Florists gear up for Valentine’s Day 

You might expect that on Valentine’s Day, the profits from red roses flutter down like spring petals on florists and local rose growers. But not every floral entrepreneur is making big money despite a seemingly endless supply of romance-minded men.

"I keep telling my wife we should close on Valentine’s Day," said Wilton Lee, a Berkeley florist and president of the Master Florists Association, a Bay Area trade group. "Valentine’s Day should be in the middle of summer. There’s more product available. The prices are lower. (Now) we’re just trading dollars."

That’s not true for every florist, of course. Entrepreneur Natasha Tchefnokova of San Francisco’s In Water Flowers said her boutique does very well at Valentine’s Day, despite the February spike in wholesale flower prices. She passes the price increase on to her customers, who seek the shop out for its unusual arrangements and short-cut European hand-ties. Her Valentine’s Day arrangements cost $60, but a dozen roses in a vase range from $80 to $120.

"I only buy high-quality flowers in general, and my clientele really likes that," Tchefnokova said.

But some shops, including Lee’s, balk at bringing prices that high, for fear that budget-conscious customers will just go out to a restaurant instead, or purchase from grocery stores. Safeway Stores Inc. (SWY), for example, is advertising a 14-stem $24.99 rose deal, and some florists feel the need to find a sweet spot with a higher price that doesn’t go too high, combined with promises of better-quality flowers. Simply put, they cannot compete with the supermarkets’ prices.

Here’s how the math breaks down: Prices at the San Francisco Flower Mart, a business-to-business marketplace where many florists and other businesses buy flowers wholesale, are on average $32 to $46 for a bunch of 25 roses this month, according to the mart’s general manager, Robert Otsuka. That’s about $10 more per bunch than in the summer, and that’s only the average.

"It depends on what type of roses, but last year I saw them up to $73," said Josef Cizmarik, owner of the Josef’s Flowers kiosk on Mission and First streets and another store in Vallejo. "I’ve seen them today $50, $60 a bunch."

It’s then up to entrepreneurs to determine if they are going to try to do large volume of high- or low-grade roses at low markup, or if they’ll pursue an added-value strategy through artful arrangement and care of the plants.

Grocery stores have one advantage in that they can afford to make the flowers a loss leader. Mollie Stone’s Markets co-owner David Bennett said he buys grades of flowers similar to a florist shop, and then tries "to minimize the financial impact on the company. We try to offer floral to go with all the holidays. But it’s one of the most challenging products we have for profitability … because of the perishability."

There isn’t much chance that the wholesale prices will ever drop, barring federal action: Most roses on sale today are imported duty-free from Ecuador and Colombia through the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which was enacted in 1991 and expanded in 2002 to promote agricultural alternatives to cocaine. Roses from those equatorial countries have bigger heads and longer stems than domestic blooms, and a built-in shipment cost. That means, for example, that supply is a little low this year because Ecuador’s product came in too early and Colombia had bad weather, Otsuka said.

Since those countries entered the market aggressively in the 1980s and 1990s, local competition has withered.

"We probably grow a tenth of what we used to grow," said Steve Oku of Pescadero’s Oku Nursery, who has diversified from roses to other flowers. "The whole U.S. rose-growing industry got pawned off for a sound bite: ‘the war on drugs.’"

High land and labor prices also contributed to the local rose-growing decline, florists said.

Despite the challenges, Valentine’s Day still proves a good-volume holiday, florists and growers said. This year, Valentine’s Day falls on Wednesday, which is fortunate for florists, because it means bouquets delivered to offices and less weekend-getaway travel.

"It’s the only day everybody needs roses," Cizmarik said, adding that he still feels the romance of flowers and loves the business. "Whether you have a big shop or a kiosk, it is the biggest day."

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