While most Long Island retailers have struggled with being shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hometown Flower Co. has seen demand for its products bloom, a co-owner said.
Part of the credit is due to the florist’s business model, said Huntington resident Jaclyn Rutigliano, who owns the company with her husband, Marc Iervolino.
Launched in May 2019, Hometown Flower is a mobile florist that conducts all sales online. Since it has no external employees or storefront, the florist was not required to shut down in March as the state mandated most other nonessential businesses to do in order to help stop the spread of the virus.
Hometown Flower, which operates from May to October, sells locally sourced flowers that customers buy online in weekly, bimonthly or monthly subscriptions, or one-time purchases. The business delivers the flowers in a refrigerated van.
Before the pandemic, Hometown Flower got most of its revenue from selling items at farmers markets and pop-up events, using a blue 1976 Ford F-100 pickup truck as a showcase, but that changed with the shutdown, Rutigliano said.
After being dormant for months, the truck now is used as a flower bar at special outdoor events, such as backyard weddings, and bridal and baby showers, she said.
Rutigliano spoke with Newsday about the changes. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What changes have you made because of the pandemic?
Last year, most of our business’ sales came from pop-up events, and we were seeing growing demand to provide flowers at weddings, baby showers and other private events. But COVID-19 curtailed those types of sales in the early months, and the business shifted more to online orders. Now, event sales have returned. We saw a big shift in brides being more open-minded with their wedding flowers than what they had initially planned, such as not sticking to a color scheme and being receptive to seasonal flowers. We've had a lot of outdoor events and we've got a jam-packed September, with backyard bridal and baby showers, weddings and girlfriends' gatherings.
This year, though the circumstances are certainly different, we are still focused on connection. ... We are engaging with the community through social media, and our website, email, etc., and then we bring that connection directly to their doorstep in the form of Flowers in a Bag. We also expanded our subscription area to Brooklyn and Queens a few months ago. Our total number of subcriptions has more than tripled since last year due to more awareness about our business, and people receiving flowers as one-time gifts who then become customers themselves.
How has the pandemic affected the way that you buy and supply flowers?
Our demand is coming through our website in advance, so I can plan better [with less waste]. In the past, 75% or more of sales came from pop-ups, which is just passerby traffic.
You and your husband are the only two people delivering your flowers. What has the interaction with customers been like?
People are a lot more flexible and understanding on the timing for deliveries. People are really appreciative. There is a real sense of camaraderie in supporting local businesses.
The mood of the public now also is helping our sales, as sending flowers has been a way for people to express care and concern for friends and loved ones they couldn’t see under quarantine.
Right now, flowers are just a little bit of something thoughtful.
How do you handle social distancing and sanitizing?
After each delivery of flowers bought in a subscription, the recipient leaves the used vases outside on the porch, like the old-fashioned practice of leaving empty milk containers out for the milkman. Any jars we pick up, we leave outside our home studio for a minimum of five days before sterilizing them and bringing them inside. Also, we deliver while wearing masks.
When we deliver, we put the flowers down outside the recipients’ front doors. Then we ring the doorbell and step back 6 feet before they open the doors.
What additional challenges has the pandemic caused?
Aside from Hometown Flower, my husband and I have full-time jobs that have been affected by the pandemic. My husband was furloughed for more than three months from his job as a project manager in commercial construction, and he is now working part-time. I lost nearly all my clients from my home-based marketing consultancy when COVID-19 hit, but business is starting to slowly pick back up.
We were extremely scared and nervous about what our personal finances would look like, especially when weddings and other private events were taken off the table. We are struggling like everyone else to balance teaching our kids at home and working remotely. ... My 6-year-old daughter is now doing hybrid school — in-school and virtual learning — and my 4-year-old daughter will start pre-kindergarden in person in mid-September.
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