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Feature Story

The art of selling tropicals

Build a successful program by understanding the uniqueness of these beautiful products and who your target audience is.

by Monica Humbard

The tropical flower category has barely been tapped in this country, and author and consultant Rene van Rems, AIFD, PFCI, says supermarket floral departments are missing a “huge” potential market by not merchandising tropicals in their stores.
Contemporary interior design magazines give numerous examples of how to use tropical flowers in the home. When maintained properly along the distribution chain, tropicals offer an exceptionally long decorative life, as many as five weeks for some varieties of Anthuriums.
One of the keys to a successful tropical program is remembering that these flowers are exotic. Therefore, you must approach them differently from most flowers when it comes to target audience, care and handling, and merchandising.

identify the customer
Despite their long vase life and trendiness, tropicals tend to appeal to a particular audience. In California, where Mr. van Rems is based, he describes the average tropical consumer as an upper-class urban dweller who doesn’t like clutter—“Anyone who eats sushi,” he quips. But in all seriousness, he says, you do see some marketing parallels between sushi consumers and tropical flower buyers.
Tropical customers often have more discretionary income than most of their fellow floral shoppers. Beyond the fact that tropicals can be a little pricier than other flowers, Mr. van Rems explains that their larger size also demands bigger vases, so they look more at home in roomier spaces. As a result, they appeal more to those who live in larger homes.
Although the size and price of the average tropical flower may seem to limit its appeal, don’t eliminate the possibilities if your market is not high end. Paul Massaro, marketing director for Plantas Y Flores Ornamentales, a tropical flower grower based in San Jose, Costa Rica, has witnessed success in the United States with smaller versions of tropicals, such as Heliconias (lobster claws) with only one bract and gingers (Alpinias) with 14-inch-long stems and 5- to 6-inch-long heads. In addition, these versions are easier and less expensive to air ship because they are not as heavy as other varieties.
Mr. van Rems points out that tropical flowers also tend to appeal to consumers in their 20s or 30s who recognize what’s “hip.” He says these probably aren’t going to be the flowers someone takes to Grandma in the hospital.
In Hawaii, particularly in Honolulu, which has about 1.25 million city dwellers, the demographics are a little different. According to Eric Tanouye, vice president of the Hawaii Tropical Flower Council, Hawaii typically ships its highest-quality tropical products out of the state and sells the seconds locally. Therefore, tropicals sell for less, so they are not limited to the affluent. Mr. Tanouye says 30- to 70-year-old business professionals who live in condos are among the most common tropical flower purchasers.
Member’s of Hawaii’s large Asian-American population make frequent tropical flower purchases, Mr. Tanouye says. Many are Buddhist, he says, and they maintain shrines in their homes on which they regularly place flowers. It also is an Asian tradition to take flowers to the grave sites of family members once a week. The elderly purchase sleeved tropical bouquets from supermarkets for this purpose, often choosing Anthurium, ginger or Heliconia bouquets because of their durability.
Children of Asian descent learn to become tropical flower purchasers at an early age because they accompany their elders to the cemeteries. Beyond this group, Mr. Tanouye believes one of the keys to reaching younger consumers is appealing to their environmentally conscious attitudes and catching their attention with colorful packaging.
Men are another group that offers much potential for expanding tropical flower sales in your department. Mr. van Rems explains that tropicals are “cool with guys” because men don’t find them as feminine or as intimidating as other types of flowers.

hula through the holidays
Who says tropical flowers are only for the summer months? If you find that tropicals are popular items at your store, consider a holiday promotion. Here are some ideas from the Hawaiian market.
Eric Tanouye, vice president of the Hawaii Tropical Flower Council, says that traditional favorites like poinsettias and Northwestern evergreens are popular decorations for the holidays in Hawaii, too, but the Hawaiian hospitality industry caters to tourists who want to see tropicals when they visit. As a result, designers for this industry choose tropicals and their complements from a Christmas color palette. An arrangement might include red gingers, yellow Cymbidium orchids and green tropical foliage.
In a supermarket at Christmas time, Mr. Tanouye says, you will see Northwestern evergreens, including holly, incorporated into tropical bouquets. The bouquets are made more festive with Christmas-themed sleeves.

