Five bouquets with red roses are perched on the counter of a small flower shop, nestled on the edge of a church in a suburban neighbourhood in Mumbai's Santacruz area on a quiet Thursday evening. Raju, the florist, stands beaming behind the flowers as one approaches. The dark red roses seem to have lost their vibrancy after having remained untouched by customers all day, but Raju's smile is still exuberant. He begins assembling a fresh bouquet with roses and gerberas promptly without trying to promote the unsold bouquets.
"Customers are few, but they should be satisfied, flowers should make people happy," says Raju, the florist manning the flower shop. "Business is not as good these days. I am struggling to pay rent for this shop. A birthday or a retirement party in the neighbourhood is mostly what I rely on for some income. But, I’m confident things will get better," he optimistically adds.
Raju is not the only florist struggling in the aftermath of the coronavirus-induced lockdown. While several industries are reeling from the impact of the pandemic, the fresh flower business has taken a massive hit. The novel coronavirus has not taken kindly to a market that involves perishable products and rely broadly on events, weddings and the hospitality industry for bulk of the business. As COVID-19 fears rule out the possibility of large-scale events -- both personal and corporate -- for the foreseeable future and with hotels crawling back to normalcy, flower wholesalers and retailers grapple with low demand, wastage due to the low shelf life of the flowers and disruptions in supply due to movement restrictions among other uncertainties.
Even as multiple businesses are struggling to get back on their feet despite relaxations in the lockdown curbs, bulk orders for festivities and other events are far too few and small retail florists are depending on loyal old customers who pick customised bouquets for gifting purposes.
Sakharam Zore, a retailer based in Mumbai's Bandra area says, "We usually coordinate over the phone and make bouquets for people the way they like. Or once in a while, a passerby would buy something they find beautiful. But that is not enough. We even used to send flowers for film shoots and for high-end parties hosted by these film actors. But everything is shut now."
Santosh Kumar (Santosh Flora), a Mumbai-based wholesaler explains, "Flowers are not a necessity. In the middle of a pandemic, people are worried about their survival. They will not spend on flowers and decorations. They are still celebrating festivals and occasions, but within their homes on a much smaller scale. I have been in this business for 20 years now and I have never seen a slump of this kind. I don’t expect recovery for at least a year."
Customers who choose to gift flowers to friends and family have begun taking the online route. Orders are placed telephonically or through a mobile app/website and delivered straight to the recipient. Flower retail chain, Ferns N Petals, runs it business both offline in the stores and online via an app, an option that most small retailers do not have. People have more than just flowers to choose from – cakes, personalized gifts and so on.
Anil Sharma, COO, FNP Retail and Franchise believes that the online business and the ease of access it offers to the customers is primarily the reason they have managed to stay afloat so far. He ruminates, “People are emotionally more invested now because of the pandemic and the unprecedented situation. They have started gifting more often.” He says that even though offline sales are gradually picking up and have reached almost 60% of pre-pandemic levels, most outlets are heavily reliant on online sales right now.
A corporate chain like Ferns N Petals may have managed to do better than expected due to their reach, capital and the vast network, but things are far from normal for most retailers and wholesale traders.
However, low consumer demand is not the only issue. Multiple constraints with respect to supply are adding to the market’s woes. Stakeholders suggest that after having lost a huge amount of crop and subsequent business because of the lockdown, most cultivators refrained from resuming full-scale production, owing to the unprecedentedness of the pandemic and slow demand. Consequently, market supply has been low, pushing up the prices of the produce.
Bengaluru-based cultivator and trader Suresh PG (Queens Floritech) says, “All of us cultivators are suffering a lot. We lost the produce of about two months when the lockdown first hit. We are down to barely 20% of pre-Covid production levels. Most farmers did not plant sufficient crops due to the unpredictability and because they anticipated lower demand. Some crops which were recently planted will take a few more months to be ready. The demand may have started returning gradually now, but the supply is low and prices are high.”
That’s not all. Movement restrictions due to the lockdown have posed problems in procurement of stock and other materials and have added to the costs for most traders. And since consumers are not ready to pay more, profit margins have taken a hit. “Procurement is an issue. Imported flowers are not an option. Flowers like tulips and hydrangeas are difficult to get,” says Shaoli Mukherjee, Proprietor – Bandra & Prabhadevi outlets, Ferns N Petals. She further explains, “We also have to incur transportation costs on flowers that come from outside Mumbai. The stock we used to get by rail is now transported via air. When we resumed operations in May after the lockdown, we began spending additionally on air cargo charges. The costs are still high but the demand is low and we cannot sell the flowers on a higher price.”
Kumar of Santosh Flora adds, “Producers don’t want to take risks. They are worried the demand may not return anytime soon. Covid could have a second wave. And flowers are not something one can produce in a factory. Crops take time. Also, most of the other goods are being imported again now, but nobody cares about us. The flower market is also not properly unionised or organised. The government is not paying any attention.”
Business owners are dealing with a host of issues, but so are their employees. Slow business has affected their wages and salaries and many have been laid-off. While some migrant labourers who travelled to their hometowns amid the lockdown are back with a pay cut, some never came back. Their employers either did not have enough work for them or just could not afford to pay them anymore.
Even as some industries are hopeful of recovery with the onset of the festive season, flower traders remain unsure. For many, business during the Ganpati festival celebrated recently in August remained lukewarm. “Ganpati festival is usually peak season for us and we would double our production accordingly. But this year there was barely anything. Even now, there are no large-scale orders for celebrations. People are celebrating within their homes. So, we can’t say if the festive season will help,” says Suresh PG of Queens Floritech, Bengaluru.Flowers are known to improve one’s emotional health and lift one’s mood instantaneously, but for many flower sellers in the post-Covid world, they are not quite working their magic just yet. The flower shops may wear a dejected look, but some business owners are optimistic. Raju, the neighbourhood florist, still grinning, says, “These are tough days, but they are tough for everyone. This phase is temporary. It will pass.” Even as he sits and waits for another customer, his smile remains intact.