In recession, valentines still say it with flowers, but with less flourish

The Baltimore Sun

Even in a recession, people are still saying it with flowers.

But with Valentine's Day fast approaching, local florists are wishing their customers would say it perhaps just a little bit louder.

"We've been getting fewer orders all the way across the board," says Avalon Thompson, owner of Enchanted Petals Florist on Lombard Street, who says her business is down significantly from last year. "Absolutely, it's hard. ... We're just trying to basically wait this out, like everybody else."

Several Baltimore-area florists said business has declined between 8 percent and 20 percent during the past several months. But thankfully, they say, people still need their Valentine's flowers. And many florists say that while they expected things to be slower this year, it's not as bad as they feared.

Even chronic belt-tightening, it seems, is no match for romance.

"It's the nature of the holiday," says Paul Raimondi, owner of Raimondi's Florists, which has been catering to Baltimore-area romantics since 1934. "People are so depressed, all the news is bad - I think they just look for something to turn to. Valentines and flowers are just the natural things to turn to, to bring their spirits around."

Which is not to say people won't be cutting back. The average American consumer is planning to spend $102.50 on Valentine's gifts and merchandise, according to a survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation. That's down from last year's average of $122.98. About one-third of those planning to buy Valentine's gifts, 35.7 percent, will buy flowers - about the same as last year.

Clai Carr, who lives in Ruxton and owns The Gardens ice rink in Laurel, is among those cutting back. He'll still be buying his wife, Barty, a couple of flower arrangements; he's bought one already, and plans on picking up another one tomorrow. But his aunt and others may have to get their flowers from someone else this year.

"There are some decisions and choices being made," Carr says. "I may have sent flowers to other people that I may not send to this year."

Unfortunately, florists counting on a big-time Valentine's pick-me-up this year face a double whammy. Not only is the economy heading south, but the holiday falls on a weekend. That's usually bad news for the industry. Most offices are closed, which typically cuts down on delivery orders, and people focus on gifts they can present themselves.

"When it falls on a Saturday, it's more challenging," says Jennifer Sparks, spokeswoman for the Virginia-based Society of American Florists. "There's more time to spend together, to go away for the weekend or to go out for dinner."

For some florists, the fact that Valentine's Day falls on a Saturday is hitting them harder this week than the economy.

"Normally, we're looking at about a 20 percent decrease when it falls on a weekend," says Steve Radebaugh of Radebaugh Florist, a fixture in Towson since 1924.

In fact, Radebaugh says, he's been "pleasantly surprised with the volume of orders we've taken to date."

He figured business would be down about 25 percent this year, and planned accordingly.

But he also did some aggressive marketing, offering customers $10 off for ordering early, sending out mailings that were delivered last weekend and entering into a partnership with a local restaurant.

The result?

Business started picking up on Saturday, Radebaugh says. And while he won't know anything for sure until tomorrow and Saturday - most people tend to wait until the last minute to order their Valentine's gifts - he's optimistic.

He's not alone. "We're about as busy as we usually are three or four days before the holiday," says Diane Pappas, co-owner of Miles Fleurs in Roland Park.

Many flower vendors are giving it a little extra push this year. A Society of American Florists survey showed 58 percent of the group's 12,000 members planned to market themselves more aggressively.

"They're making a point to show the range of options they do offer," Sparks says. "If you can't buy that dozen long-stem roses, there are so many options that can still be very special."

Valentine's Day always means big business for the nation's florists. Some 214 million roses were produced for Valentine's Day 2008, and about one of every four dollars spent on flowers for the entire year was spent for Feb. 14, according to figures from the florists society.

A dozen long-stem red roses continues to be the arrangement of choice, at an average cost this year of $74.27, down from $76.63 in 2008.

Locally, rose prices run the gamut, from $20 at some local food markets to $150 at the more high-end florists.

As an alternative, some of the lovestruck are scaling back their purchases.

"I've been getting orders for a lot of mixed arrangements," says Jennifer Kuhl, owner of Jennifer's Country Flowers in Glen Burnie. "Some of the guys, they're getting mixed arrangements, bouquets. They're still buying, but they might be buying a little less."

The florists themselves are hedging their bets, in many cases cutting back on or delaying their orders.

"People are being conservative this year," says Jim Seba, president of Baltimore-based Calvert Wholesale Florists. "They're waiting to see how many orders actually come in."

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