Online Shopping - Interflora takes the blushes out of sending flowers to Snuggle Bunny.

Most of us have bought flowers at some time in our lives. If you’re a woman it’s most likely that you went into a shop on your way to visit a friend or relative. If you’re a man, you probably picked up the phone and scanned the Yellow Pages for an Interflora Freefone number, and had them delivered.

Most of us have bought flowers at some time in our lives. If you’re a

woman it’s most likely that you went into a shop on your way to visit a

friend or relative. If you’re a man, you probably picked up the phone and

scanned the Yellow Pages for an Interflora Freefone number, and had them

delivered.



According to Interflora’s experience, how you buy your flowers depends to

a large extent on sex, that is to say, gender. Women aged between 35 and

54, buying over the counter, account for around three-quarters of all

flowers sold. Of the remainder, most are bought over the phone by men in

the 20-35 age group, with a small but growing proportion going through

online sales - almost exclusively to young men. Why young men choose to

send flowers in such numbers also has something to do with sex, that is to

say, romance. Importantly, Interflora’s latest online idea includes a

service to help you compose suitably convincing sentiments for your

Valentine bouquets.



New media, including online malls and in-flight systems, currently account

for about half of one per cent of Interflora’s orders.



However, says Interflora head of communications, Howard Park: ”The rate of

growth for new media is similar to the early take-up of telephone ordering

when that was introduced.” And the stakes are high. After seven years

averaging eight per cent annual growth, the cut flower market in the UK is

worth œ1.3bn. Interflora’s share is just under a quarter of that.



Telephone ordering was introduced 10 years ago and now accounts for around

10 per cent of turnover. The organisation takes about one million

telephone orders per year. With comparable growth rates now occurring for

new media, Interflora sees itself on the threshold of a major strategic

development.



Says Park: ”Interflora is now at a crossroads. We need to consider much

more investment in supporting our initiatives on e-commerce. It can no

longer be run as incremental business.”



To understand how Interflora arrived at this crossroads it’s necessary to

look at the organisation itself. ”We are similar in many respects to a

franchise network but without the formal controls,” says Park. In fact

Interflora is neither a franchise, a limited company nor a plc, but a

huge, internationally-networked, non-profit-making trade association which

even has its own currency, the Fleurin.



Florists who want to join Interflora must pass certain quality thresholds,

take a training course at the headquarters of the ”UK Unit” in Sleaford,

Lincolnshire and pay an annual subscription of œ540. There are currently

2,500 independent florist members in the UK and 58,000 worldwide.



Once part of the network, florists participate in a reciprocal

order-taking and fulfilment scheme for long-distance deliveries. The

florist who takes the order also takes 20 per cent of the price of the

bouquet.



The florists who make the deliveries accept reduced margins - for example,

they take œ8 for a bouquet they would sell over the counter for œ10, and

it all evens out over time. There’s also a œ2.99 service charge which gets

split between the order taker and Interflora’s head office.



International orders, involving potentially complex currency exchanges,

have been simplified since the introduction of the Fleurin in 1948.

Exchange rates are set monthly by each national Interflora Unit.

Communications between UK members have been achieved, for the last 10

years or so, using computers connected via an ancient BT service known as

T-Link. The system is soon to be updated as part of the overall new-media

plan.



In order to steer Interflora towards a coherent new-media strategy, Park -

who claims to be ”the least technically-minded person you could hope to

meet” - and his new-media manager, Janette Wickens, faced the daunting

task of convincing the Interflora board of the potential of new media.



The nine-member board - florists elected tri-annually from within the

network - must approve all decisions affecting overall strategy.



”The board are all quite receptive and creative business people

themselves,” says Wickens. ”But they’re not technical at all. We managed

to convince them, however, that since some members were already using the

net and creating web sites themselves, it would be better to get organised

and do it centrally.”



The newly-formed team of Park and Wickens decided to market Interflora

through one of the country’s first net-based stores, Rosetta Milestone, in

1994. ”Production values were low,” says Park with a rueful chuckle.



”They used graphics scanned in from printed catalogues. It was difficult

to find and difficult to use.”



Interflora parted company with Rosetta Milestone after 18 months at which

point it was receiving about one order per day from the system. Park and

Wickens didn’t see this as a failure, however, partly because of the

results of an encouraging trial on the Galleria 21 kiosk at Heathrow

airport.



This combined with their experience in the 1980s of generating orders via

teletext as well as low-volume trial with Minitel-type terminals, to

convince them that online ordering had potential.



