A Guide to Buying Flowers Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Guide to Buying Flowers

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A florist's window display

Buying flowers is as subjective a matter as the choice of what dish to eat in which restaurant, or which book to purchase and from where, with the purchaser influenced by expediency, personal taste, experience and understanding, not to mention expendable income. As with food and words often the greater the understanding and experience, the higher the aspirations and expectations. Unfortunately this can have its drawbacks; you could turn into a flower snob. Forget ye not the taste of a kebab after a late-night drinking session. And are not the best sports sections to be found in the tabloids?

Flowers can be purchased almost everywhere, from side-of-the-road stalls to the most elitist department store, from garages to Charles de Gaulle airport. Globally, billions of flowers are purchased daily. They are neither functional, nor necessary. They are, once cut, dead (or at the very least, dying). A few varieties may be suitable for cloning and some can be preserved, but the majority will last between one and three weeks, will pollute whatever medium they are placed in and, ultimately, will be relegated to the bin or compost heap. Yet is there any other so patently useless a commodity that affords such delight, forgiveness or appreciation?

The 'Side of the Road' Buyer

More often than not the purchasers of 'side of the road' flowers are male, stuck in traffic and in a hurry. The latter state is probably due to the fact that a longer than expected round of golf, a drink in the pub with his mates or any other 'my space' activity, has prevented him from being where he should have been at a preordained time. 'Side of the road' flower stalls, unless they happen to be in the Fulham Road in London1, usually offer bunches of a single flower type: roses, chrysanthemums, carnations or, for the more upmarket stall, 'spray' carnations. The favoured colours at these stalls are red and yellow.

Men who buy flowers from the side of the road are strangely prejudiced in favour of red and yellow, something that has not gone unnoticed by stallholders. Indeed men (that is, uninitiated or 'still to be trained' flower-buying men), all seem to have a predilection for red and yellow flowers - together. Perhaps it's something to do with fond memories of their first LEGO set? The recipients of these primary-coloured blooms (statistically more likely to be women) are less in favour of this unhappy playschool combination. While some women are fond of yellow flowers and others enjoy the vibrancy of red (especially roses), few would put them together. The exceptions to this, and there are always exceptions, are women from India or further east, where red and yellow is considered to be especially fortuitous.

Alas, for the average Side of the Road Buyer, this loophole is not for you. Eastern men have a far greater insight into both the female psyche and the flower-buying ground rules. Most would not consider buying flowers from the side of the road, knowing them to be a) flower market rejects and therefore b) unlikely to last more than 24 hours.

Other Side of the Road Buyers include flower-arrangers who have an imminent competition (the flowers only have to last a day), wannabe florists who have promised to do the funeral wreath for their neighbour's friend (longevity expectations are not high in this case) and desperate women who have forgotten their mother-in-law's birthday (note mother-in-law, not mother).

On the plus side, 'side of the road' flowers are usually inexpensive and therefore not bad in terms of value for money. Stick to the chrysanthemums and carnations if you must buy this sort of bunch. The roses really will only last a day, but the others (which, if purchased from a flower shop, should last for at least a fortnight) might, if you're lucky, survive a week.

The 'Garage Forecourt' Buyer

The people who buy flowers from garage forecourts are more often than not male; quite possibly ones that are too lazy to stop at the side of the road, but won't let the petrol gauge dip into red. Their reasons for buying are likely to be the same as Side of the Road buyers, but they are selfish enough to realise that they can pick up a copy of Loaded and a Yorkie bar at the same time. Many even believe they are buying something 'exotic'. 'Exotic' in male flower language is any flower they don't recognise. As their flower recognition skills are limited to little more than roses, chrysanthemums and carnations (and they would be hard-pressed to name anything other than a rose), this leaves the garage forecourt field wide open for marketing opportunities. Flower bunches found on garage forecourts or, 'garage wraps' (GWs) as they are disparagingly known in the trade, are put together in vast, wholesale outlets and are supplied to garages on a contract 'sale or return' basis. The companies that supply them are intent on profit: huge profit.

