Early Riser Gets the Stem(s)
Tracy Bell is glad she’s a morning person. Once or twice a week, the Surrey, British Columbia, flower shop owner starts her day at 5:30 a.m. at her home computer, previewing flowers for sale at the United Flower Growers auction in nearby Burnaby.
She fuels up on tea first because once the auctions start at 6 a.m., she must act quickly to snatch the bulk of the flowers and plants she needs at a good price for La Belle Fleur Floral Boutique. During the reverse auction, based on the one in Aalsmeer, Holland, the flower prices start high, and drop lower until bidders purchase them.“You have to know what your threshold is,” Bell said. “There’s a bit of the thrill of the chase there.”Click To Tweet
“You have to know what your threshold is,” Bell said. “There’s a bit of the thrill of the chase there.”
From alstreesia to zantedeschia, the majority of product auctioned comes from 50 to 80 British Columbian growers. “Sometimes there are deals and sometimes there are not,” said Bell, who shopped there in person before the advent of remote buying. “On occasion, you make a mistake. Most times it’s pretty clean.”
After shopping online in real time, Bell drives to the auction house to pick up the flowers herself because she likes to do her own quality-control check. Once the stems are back at the shop, she and her staff of five full- and part-time employees ensure they are properly hydrated and conditioned to last.
Ensuring her customers receive premium quality flowers is part of the service-driven strategy Bell has developed in over 20 years of business. She also focuses on communicating with customers, informing them when a delivery is made or that the recipient wasn’t home on the first try, and “little touches” like emailing a photo of finished arrangements to buyers who request one. After all, new parents and grieving widows often don’t have time to promptly thank senders themselves.
Bell, whose maiden name is Mooney, had her shop name picked out long before she opened La Belle Fleur in 1997, and even before she married a Bell in 1993. It is a nod to her French heritage, as she is from Montreal, and wanted a pretty name for the attractive store she envisioned with “a different aesthetic than a lot of shops I’ve seen.”
“The concept was an outdoor courtyard area of a French chateau,” Bell said, adding that she’s proud of her realized vision with just under 1,500 square feet, 50 to 60 feet of windows that fill the space with light, and a hand-painted floor.
The setting provides a good place for local artists to sell their goods. La Belle Fleur carries their photography, jewellery, and other wares. “We’re really entrenched in the community, and people appreciate that,” she said.
Customers return the favour with loyalty. “We’re kind of a fixture, so we’ve really seen the community grow,” said Bell, who has started selling to some 18- and 19-year-olds who come in and say, “My mom would kill me if I didn’t buy my flowers here; you’re our family florist.”
“That’s really awesome. I can’t even tell you how much that means to us,” she continued. “The trust, we take it very seriously. Everything that you send has some kind of emotion tied to it. We definitely cherish those relationships.”
Bell traces her roots in the industry to another positive relationship: She got her first job in 1986, when she was a high school art student, at a mom-and-pop shop down the road from home, Webb’s Flowers in Bramalea, Ontario. She went to university for a year, but stopped taking classes there once she realized floristry was what she loved.
“I was really fortunate,” she said. “They treated me like a daughter.” Over seven years, working at the shop on and off, Bell also learned how to be a kind employer. “For a first job, I could not have landed a better place to be in.”
After moving west in 1993, Bell freelanced, learning some of the challenges common in the industry that she’d been shielded from in her previous position. For example, she learned that many brides’ budgets and expectations are not compatible with real costs. To stay in business and guard her shop’s reputation for top-quality product, Bell cultivates a clientele that understands the realistic cost of professionally designed premium flowers.
“When you [first] open, you’ll take anything for the first five years pretty much just to stay in the game,” Bell said. “I’ve definitely become more discerning. I don’t want to put certain things out there with my name on it, so I just don’t.”
She acknowledges that La Belle Fleur is “more expensive than the average shop.” “I’m not there to do $29.99 including delivery,” she said. “I can’t.”
Rather than compete with toll-free order gatherers and grocery stores, she emphasizes design quality and customer service. “We definitely design everything,” she said. “We don’t throw anything together. We’re conscious of the art side of the floral industry. Everything we do we want it to have a different artistic flair, which sets us apart.”
Still, Bell’s not resting on the name she’s built for herself. “There’s still a lot of work to do,” such as checking online ratings and responding to comments so customers know the shop cares, and won’t let them down.
She welcomes any opportunity to educate the public about the cost of importing flowers and other aspects of the industry. “If you want peonies in March,” they’re going to cost you, she said.
One of the best ways to educate consumers is at workshops where they can create pavé style centrepieces or Christmas projects.
Bell, educational director for the Canadian Professional Floral Designers Association, also values staff development. “It just reinvigorates you and inspires you. I find value in other people’s styles and opinions and how they run their business.”
She recently completed a three-day master class at the auction house’s education centre with renowned educator Hitomi Gilliam, AIFD, EMC. “I’ve been doing this for 32 years, I still feel the need to push myself,” Bell said. “I think that’s really important.” The only Canadian in the mostly American class, Bell enjoyed learning fibre art, wrapping wire with yarn to make it resemble a vine, and networking with other florists.
Another La Belle Fleur designer is competing for the opportunity to represent Canada at the 2019 World Cup in Philadelphia.
Bell is optimistic about the floral industry’s future. Mass marketers and grocery stores, where Bell cringes at “the dead or dying flowers,” might back out of the floral business as they realize it’s not worth their losses, she predicted. “I think it’s going to come full circle,” Bell said. “I do see a really positive future for retail florists if we can just hang in there. I just don’t think the grocery stores are going to be able to hang on.”