The Sweet Smell Of ... Rising Gas Prices

Getting asters to Arlington and phlox to Fairfax is all part of a day's work for the Metropolitan Florists' Delivery Cooperative, one of the oldest delivery pool services in the country. It's also a way small companies can save money on gas.

The 1970s gas crises and resulting price spikes at the pump spurred Washington, D.C.-area florists to unite, and members say the cooperative effort launched decades ago has helped provide welcome relief in the current era of high energy prices.

Karen Fountain, president of the family-owned business Flowers 'n' Ferns of Burke, Va., and a co-op member, said her shop has recently been paying about $2.85 a gallon for gas and has had to increase flower prices slightly to offset rising prices.

A recent online poll by the National Association of the Self-Employed showed 74 percent of respondents said high gas prices were either significantly or moderately hurting their business. That's up from 67 percent in 2005.

"Some florists have had to raise their delivery prices with the gas price situation and some have had to be more strategic," said Jennifer Sparks, vice president of marketing with the Society of American Florists. "Some have turned to more efficient vehicles, some have created more strategic delivery routes, and the delivery pool is popular."

The delivery cooperative lets members combine their resources, so that deliveries going to the same ZIP code are sent via one truck. The floral co-op has a board that designates which florist will deliver to a particular ZIP code. Flowers 'n' Ferns, which has about 10 full- and part-time employees, is responsible for delivering to two regions in Burke and Fairfax, Va.

"Instead of having 50 or more trucks make deliveries multiple times throughout the day, [the co-op uses] 30 trucks just once or twice," said Fountain.

The system is also a way to remain competitive with the larger florists. The co-op system gives a small firm the ability to deliver to a greater geographic area, meaning a local florist can cut down on wiring out orders through a floral delivery giant like FTD. "This way, we can still use local services," said Fountain.

Even with the cooperative, florists can't escape high gas prices. Many florists are slowly and steadily increasing their prices to offset the rising cost of gas, said Fountain, whose delivery charge recently increased from $7.50 to $7.95.

"Not only do we have to pay for gas and trucks, we have to pay fuel service charges for flowers delivered to us and most flower shops have had to pass that on," said Fountain, who added that fuel service fees have increased by several dollars over the last couple of years.

She also has had to explain to a customer who wanted a bouquet at a particular time that rising energy costs has forced her shop to become more efficient. Flowers 'n' Ferns now follows a UPS-like model where a driver follows one set route. Co-op members deliver in the morning and then meet at about 12:30 p.m. in downtown D.C. to swap flowers and deliver each others' goods.

"We are competitors, but you have a lot of give and take in our industry," said Fountain. "We are willing to share amongst ourselves and that's unique about the floral industry."

Summary: Florists have found that by pooling resources, they can cut delivery costs and offset the high cost of gasoline. By sharing delivery trucks amongst competitors and dividing up routes, small florists around the D.C. metro area can remain competitive with national companies.

By Sharon McLoone |  August 3, 2007; 6:00 AM ET Tools and Tips
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