Garage wraps differ in subtle and carefully marketed ways from flowers for sale at the side of the road. They are mixed for a start, that is, they contain more than one type of flower. They may even be colour co-ordinated, that is, either in shades of one colour (usually loud shades of one colour) or two to three complementary colours (not necessarily that complimentary).

Unfortunately there is generally at least one bucket of the offensive red and yellow mix. Changing men's habits is not an easy task and marketing departments are well aware of this. They will almost certainly contain some ubiquitous chrysanthemums, but there are quite likely to be a couple of gerbera thrown in as well. Gerbera are large daisy-like flowers which most of the GW-buying fraternity will consider highly exotic.

The choice is limited. Marketing departments are fully aware that men do not readily make swift purchases when presented with more than three alternatives. Also, the value for money element is questionable. Most of the 'value' is in the gaudy wrapping which will find its way to the bin only marginally faster than the flowers will. Other buyers include women who have forgotten their aunt's birthday. However, flower-arrangers will not buy from garage forecourts as they are acutely aware of value for money.

The Market Buyer

Many towns boast a fresh produce market at least once a week and take place every day. The Market Stall Buyer is often a woman. The stall is on her way to Next/Marks and Spencer/Mothercare and it cleverly seduces her with a display of the exotic blooms that just happened to be featured on last night's Changing Rooms. This is no accident. Flowers are big business.

Men will sometimes buy from market stalls, more often than not at the weekend, when they can rush them home without having to go via the office and risk aspersions being cast on their sexuality. Being aware of this very male 'Saturday morning impulse buying' market, stalls sprout a range of extremely large plants which have been transported to the market in equally large vans, and which do not fit comfortably into either a Porsche or a Mini. This perverse practice gave birth to the 'tree moving at speed' phenomenon, a rapidly expanding suburban minority group.

The Hotel Buyer

The Hotel Buyer is a higher-income version of the male garage forecourt buyer, who often doesn't even organise the flowers, but puts his PA on the case. He is sometimes a long-distance buyer. Flowers in hotel shops are usually of the highest quality, which seems a bit of a waste. Apart from those destined for the foyer, they are largely unappreciated. The sender rarely sees them and the recipient barely has time to enjoy them. They will be expensive and could well end up in the ladies' loo sometime later in the week.

The Airport Buyer

The Airport Buyer is either welcoming someone at arrivals or heading off somewhere with no time to find a flower shop. Airport shops have a reasonable range of bouquets to suit most budgets. They are convenient and they function a bit like fast food: they fill a hole.

The Supermarket Buyer

Years ago, flowers in supermarkets were a combination of 'side of the road' bunches and, for the more discerning, garage wraps purchased by little old ladies or men in trouble. The public's voracious appetite for house makeover programmes in the 1990s, coupled with the defection of some of the most innovative florists around at the time (Jane Packer and Paula Pryke among them) to the supermarket and department store camps, changed all that and suddenly stores became aware of the enormous profits to be reaped from the flower harvest.

Today no self-respecting supermarket would admit to not having its own in-house floral designer. The best supermarket flowers are beautifully-presented in colour banks: buckets of flowers in shades of a single colour grouped together (an old trick of the trade) in juxtaposition with banks of a complimentary colour. The effect is, as indeed it was designed to be, the floral equivalent of bread being baked or the aroma of ground coffee - a sensual tug on the purse strings.

Virtually everyone buys flowers from supermarkets at some point. Men believe that if the supermarket food is acceptable for the table then the flowers must be OK. The blue rinse brigade believes they are positively 'upmarket' and for the rest, they are easy to get hold of.

