by Sally Colby

Long-time cut flower expert Dave Dowling said, “You aren’t going to make any money growing cut flowers – you make money selling cut flowers.”

Dowling spoke at the Maryland Cut Flower Short Course held in cooperation with the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers on several farms in Woodbine, MD. “Marketing is just as important as growing,” said Dowling. “Make sure you have the best quality flowers possible – always top quality.”

It’s critical for flower sellers to have a good selection that provides options for customers. “If you go to farmers markets, never miss a market,” said Dowling. “As soon as you don’t go to market, you’ll lose customers. People may come to market only for your flowers, and if you aren’t there, they’ll keep walking.” He suggested that if the grower can’t be there in person, another person from the farm should attend rather than skipping the market entirely.

Always dress for the job. Although it seems obvious, wear clean clothing, preferably a shirt with the farm name and/or logo. Dowling suggested wearing a name tag – people like to know who they’re talking to. It’s important to appear happy and smiling. “If you aren’t the person who can do that, find someone who can,” he said. “Don’t show up looking like you need to take a bath. Comb your hair, put on a clean shirt and look the part.”

Good customer service involves knowing customers, and learning customers’ names can help draw repeat sales. Since it’s difficult to memorize names and match faces, Dowling said taking notes and maintaining a list of names and associated characteristics can help you remember names. “Selling at a farmers market is very personal,” he said. “You might have great flowers but people are buying because they like you. Have a smiling face, get to know people and their kids’ names too.”

Always use a tent for shade – it protects the seller and flowers, and provides comfort for customers. A tent is critical for all weather, especially hot, sunny and rainy days. Create a market space that entices customers to stop and look. Dowling suggested arranging tables in a U-shape to draw customers in – and that shape allows ample space for people to move around. If tables are arranged such that only one person can squeeze between them to get to the back, it can create a feeling of being trapped.

Containers and the way flowers appear to customers are an integral part of the display. Dowling said tablecloths should be kept neat and clean, and any décor should enhance the display and not compete with it. “No kitty litter buckets should be visible in the sales area,” he said. “Use almost anything else. If customers aren’t immediately drawn to your flowers, they’ll simply keep walking. Always make sure buckets are full. If you started with six tables and later have three tables, put three away and keep the other three full.”

Prices should not be listed in the front of the tent on a sandwich board or on a small sign at the register. Instead, be sure there’s an easy-to-read price on everything so people don’t have to ask about prices – chances are they won’t bother. Dowling said that for every individual who asks about a price, 10 people have already left without asking. Signs should be sturdy and waterproof – it’s worth having signs laminated. Be prepared to accept credit cards. Many customers under the age of 35 don’t carry cash, and people tend to spend more when they use a credit card.

Flowers should be presented in a way that reflects the look and feeling of your farm. Brown kraft paper, white or colored tissue paper, raffia or ribbons all contribute to making your flowers unique and memorable. Dowling advised putting your farm name, website and social media information on every bouquet using a sticker, custom-made rubber stamp or a card. Be sure to keep the farm website and any social media up to date so customers aren’t led to a dead end.

Providing options with various prices means more sales, so Dowling recommended offering pre-made bouquets as well as single stems. “Don’t sell anything for 50 cents,” he said. “It isn’t worth bending over for less than $1 a stem.” Set aside some flowers to give away to children, and make it a policy to give away a single flower to anyone wearing a hat – mention to them why they’re receiving a free flower and chances are they’ll return another day. Dowling said if flower sellers have paid attention to customers and a formerly pregnant woman visits the booth with a new baby, offer a free bouquet. Repeat customers are the ones who pay your bills, so it’s worth making them feel special.

Dowling cautioned against standing at the edge of or outside the booth during market – it makes the seller look like a guard and people will avoid visiting. During market, don’t use your phone, read or eat. “Unless you physically can’t stand up, don’t sit down,” said Dowling. “Be busy doing something, even if it’s rearranging buckets, but be approachable.” Maintain a “no questions asked” guarantee if someone returns and says the flowers they purchased didn’t last as long as expected.