merchandise properly
In California, Mr. van Rems says, one of the biggest challenges is just getting tropicals into stores. Because the state has so many flowers grown locally, there is a lot of competition for shelf space.
When the tropicals do reach the floral departments, he says, they are often displayed improperly. Here are suggestions for merchandising tropicals:
DISPLAY THEM AT EYE LEVEL Mixed tropical bouquets often are merchandised in buckets on the floor. But because of the architectural forms of these flowers, Mr. van Rems says, they should be placed on cubes, pedestals or even counters at eye level to make the most of the limited time you have to get customers’ attention. Mr. Tanouye says Costco Wholesale Corp. merchandises tropicals in its Hawaii locations on racks in clear sleeves so consumers can see the bright colors of the blooms.
GIVE THEM THEIR OWN SPACE Reserve a particular space in your department for tropicals. The Hawaii Costcos have kiosks reserved for tropical bouquets and leis, Mr. Tanouye says.
Mr. van Rems suggests blocking flowers by categories in the same manner that produce departments separate their products. When categorizing, keep in mind that true tropicals are grown in tropical climates and have bright colors and a waxy texture. Other flowers with a similar exotic appearance often are included the same category, such as subtropical birds-of-paradise (Strelitzias) and Proteas. While not true tropicals, they are good choices for combining with tropicals in displays and arrangements.
Although it is acceptable to blur the edges of the tropical category for some flowers, this is not always the case. You should never merchandise tropicals with flowers such as roses and sunflowers, Mr. van Rems says. Even if your tropicals and roses happened to arrive in the United States on the same plane, they don’t necessarily belong together in a display. Mr. van Rems points out that these types of flowers appeal to different customers. “Each group of flowers has its own personality,” he says, “and the effective retailer knows those personalities.”
PUT THEM IN THE SPOTLIGHT. Mr. van Rems says lighting is extremely important for tropicals because of their brilliant colors. He suggests at least one spotlight in your tropical displays.
TONE DOWN THE DISPLAY SETTING. Unlike other flowers in your department, tropicals need little accessorizing to make their point. These flowers, with their interesting textures and brilliant colors, are the show and need a serene, clean, crisp setting in which to perform. This setting also helps tropical buyers more easily visualize them in their homes. Mr. van Rems says those who purchase tropicals appreciate that they are buying a sculpture that comes off best in a minimalist presentation.
KEEP THEM OUT OF THE COLD. Unless you have a cooler designed specifically for tropicals, these flowers never should be stored in one. These temperamental flowers do best in temperatures between 55 F and 70 F, which leaves little room for error. Also beware of drafty locations, such as near doors.
GIVE IDEAS FOR USING TROPICALS. In addition to merchandising your tropical selection for sell-through purposes, you also need to display the flowers in arrangements for customers who are unfamiliar with them. For example, Mr. van Rems suggests placing a clear vase filled with oranges, curly willows and two Heliconias near your selection. This shows customers how simple it is to arrange tropicals, and gives them an idea of what to combine with tropicals.
ADD AN ELEMENT OF SURPRISE. No matter how spectacular your selection of tropicals is, once in a while, offer shoppers something unexpected, and limit its availability. This gives customers the feeling that it is in season and a sense of urgency in purchasing it.
Every three to four months, Mr. Tanouye says, Costcos in Hawaii feature 8-inch and 10-inch Anthurium plants, which consumers can’t find elsewhere. Each time, about 95 percent of the plants sell. The unsold products are sent to a nearby nursery. Mr. Tanouye says the program works great because customers get something new, the store has almost complete sell-through and a backup plan is scheduled for the leftover product.

care tips for tropicals
Anthuriums, with a vase life of more than a month, are the most durable among tropicals. In addition, they do not dirty the water or fall apart easily. Gingers (Alpinias) and Heliconias (lobster claws) also have long-lasting qualities. With proper care and handling, they can last 21 days or more.
Make sure your flowers live up to their reputation for long vase life by following these simple care tips.

1. Cut at least 1 inch from the bottom of the stems, and place into flower-food solution.
2. Store at 55 F to 60 F and upright to prevent bending problems.

