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Floral start-ups aim at younger generation with flash sales, organic bouquets

Succulents
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The new way to 'say it with flowers' may be tapping a flash sale for organic cactus.

A crop of tech start-ups aims to marry the tradition of sending flowers to loved ones with a new generation's passion for artisan products, ordering via smartphone and fast delivery.

Los Angeles-based Bouqs, backed by $43 million in venture capital, touts flowers that are grown in environmentally friendly conditions and come to consumers direct from the farm.

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Santa Monica, Calif.-based BloomNation, which has raised just over $7 million, sends flowers hand-crafted by local, artisan florists. And BloomThat, a San Francisco-based website and app also backed by $7 million in funding, targets millennials with its burlap- wrapped bouquets.

The flower business used to be "down market and price driven, and we want to make it more special," says Bouqs co-founder John Tabis.

Delivery prices range from free, to around $15 for overnight or same-day delivery, to even more depending upon location and how soon you need it.

It was only a matter of time before online delivery apps targeted the flower-ordering market, where the offerings are usually hyperlocal (try to find a florist in mom's town, then call them) or national but offering more standard choices, like a dozen roses with baby's breath (1800-Flowers, Teleflora).

"It's an outdated market," says Farbod Shoraka, co-founder of BloomNation. "Ripe for disruption."

The industry is worth $7 billion and is likely to grow 2% this year, helped by online sales, according to market research firm Ibisworld.

But local florists are hurting, and their numbers are dropping. The Society of American Florists says there were 13,765 florists in 2014, its most recent statistic.

It's not a given these start-ups will succeed. App-based delivery companies in other niches, say food delivery, have struggled with costs and difficulty when it comes to scale. And the floral start-ups are in direct competition with Amazon, whose huge logistics infrastructure allows it to keep delivery costs low, as well as supermarkets, which sell flowers at roughly half the price of the startups.

They also compete with long-established brands like 1-800-Flowers and ProFlowers that also work with a network of florists and can offer lower, discounted prices.

The startups are countering with choices aimed at a younger generation that places a value on an item's sustainable sourcing, say whether its workers are treated fairly or the avoidance of pesticides. These buyers embrace a DIY aesthetic that's flourished on sites like Etsy, prioritize uniqueness, and are familiar with the idea of a flash sale — the frequently changing offerings that have made sites like Zulily a clothing favorite for millennial moms.

BloomThat works like a pop-up shop. Just a handful (around 20) of different varieties and combinations are offered daily--whatever their local farms have available.

Forget floral arrangements decorated with tiny balloons and teddy bears. Shoppers on Bouqs in the Los Angeles-area can buy heart-shaped cactus gardens from local purveyer Deep Roots Garden Center and Florist in Manhattan Beach. BloomNation, for $65, arranges a large succulent, orchids and calla lilies in a wooden cube. BloomThat offers up bouquets of tulips, roses or kale —yes, kale — wrapped in its signature burlap.

Millennials "don't want to do what their parents did," says BloomThat co-founder Matt Schwab. "Those bouquets are the gifts of yesteryear. This is a new take on gift giving."

Christopher McCann, president and CEO of 1-800-Flowers, scoffs at the notion that his firm is stodgy and behind the times. "We're an early adopter," he says, pointing to partnerships with Facebook to bring automated "bots" to Facebook Messenger and Amazon's Alexa to use voice computing for flower ordering.

He expects to ship some 15 million stems of flowers for the Valentine's Day holiday, up 7%-10% over last year, when it was on a Sunday. Mid-week holidays have "less competition," from supermarkets and other outlets, and thus, are better for business.

In true start-up fashion, the floral delivery start-ups are trying to innovate by shaking up the distribution chain.

In the past, flowers started on the farm, and went from there to exporters, wholesalers, distributors and then the store. Bouqs is aiming to either go direct to the consumer, or work with artisan florists to get the flowers directly to them.

Jon Bell, the co-owner of Deep Roots, says tapping into the tech infrastructure of the startups (he works with BloomNation and Bouqs) enables him to "broaden our range," and reach a wider customer clientele. "It allows us to do that much more."