Floral Frenzy

Sales of Hawaiian tropical flowers are in full bloom

September, 2002

When Shelby Lucas caught a cold one night in Manhattan, N.Y., she awoke the next day to a bouquet of get-well flowers from her husband, David. But it wasn’t just any old bouquet, rather it was an assortment of fresh-cut Hawaiian tropical flowers – a thoughtfully composed arrangement of Bird of Paradise, Heleconia, Red Ginger and Anthuriums – which had made its way from a small farm on the Big Island of Hawaii all the way to New York City.

All it took was a quick Internet search for David to stumble upon a multitude of individual farmers in Hawaii with Web sites offering brightly colored, custom Hawaiian tropical flower arrangements, which could be shipped anywhere in the United States for around $40 to $60.

“Direct Internet sales of Hawaiian tropical flowers by smaller companies is a new trend that’s certainly leveled the playing field a little bit,” says Steve Perente, director of marketing for Aina Hawaiian Marketing Agency, which handles marketing for the Hawaii Tropical Flower Council. “And it does two things for the industry: It allows for individual and smaller farms to have a bigger presence, through direct sales to the end consumer; and it promotes a general awareness about the product overseas.”

The Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service reports that the industry for Hawaiian flowers – inclusive of cut flowers and lei flowers – had a wholesale value of $18.9 million last year ($38.9 million if orchids are included). Mike Inouye, president of the Hawaii Tropical Flower Council, estimates that roughly 90 percent of Hawaii’s flower growers export to wholesalers in the Mainland and Asia. He says the remaining 10 percent is smaller growers who ship small quantities of flowers to retailers or directly to the end consumer (also known as the gift-box industry) via the Internet. He says that although “backyard shippers” represent just a small portion of the market, the potential for return is big, and growing.

“If you’re a company like ours that ships by bulk to a wholesaler, you’re going to see about a 5 percent to 10 percent profit,” says Inouye, who is also sales manager for Big Island-based Pacific Floral Exchange. “But if you’re doing Internet sales, you’ll double your returns, because you’re going direct to the buyer.” That may be true, but with the average individual flower farmer grossing around $75,000 per year (if even that much), the smaller farmers earn markedly less than their larger-scale counterparts, which earn around $5 million in gross annual sales, according to HTFC’s Perente.

Marc Beaulieu, owner of Punaluu-based Green Valley Tropicals, admits that he tried to dabble in Internet gift-box sales when the trend first hit but eventually decided it wasn’t for him and returned to his original game plan, selling to wholesalers. “I think the Web has a lot of potential for smaller growers, but I found it to be too unpredictable,” he says. “You might get 10 orders one day, and then nothing for a week.” Beaulieu says even though his operation is small, with just three large wholesale clients on the Mainland and a couple of florists here, and an average of $70,000 in gross annual sales, he finds it much more lucrative to continue selling to the consistent wholesale market.

“Of course, most growers are looking for good wholesale clients, and the wholesale industry definitely has the lion’s share of the market, but the gift-box arena is a baby industry that also seems to be growing quite nicely,” says Perente. “The key now is to get the product out there and make people aware of the superior, beautiful flowers that we grow in Hawaii.”

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