Learn how funeral flowers can build goodwill and your bottom
by Cynthia L. McGowan
Sympathy work is a mainstay of the floral business, but it’s not
for everyone. Providing flowers at crucial life events like
funerals means a commitment in time, labor and resources. Super
Floral Retailing asked three industry professionals for advice
for companies just getting into the sympathy business and for
those that want to increase their sympathy work.
If you are considering adding sympathy work to your services,
“Tread cautiously, and go slowly,” recommends Jon Strom, vice
president of floral and lifestyle merchandising for New
York-based Price Chopper. Sympathy work requires the ability to
react to last-minute custom orders. “It’s the kind of thing you
don’t want to do halfway.”
Adds Sandy Hering, consultant with Floral Marketing Innovations,
“It’s very similar to the wedding business, where either you do
it well,” or you should not do it at all. You don’t want to
disappoint a customer during such an important event.
She offers four requirements that should be met before taking on
1. Keep supplies such as multiple vases, easels and tribute
forms on hand in your store or design center, or have the
ability to quickly acquire them from sister stores or
2. Be able to obtain the requested flowers quickly.
3. Have a location in the store for consultations.
4. Offer delivery services.
seven keys to sympathy sales
1. Make sure you can handle all the requirements for
sympathy work including having supplies on hand, quick access to
flowers, consultation areas and
2. Train your staff to talk with families about sympathy
flowers in a dignified, respectful way.
3. Offer personalized designs that reflect the deceased
4. Continually train your staff on the latest trends in
5. Cultivate relationships with funeral directors by
showing them you can meet their needs.
6. Get the word out about your work through
word-of-mouth, carefully phrased advertising, designing in view
of customers and the sympathy cards on designs.
7. Make sure your delivery drivers can help set up at the
funeral home if needed, or take the flowers yourself.
Stores that meet those requirements can thrive in the sympathy
business. Mr. Strom describes sympathy work as “a very
significant part” of his 115-store company’s floral business.
Diane Schulte, floral specialist for nine Blooming Basket floral
departments at Dick’s Piggly Wiggly, Inc. of Sheboygan, Wis.,
estimates that sympathy work makes up 15 percent of her floral
sales. Both companies offer complete sympathy services, creating
casket and easel sprays and other tributes as well as floral
arrangements sent by family and friends.
Both Price Chopper and Dick’s Piggly Wiggly train their floral
staffs to make grieving families feel as comfortable as
possible. “Our floral managers are very experienced in treating
people with respect and dignity,” shares Mr. Strom. “It’s just
as simple as letting everyone know, ‘Someone’s coming in half an
hour for a discussion on a sympathy piece; let’s just be quiet
Most Price Chopper floral departments have consultation areas;
if not, the floral manager and family members can meet in the
Dick’s Piggly Wiggly florists usually meet with families in the
stores’ meeting rooms for privacy. In addition, they sometimes
go to the funeral homes or to the clients’ homes. “We try to
make it as easy for them as we can,” Ms. Schulte describes.
“It’s such a bad period of time for them; you hate to have them
come into a busy store and feel uncomfortable.”
Ms. Hering advises stores to have other coverage in the
department while the floral manager is conducting consultations.
An interruption for a price check or other concern when talking
to a family about sympathy flowers “would be terribly
inappropriate,” she reminds.
To give families ideas for casket sprays and set pieces, Price
Chopper and Dick’s Piggly Wiggly show them designs from FTD
Group, Inc. and The John Henry Company selection guides. In
addition, Price Chopper partnered with FTD to produce a custom
Increasingly, families want sympathy designs that reflect the
person’s life and interests. “People today are not looking for
the standard casket spray of red roses,” Ms. Hering says.
Both Price Chopper and Dick’s Piggly Wiggly take care to
personalize sympathy flowers. Families “really appreciate it
when you can design something to specifically replicate what
that person’s life meant to them,” Ms. Schulte says, “and it
helps them through the process.”
Another trend Mr. Strom has noticed is the use of brighter
colors in sympathy flowers. The traditional reds and whites are
giving way to a more enlarged palette, he notes.
Ms. Schulte says people are sending more plants to funerals.
“People like the idea of something that [the families] are able
to keep afterward,” she remarks, adding that permanent designs
are becoming increasingly popular, too.
training for sympathy work
Price Chopper offers all its florists designer certification
training in partnership with FTD. The training includes basic
sympathy designs. Mr. Strom says on-the-job training continues
in the stores, and florists eventually work their way to
designing for entire funerals.
Dick’s Piggly Wiggly keeps its designers current with classes
and manager meetings. “I also take a lot of photos and share
them with the group as much as possible,” Ms. Schulte shares.
Both companies subscribe to industry publications, including
Super Floral Retailing, to keep up on current trends.
A key way to build your sympathy business is to cultivate
relationships with local funeral directors, Ms. Schulte says.
“They call us and give us orders,” she shares, “because they
know our work and know we do a good job.”
