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Feature Story

The business of sympathy

Learn how funeral flowers can build goodwill and your bottom line.

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 sympathy work:
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 wholesalers.
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 person’s life.
4. Continually train your staff on the latest trends in sympathy work.
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.


lucrative business
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 and professional.’”
Most Price Chopper floral departments have consultation areas; if not, the floral manager and family members can meet in the food court.
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.

the flowers
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 sympathy guide.
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.

funeral directors
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

sympathy arrangement
Basket arrangements are among the most popular sympathy tributes. The basket here is a symmetrical triangular design.
casket spray
Sprays cover the casket during funeral or memorial services. Be sure you know the hearse dimensions so the casket spray will fit inside.
sympathy cross
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. $29.95.  

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.

family gratitude
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 sympathy services.
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 relationship.”
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 orders.
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.


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