After hiring a bricklayer and having to show him how to lay brick for his fireplace, my German immigrant-cum-farmer friend lamented that when you hired a workman or artisan in Germany you knew he was what he said he was since he had to apprentice and be licensed, whereas here anyone can call himself anything regardless of his ability.
“Local” flowers face a similar stigma. Because anyone who grows flowers can be a grower, a buyer has no idea what the quality of the product will be—will it last, will it be conditioned, will it be uniform, will it be insect-free, will it be delivered regularly and priced properly? While “local” means all good things to us as growers trying to win back the marketplace, “local” doesn’t necessarily mean that to others. It doesn’t necessarily mean “good”, doesn’t necessarily mean “chemical-free”, doesn’t even mean the same in one place as it does in another—we drive flowers 120 miles, yet our product is local when compared to flowers flown in from California or Ecuador. We share meaning, it’s a social construct, so as growers we don’t have the monopoly on what people think when they hear “local”.
While some treat the local flower movement like a religion others have yet to drink the Koolaid. As growers we have to rebrand “local” by cultivating trust. Trust is earned, not freely given, accreted like snow layers in the arctic, like sheets of filo and butter in that baklava your nearby bakery made, like the layers of steel annealed in a samurai sword. When we sell flowers we’re developing layers of trust with every dependable action, every predictable delivery, every flawless product, and every misstep develops mistrust. Actions, not words, create relationships with clients, and while “local” is the big concept we operate under, specific actions matter far more than the word—in fact, one shyster hiding behind the word “local” can do a great deal of damage, just as a wayward Christian can make all Christians look bad or a misguided patriot can make patriotism distasteful.
“Local” has had a bad reputation in the US at least since Mark Twain sarcastically remarked that an expert is “an ordinary fellow from another town.” Local often means untrained, lackluster service and uneven quality—here, anyone who eats seems to think he can run a restaurant (with predictable results), and anyone who uses a wrench calls himself a mechanic (with similar outcomes). While some eaters actually can cook and some home mechanics are brilliant, their less able competitors have destroyed the reputation of independent restaurants and mechanic shops, thus making it more difficult for even those with expertise to establish new businesses. That’s why people go to chain stores that have consistent quality and back up their product. You know what you’ll get when you stop at McDonald’s, be it in Poughkeepsie or Spokane, whereas a restaurant of uncertain heritage presents a risk. It’s up to each grower to develop the same trust a chain store or wholesaler inspires, and none of us should expect buyers to accept our product just because we’re local.
We’ve been facing the “local” stigma for thirty years. Sometimes designers are just stuck in old habits, accustomed to doing business as a hardware store might, checking off each item on the wholesaler’s list as they have for decades, then going off for a break. Some would love to try new things from local growers, but their clients prefer flowers they’re familiar with—a local florist here, though trained in California at a high-end shop and having gone to design school, has only managed to score a single “wild” wedding suitable for local flowers in the six years she’s been in business. Early on in our business, we tried to sell our “weird” flowers locally with very little success, though we sold the same flowers to wholesalers who sold to the same clients who rejected them when we offered them. The designers didn’t trust us but trusted the wholesalers.
Trust earns you increased business over time. Your customers begin to rely on you when they have a history, an accrued series of events and actions that tell them you’re the real deal. When you first meet a client, likely they’ve established a trusting relationship with their customers. They have regular suppliers they trust and you’re an intrusion into the normal state of affairs. Don’t demand their trust, earn it. Make the intrusion a good one, a pleasant unexpected surprise.
Don’t overpromise, instead over-deliver. Show up at the same time every week, send out your availability list at the same time, complete every order, alert clients about changes, don’t make mistakes but correct them when you do, leave imperfect flowers at home, have sufficient amounts of product to satisfy those you serve. Make “local” a universally good thing.