Business blooming for Wichita flower wholesaler

02/09/2014 12:00 AM

02/08/2014 9:32 PM

That lovely red Valentine’s Day rose comes with its own supply chain.

And for decades the flower wholesaler has served as the critical link between large out-of-state flower growers and the corner florist.

That remains somewhat true today, which is why this is high season at Valley Floral, 4619 N. Arkansas, the state’s largest independent floral wholesaler.

In February, Valley Floral will move 80,000 to 100,000 roses – 300,000 cut flowers overall – along with thousands of green plants and floral supplies such as vases and stands.

The venerable floral wholesaler has about 500 customers in the western two-thirds of Kansas and northern Oklahoma.

Many tens of thousands more flowers move through big chains such as Dillons and Wal-Mart, as well as a smaller local wholesaler, St. Louis-based Baisch & Skinner, which serves central and western Kansas and northern Oklahoma.

Sunday is the single biggest flower shipping day of the year and Valley Floral is staffing up for it.

“We already work seven days a week, but this Sunday will be big,” said Carlos Ramos, general manager of Valley Floral.

Valley Floral has 34 employees, including five in its Kechi greenhouses.

Ramos said the chance to show flowers to more people is part of why he loves the business.

“If you look at the flowers and their beauty, I’m one of those guys who has the passion to show that beauty,” he said.

A tough industry

But wholesaling flowers has become an increasingly difficult business.

Floral sales nationally are recovering from the recession, but are still 10 percent below the national peak set in 2007, according to the Society of American Florists.

And for wholesalers and the retailers they depend on, the advent of large Internet-based florists, even ones that rely on locals to actually deliver the flowers, has squeezed profits.

Ken Denton, longtime owner of Tillie’s Flower Shop, said that the number of flower shops nationally has fallen from 30,000 in the 1990s to just over 10,000 today.

The larger florists, such as Tillie’s, now have the ability to buy flowers and plants direct from brokers and growers, although Denton remains a Valley Floral customer for some products.

“The wholesale world is changing,” Denton said. “It’s getting tougher and tougher.”

Part of that played out when Roots & Blooms, the last incarnation of Wichita Wholesale Florists, which opened in 1936, closed last year.

Chris Coburn, who owned Roots & Blooms, said he shut down the 80-year-old family business because he just didn’t see the trends turning up.

Not only has the Internet permanently removed some business from the traditional wholesale-retail florists, but society is changing, become less formal and traditional. People don’t buy flowers as often, he said.

“From Mother’s Day to proms to Veterans Day, tradition has just lost some of its importance in our society,” Coburn said. “People just don’t visit the cemetery at Veterans Day like they used to.”

But there’s plenty of life left in the wholesale flower business, said Valley Floral’s Ramos, who expects to take over sole operation of the business this year.

Although Valley Floral’s sales fell about a half percent last year, it grew about 8 percent in 2012.

His company enjoys an advantage of refrigerating the flowers 38 degrees all the way through, which preserves them 40 percent longer, he said. That, plus less local competition and a slowly returning economy will allow Valley Floral to thrive in the future, he said.

“The ones who stick around benefit as the economy improves,” Ramos said. “A lot of florists feel that way because we just went through the worst recession in decades.”

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