The quality of the flowers is generally excellent because the deal offered to the suppliers by the supermarkets guarantees this. One chain, who shall remain nameless, insists that every supplier must have at least 80% of their business tied up with the chain. Imagine what losing that contract would do? It's good for the consumer, possibly, but in a 'What cost to the future?' kind of way.

The selection and variety of flowers can rarely be faulted; however, they lack any kind of personality. They abound with brand name, but character is wanting. They are just bunches of flowers. There is rarely anyone on hand to offer advice and even when there is, they lack any kind of horticultural knowledge. You can read instructions just as well as they can.

Supermarket bunches are a great buy for those who know what they want at home. Fill your house with them. They are fresh, good quality and often under guarantee, but as a gift they're about as meaningful as a money token.

The Flower Shop Buyer

As with everything in life the standards of flower shops can vary hugely. Although ensconced in a high street retail outlet, some are little more than glorified greengrocers that also sell flowers. Citrus fruit gives off a gas that poisons flowers so keeping them in close proximity is not advisable. The stock is often of the market reject variety and quite possibly not as fresh as that sold on the side of the road. These shops give more reputable flower shops a very bad name and you should look up and down the high street for a better class of outlet. Your chances of a good buy are as likely as your chances of finding a priceless antique at a car boot sale, not impossible but rare.

At the next rung on the ladder sits the 'been on the high street forever and we're not changing' flower shop. Frequented by loyal patrons of long-standing, elderly newcomers to the area who are comfortable with a recognisable format (they had a similar shop in the high street they just left) and the occasional flower-arranger who knows that the shop still has carnations in its range. It often has a tenuous link with the local undertaker. The owner could even be married to one. The businesses certainly complement each other.

This shop is likely to belong to a 'relay' network, 'Interflora' being the best known, which means it can offer a 'sending flowers to anywhere' option to its customers. It will have a brochure for you to choose from, and it will stock most of the flowers displayed in the brochure. It cannot guarantee, however, that the flowers sent via the relay system will be the freshest available or well-arranged.

The shop despatching the flowers at the other end must, under the rules of relay, send the flowers designated in the picture of choice. This could, at worst, mean they are several days old. It is not the flower shop's fault, just a verification that the relay companies are in need of a good policy shake-up.

The florists in this kind of shop will know their craft; the designs may be a tad old-fashioned, but the flowers will be well cared-for and they will be able to advise you on such details as life expectancy and after-shop care. They will also take the time to find out something about you and the recipient of your flowers and may even suggest a suitable flower type. For instance, there is absolutely no point in taking tulips to someone who is hospital for a long stay. Hospitals are hot; tulips will last a mere 24 hours. These shops are a safe bet. The flowers probably won't inspire, but they will be perfect for an uncontroversial gift.

At the top of the tree is the design-led flower shop, which comes in many guises from funky flower boutique (with or without a coffee bar), to grandiose floral emporiums, usually patrolled by a slightly daunting front-of-house matron. These shops truly care about flowers and know their business. They will have fresh flowers and a diverse range from all corners of the globe. The flowers will be properly cared-for and their life expectancy (or lingering demise) will be of optimum length. People who shop in these shops are discerning and have impeccable taste. They may not possess these qualities on their first visit but, by the time they are regulars, they will have been gently, or brutally, educated. They are young, old, male, female, married, divorced, single, gay, rich, poor... these shops embrace and welcome everyone who is passionate about flowers. The ones who aren't, and who are seeking unrealistic prices for perfection or, even worse, red and yellow garage wraps, will be duly directed to the shop they should be buying from. They enjoy the experience of buying flowers, and will put up with the inane banter and occasional tongue-in-cheek abuse that will be hurled in their direction the moment they enter the shop, having forgotten a) that it is Valentine's Day and b) that they should have ordered in advance. If they behave really well and hurl abuse back, they may even get some flowers. The people that buy from these shops are more than just customers, they are friends.

1In which case, they cannot truly be described as 'side of the road' flower stalls, but are instead hugely successful businesses.

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