Mr. Strom says it is crucial to set the right tone when working
with a funeral home for the first time. “Impress them with your
professionalism, with the beauty of your arrangements, with your
timeliness, and with your courtesy and concern for the
activities that are going on around you as you work inside the
home,” he says.
Ms. Schulte meets with local funeral directors once a year to
remind them of the stores’ services, find out what the
directors’ needs are and “just let them know that we’re here to
make it as easy for them as we can.”
For example, with large services, the floral staff will go to
the funeral homes and help with placement of flowers. Ms.
Schulte also has started providing decorative permanent easels
that remain at the funeral homes and can be reused. In addition,
she provides the funeral homes complimentary one-year supplies
of tissue for their clients, branded with the Blooming Basket
logo. “Take good care” of funeral directors, Ms. Schulte
suggests, “and they’ll take good care of you.”
seven keys to sympathy sales
Basket arrangements are among the most popular sympathy
tributes. The basket here is a symmetrical triangular
Sprays cover the casket during funeral or memorial
services. Be sure you know the hearse dimensions so the
casket spray will fit inside.
Set-pieces like this sympathy cross are symbolic forms
that are completely covered in floral materials. They
often represent something important to the
These photos and definitions
are from the new book Flower Arranging: Step-by-Step
Instructions for Everyday Designs. To order, visit the
Bookstore, or call (800) 355-8086. 160 pages.
getting the word out
Referrals from funeral directors and satisfied clients will help
get the word out about your sympathy business, and there are
other steps you can take, too.
Advertising sympathy work can be a touchy subject—you don’t want
to appear crass, but with the right words and look, you can get
a tasteful message to customers. Ms. Schulte says Dick’s Piggly
Wiggly places “carefully worded advertising” in local
newspapers. An example is, “When words aren’t enough to show how
much you care, please call the Blooming Basket, and we can take
care of your needs.”
Ms. Hering advocates doing all design work in full view of
customers so they can see what the floral department can create.
“People like to see a florist work, and it’s great publicity to
any of the customers who are in the store that day,” she says,
adding that finished sympathy designs should remain in view
until they are delivered. That can get customers thinking, “I
can use this supermarket as a florist for the next time I need
sympathy flowers,” she offers.
This strategy works for Price Chopper, where all the floral
counters are in the front or middle of the departments. “People
walking by just subliminally go, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know they
did that,’” Mr. Strom relates.
And don’t overlook the importance of the sympathy cards that you
attach to arrangements. Every sympathy piece should have your
company’s name written in a subtle and professional style.
During visitations, Ms. Hering says, people will be looking at
the flowers and noticing what florists created them.
Almost all sympathy work is delivered to funeral homes. It’s a
key part of the service, Mr. Strom says.
Price Chopper has its own delivery service within about 60 miles
of its Schenectady, N.Y., headquarters with uniformed
professional drivers. “They often not only deliver but also do
some of the setup,” he relates. “They know the funeral homes,
and they know the protocol of a setup of a sympathy piece.”
In its other markets, the floral managers hire outside drivers
or train store associates to deliver the flowers. With large
funerals, the floral managers may go themselves to do the setup.
Price Chopper charges a fee for delivery.
Dick’s Piggly Wiggly also delivers, making sure to get the
flowers to the funeral home about two hours before families are
expected to arrive. This allows time for the funeral directors
or delivery staff to set up the arrangements, Ms. Schulte
describes. The company doesn’t charge for sympathy deliveries.
The monetary rewards for a thriving sympathy business can be
substantial, but so can the intangible benefits, such as a
family’s gratitude during a time of need. Both Mr. Strom and Ms.
Schulte report receiving verbal and written thanks for their
Mr. Strom says he receives two types of thank-yous: from
families expressing gratitude for the stores’ willingness to
accept their orders at the last minute and from others offering
thanks for the service they received. He shares a typical
comment: “Your floral designer took our hand and walked us
through and created the most memorable and beautiful flowers,
and my mother cried when she saw them.”
Ms. Schulte also receives thank-yous from families, and says,
“It gives everyone such a lift to know their work has helped
them during this difficult time.”
a floral partnership
Sandy Hering, consultant with Floral Marketing
Innovations, offers a solution for supermarkets that would
like to enter the sympathy business but don’t have
the space or labor for consultations. She suggests teaming up
with a local funeral home for a “mutually beneficial
The supermarket would put together a floral menu, similar to a
wedding package, with suggested designs and prices. The funeral
director would use the menu to
do the floral consultation in the funeral home and take the
The menu still could allow for personalization of flowers, Ms.
Hering says, while making sympathy work simpler for supermarket
florists. Funeral homes would
benefit, she says, because, increasingly, they are trying to put
complete packages together for their clients. “This fits in with
their idea of becoming full
service and taking care of every need the family has,” she says.
You may reach Cynthia L. McGowan by e-mail at
or by phone at (800) 355-8086.