of Valentine’s Day I used every square foot of space I could find to store delivery roses. My garage. My bedroom. My neighbor’s garage. My living room.

I got ready for the week-long barrage of frantic phone calls from sometimes desperate men who hadn’t thought ahead and now realized if they didn’t get those roses delivered to their girlfriends and wives on the Big Day, they would pay the price. I had paper order slips falling out of my pockets. How did we keep track without any computer order systems? Crazy stuff.

But it took me being able to maximize these short time periods of increased demand to put some money in the bank to get through the lean days when I could count the number of customers I had on one hand. These are the challenges you learn to navigate when you run your own business.

You get a whole lot better at it after 40 years, but the ups and downs of business, both the thrills and the spills, never change. It’s a lot like falling in love, isn’t it? Happy Valentine’s Day!