Among the many disruptions the Coronavirus has created this spring, will finding Mother’s Day flowers now be added to the list?
It is less than a week away, so we thought it might be interesting to talk to some nursery and floral shippers to get the full scoop about this year’s crop of that most wonderful harbinger of spring—FLOWERS.
One shipper told us that its greenhouse orders were down a whopping 40 percent from last year. Choptank ships overflow for this customer during prime holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day. According to the shipper’s transportation manager, COVID-19 has caused dips in volume because of restrictions put on stores, such as limited hours, limited numbers of people in the store at once, and stay-at-home orders in place. Their thinking is that if you can’t visit family during the holiday, people will order flowers online instead.
But most of the other nursery growers we talked to paint a different picture of this year’s pre-shipping season. A Michigan greenhouse manager, Neal Mast, told us that in terms of shipping volume, they were affected in the beginning of the season by the second phase of the stay-at-home order. “There were a few weeks we were almost at a standstill,” said the shipper.
According to this grower, this pause was a direct result of the debate over the definition of essential and non-essential businesses. Greenhouses at first were considered non-essential businesses in some states. It soon became clear that because these facilities also grow vegetables for food and landscaping plants for soil control, they should be deemed agricultural and, thus, essential.
“In one instance” the shipper said, “I was having freight routed to certain garden centers in other states only to learn that those states had declared that garden centers were non-essential businesses, so we had to remove those stores and reroute 25 loads in a one or two-day window. It was all very abrupt.”
The shipper continued, “It’s really been two contributing factors that have created a slow start to this season. Weather plays a big part in our busy season, and this spring has been no exception. We’ve had some very cool weather in Michigan lately, which can delay things. Add to that the issues with COVID-19 and it was not a normal start to the season.”
But things seem to be normalizing. Nursery owners say that it is usually two weeks leading up to a holiday before they see the biggest spike in shipments. Last week, right on cue, is the busiest they’ve been this year.
Another shipper out of Minnesota, with locations in Illinois and Oregon, said it’s been business as usual and that they have not experienced any real changes. “Customers are still buying. Let’s face it, if you don’t get your stuff now, you risk the chance of not having anything when stores open up again.”
The Minnesota shipper says he is working remotely due to the shelter-in-place mandate with no problem. He has all his monitors set up in front of him and can easily do his job of arranging freight from home. His main challenge is that things move a little slower with the added precautions and social distancing, but notes that getting carriers is not a problem with trucks being readily available. “Luckily we haven’t shut down completely like some others, and we are glad to report we have not experienced any price gouging either.”
Back in the Northeast, one nursery shipper reported that they are dealing with reduced staff, which makes them not as flexible with appointment times as they were prior to COVID-19. Also, they are finding that the service from their carriers has been spotty and unpredictable since the pandemic started. This may be because they are very close to the Coronavirus hot zone and carriers may not be as willing to drive into or through those areas. Their main comment was that they have not experienced a decline in overall volume of shipments for this type of nursery freight.
Most of this New England shipper’s orders are placed on hold until last-minute releases are given from the big box stores. They are also currently delivering to larger distribution centers, nurseries and greenhouses.
A nursery out of Virginia grows its own flowers but also has some greenhouses in Belgium that it buys from, and those are shut down due to the virus. But at home, they are running 24-hours a day right now to keep up with demand. “We have not felt any kind of dip in demand at all,” said the logistics manager.
The last shipper we spoke to, out of Pennsylvania, said he has had a slight decrease in orders compared with last year but nothing drastic. They use freight brokers for whatever their own trucks can’t handle, and he noted that rates are plummeting because there is “not a lot of freight out there right now.” He also commented that once the pandemic hit them, “trucks would show up the day before they were due, whereas pre-COVID-19 we were sweating to see if they were going to make it at all.”
This nursery ships nationwide to chains like Walmart, Winn Dixie, and Publix, but also to smaller stores like Giant Eagles, and “store doors” (store fronts) because of the pandemic. “We go in with liftgates and drop off a few racks right in front of the stores.”
When asked about their biggest challenges regarding Mother’s Day freight and the pandemic, the Pennsylvania shipper said, “Shipping less product, stores backing off, stores closing, and just everybody not sure about what’s going on—we were kicked into full gear, ready to go this growing season. On a regular Mother’s Day, we can do 700-800 loads in a two- to three-week period. It takes months to grow the product, and then something like this hits us. We are taking all the precautions, wearing masks, standing six feet apart, social distancing, and luckily no one here has gotten sick. It’s a big learning curve for everyone. So far, we’ve been able to deliver on time. Mother’s Day flowers and plants are shipping now.”
So, it appears that most stores will be well-stocked early on, but don’t wait. Once the stores are sold out, it could be hard to find that perfect bloom. Now that the economy is about to pick up again, it may be hard for nurseries to restock supplies quickly to the stores.
As one shipper commented, “The best thing about shipping nursery freight during a pandemic is that plants and flowers keep people mentally sane. With so many people staying at home and bored, it gives them a chance to get out and play in their garden. It is just the right therapy!”
Related stories: Shipping Flowers by the Truckload on Valentine’s Day