I’m lying in my bed gazing out the window over the opaque blanket covering the back lawn, the frosty sheet is a sign of bitter months ahead and adapting life to the blight of winter.
Just eight weeks ago, I stood among the olive and eucalyptus at Merne at the Lighthouse on the Bellarine Peninsula witnessing my nephew marry his love; a moment in time stolen from the grips of a worldwide health crisis. As we clinked our glasses, we might not have known about the international chaos unfolding but for the obvious exclusion of some VIP guests who were not present due to quarantine restrictions. As the couple said their “I do’s” we awkwardly resisted hugging and kissing the newlyweds as they conjoined their lives in the midst of a modern pandemic. During speeches, the groom thanked family and friends, the bride praised me for the cache of flowers and Daniel Andrews simultaneously made his own address from somewhere in Melbourne; we were thrust into lockdown from the very next day. Weddings would be restricted to five people. I scanned the ninety-strong crowd celebrating in front of me and felt immensely grateful that the last floral event for some time was my own nephews wedding.
The next day started a new chapter in the story of Smellies. The doorstep of my humble, florist shop became an enemy line against an invisible, ruthless foe. The shopfront was locked, we secluded our workspace, we asked suppliers to deliver out of hours, we accelerated our online platform and we learnt a new language; the dialogue of COVID-19. Contactless. Sanitised. Socially distant. Isolated.
Everything we built our retail business model on had evaporated and change became our lifeline.
In paddocks around Australia, farmers gazed upon rows and rows of blooming, mid-autumn colour destined for an audience at weddings and events that were now sanctioned. Instead of those petals receiving the applause of guests at celebrations, the colour was toiled back into the earth beneath the rubber tyres of tractors that left the furrows bare. Worldwide, flower markets we devastated by a surplus of flowers and few, if any buyers. Scenes of flowers at the world’s biggest flower market in Holland being thrown into dumpsters served an ominous prediction for many Australian flower growers. After ploughing their autumn crops for no reward, many did not replant a crop for what they thought would be a barren marketplace by winter harvest.
Our own prospects were diminishing, without physical face-to-face sales in our shopfront, we put off staff. Our corporate clients cancelled regular flower drops, our bridal couples were postponing their weddings, hospitals refused to accept deliveries for staff or patients, funerals were scaled back with crowd restrictions. Our immediate and future cashflow streams were drying up with no idea of when the money would start to ripple again. Then something remarkable happened.....
After a couple of weeks of settling into isolated family and working lives, people started to realise that florists were one of the few industries that could operate safely and within restrictions enabling occasions to be acknowledged and celebrated still, from distant, social incarceration. Our website sales from day-to-day grew exponentially, people who had never used our online platform embraced the service and the massive shortfall in retail sales were being made up, in part, from lounge room clicking and home office purchasers. We employed more delivery drivers, without physical in-store sales, every single sale required distribution, creating unprecedented freight coordination. The conversations with our suppliers shifted from uncertainty to a more positive tone and as lockdowns remained steadfast so did our resolve to keep wheels turning and provide what, ideally, resulted in Smellies becoming an “essential service”, the service of connecting people.
While we were experiencing an unexpected boon, our hospitality neighbours and clientele were decimated. Our own local flower supplies were becoming increasingly limited, so we diversified, collaborated and began on-selling products from those hit hardest to help keep some cash flowing their way and pay forward some of our exceptional luck.
We offered pre-packed food from DAL Catering, wine from Mt Duneed Estate and Jack Rabbit Vineyard, treats from The Great Ocean Road Chocolaterie and Freckleberry, hand care products from Huxter Home, vegetable and herb seedlings from a local nursery. Our online customers bought anything we posted on the website: flowers, food, treats, plants, gifts and wine. Easter is normally an expensive 4-day holiday for small businesses, but this year was the biggest Easter trade we have had in 24 years of business while people in lockdown could do nothing else but send packages of goodies to each other.
We adapted to long working days, limited flowers and constant planning around what we could offer online, the shop became a mini studio for photography, video and creating content to keep our isolated customers coming. In the lead up to Mother’s Day it became obvious that sales were going to be huge and flower supplies would not. Closing Australian borders meant imported flowers that make up almost 50% of our wholesale market, would not be flown in from all parts of the world for the biggest floral trade period of every year. Local flower growers were overwhelmed with demand for their products, not something they ever planned their planting for. Little shops like mine (who do not buy imported flowers) found that my easily accessible local supply chain was being infiltrated by many more businesses desperate for flowers, those who would normally buy overseas products. My local growers supplied what I needed and we sold out of every last bloom before the day came around, our website and phone had to be closed down to cope with the inundation of online orders.
We knew that the post Mother’s Day hangover would be a particularly big headache and there would be very little to buy, so we took the opportunity to shut the doors temporarily, regroup and allow the local flowers to grow.
The past 10 days of reflection from my home base have allowed me to breathe more freely than I have for eight weeks. Distance from screens, phones, anxious customers, daily conversations about COVID-19 and stress about “what next” has been welcomed. The flower markets are empty. Empty of local produce for now. The earth is telling us to stop, take heed, to proceed quietly, slowly, cautiously and I am listening.
Imported flowers are filtering back into our fallow marketplace along with dyed, dried, preserved, bleached flowers and sprayed foliage. I’m sad to see that people are getting excited about peonies from France, chrysanthemums from Asia and roses from Kenya. There are lessons in all this chaos and I don’t think that allowing flowers from far afield back into our shores is a lesson well learned.
I’m excited by the proteas growing down the road from where I live in Inverleigh, the late season hydrangeas from our grower in the Otways and the ‘slow flower movement’ blooms unfurling in Curlewis. I will give those paddocks and those growers time to breathe, regenerate and provide what we need when the earth is ready.
Back to the view of my frosty back lawn and the morning sun is beginning to soften the tips of each little stalagmite. I’m grateful for the recent addition of covers on my raised garden beds, the ominous effects of tiny, icy mounds on my newly planted broccoli and carrots seedlings has been circumvented. There will be hearty winter soups after all; I have conquered the frost and fended off the bugs.
There are enemies all around us, some you can see, some you can’t.
Adapt, hustle, modify, change.
Be patient and listen to your inner fighter, we are all on the same side of this crazy battle and I’m ready to lead the charge.