1. Flowers often do not continue development after harvest, so choose the most open for best display.
2. Cut at least 1 inch from the bottom of the stems, and place into flower-food solution.
3. To remove the white powder that often covers the flower heads, stems and leaves, sponge the areas with a room-temperature solution of soap that contains a few drops of cooking oil, then rinse with fresh water, and allow to dry.
4. Store at 55 F to 65 F (three days or fewer) or 53 F to 55 F (more than three days). They are extremely chill sensitive.

Sources: The Chain of Life NetworkÆ,
Hawaii Tropical Flower Council,
SAF’s Flower & Plant Care manual,

educate the shopper
Fear of the unknown keeps many shoppers from trying tropicals. Therefore, you should make it a point to educate your customers about them. Vendors can provide information for your staff as well as your customers that covers how to merchandise, display and arrange tropicals.
The Hawaii Tropical Flower Council also has care and handling information available on its Web site,, as well as a DVD that you can request through member suppliers. The DVD has care and handling information for retailers and consumers as well as beautiful photos of tropical flower fields at commercial nurseries. Mr. Tanouye says you could play it in your department to attract attention to a tropical flower display.
The cost of tropicals also can intimidate customers. Place a simple arrangement in your display with signage that gives the estimated cost to reproduce it themselves. This will demonstrate that, while tropicals may cost a little more per stem, not as many are needed to make an impressive arrangement.

true tropicals and their floral complements
True tropical flowers are ones that are native to the region between the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere and the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern.

True tropicals

Complementary flowers
These flowers will make ideal complements to true tropical flowers in designs.

Source: Rene van Rems, AIFD, PFCI


make a commitment
If you decide that you might have a market for tropicals, Mr. van Rems says, make the commitment and stick to it. He stresses that tropicals are not flowers you can try once and immediately decide they are not for your audience. At first, you may need to arrange your department so that customers almost run into the tropical display. It could take up to three months for tropicals to “catch on,” Mr. van Rems says, but don’t give up.

temperamental tropicals
One of the strongest selling points for tropicals is their long vase life. But can you deliver on this vase life promise? Paul Massaro, marketing director for Plantas Y Flores Ornamentales, a tropical flower farm based in San JosÈ, Costa Rica, believes many retailers don’t, whether they realize it or not, which may be costing them repeat tropical sales.
For the past three years, Mr. Massaro has worked on improving the distribution chain for tropicals. His company has its own tropical cooler facilities at the airports in Costa Rica and Miami. Once the flowers are in the United States, the company transports the flowers in its own refrigerated truck set at 60 degrees, a significantly higher temperature than they normally would be transported at if mixed with other varieties.
The company takes these steps, he says, because keeping tropicals at the optimal temperature is not easy. To get the best vase life from these temperamental flowers, Mr. Massaro says, they must be kept at around 55 degrees throughout the distribution chain. Anything less will damage the flowers. Temperatures over 70 degrees result in decreased vase life as well.
Mr. Massaro maintains that if tropicals are kept below 50 F for more than eight hours, the shelf life drops to three to four days. Dark spots on tropicals when they are delivered to your store might indicate that the flowers were exposed to the cold temperatures, but Mr. Massaro says many times the flowers look normal and retailers don’t realize what has happened. The consumers experience the loss, remember paying more for them than other flowers and don’t purchase again.
Because of improper temperatures along the distribution chain, Mr. Massaro says many tropicals are not arriving with their full vase life intact. While air shipping might solve the temperature problems, he says it is too expensive to ship the average tropicals, which can be around 32 inches long, because they are so large and bulky.
Mr. Massaro believes that all the proper merchandising and promotions are wasted if the flowers don’t deliver the vase life promised to consumers. Check with your suppliers to see what steps they take to make sure your flowers arrive in top shape at your store.

You may reach reach Amy Bauer by e-mail at or by phone at (800) 355-8086.

Photos courtesy of:
California Cut Flower Commission,
Flower Council of Holland,
Gallup & Stribling Orchids, Carpenteria, Calif.,
Hawaii Tropical Flower Council,


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