”Considering that all those systems were not very user-friendly, we were

surprised at how many orders we did get,” says Wickens. ”What was

interesting with Rosetta Milestone,was that the orders were global,” she

adds.



Interflora persevered, joining up with various new online shopping

environments as they emerged. The brand is currently available on

CompuServe, BarclaySquare, LineOne and in a jointly branded exercise with

Sainsbury’s. ”We have gained lots of useful experience at a relatively low

cost,” says Park. ”It started out as a very small outlay, as incremental

business, and that’s the way it’s stayed until now.”



Last year, Interflora teamed up with BT and the specialist agency Module

Communications to develop software for in-flight entertainment

systems.



The latest development has been a link-up with Lauda Air as part of its

’Dream Factory’ airline interactive service. Amongst other things, this

enables passengers to order flowers from Interflora, using a key-pad,

during their flight.



At the beginning of 1996 Park went on record as saying he anticipated that

new-media outlets would account for one per cent of Interflora’s business

within the year. Eighteen months on, his prediction turns out to have

fallen short by half. Nevertheless his faith remains unshaken: ”I’m not

disappointed,” he says. ”That still represents very significant growth and

we expect more.”



This is the crossroads Park and Wickens have reached, and to achieve this

continued growth Interflora is taking the plunge and launching its own web

site. Says Wickens: ”It’s a big investment for us considering the way

we’ve worked up until now. However, we’ve been able to do it because costs

are significantly lower than they were a year ago.” Wickens refuses to

divulge figures, but work on constructing the site with Hammersmith-based

agency Foresight has already been going on for six months. The web site is

due to go live in December.



Says Wickens: ”We feel that third-party malls are already on the decline

in the US although over here they probably still have some way to grow. In

the long-term though, we need our own web site. Starting one up is no

different to starting any other kind of shop. It requires a lot of

thought, planning and investment.”



According to Wickens, the web site will be targeted at new users on the

internet. It aims to be simple to use and easy to navigate, and will offer

UK and international delivery options as well as flower-related

magazine-style features and, of course, that sentimental message helpline

for clueless Romeos.



The introduction of the web site will coincide with an overhaul of

Interflora’s ordering and internal communications system. Currently all

online orders are routed through the base at Sleaford where they are

printed out before being re-entered into the telephone ordering system.

Telephone orders are either automatically directed to a local florist via

a call-divert, or routed through Sleaford depending on when and from where

the order is placed.



”Ultimately we want all orders, whether they originate from phone,

computer, kiosk or wherever, to funnel into our central system, where they

will all be processed together,” says Wickens.



Group communication is being improved with the introduction of new

computers distributed by Sleaford. They’re replacing the steam-powered

T-Link system with a communications package provided by CompuServe. As

well as simplifying business, says Park, this should also see-off some of

the few remaining BBC Acorns and similar museum pieces that many

Interflora florists have been using happily for the last 15 years.



For the future, while Interflora’s attention is sharply focused on the

web, Park is keeping a close eye on developments in digital TV: ”We’ve

seen a lot of presentations from people with various ideas but so far we

haven’t made a commitment. We think digital TV could accelerate the whole

take-up of e-commerce.”





WHY THE NET IS PERFECT FOR FLOWERS



Don’t underestimate the ”snuggle-bunny factor” when it comes to assessing

the popularity of flowers on the internet. BarclaySquare discovered early

on that people were turning to online ordering to spare themselves the

embarrassment of dictating messages such as ”To Fluffy Cuddlesome from

Huggy Bunnikins” to a florist.



Flowers are one of the products leading the way in online sales. In a

recent Yahoo! user survey, flowers emerged as the fifth most popular item

for online shoppers, after software, books, electronics and CDs. On

average, the survey showed, online shoppers in the UK spent œ45 on flowers

over the first six months of this year.



Datamonitor consultant Luca Newbold says he believes the high take-up of

flowers online is partly explained by the strong correlation between

buyers and internet users. ”If you look at the demographics of internet

users, largely men aged 20-35 earning œ20,000 a year, that probably

correlates strongly with the people who buy flowers.” Newbold’s comments

fall largely into line with the experience of Interflora. People who order

flowers over the telephone, rather than over the counter, tend to be men

in this age group.



This switch from telephone ordering to online ordering seems a

comparatively easy one and Newbold also identifies the snuggle-bunny

factor as a key incentive.



”If you take that potential for embarrassment into account, it would

encourage some people to order from their computer terminal,” he says.



Flowers also fulfil two of the most important criteria for any product

being marketed through new-media outlets, says Newbold: ”Flowers are a

highly visual product.



When you can actually see a representation of the bouquet you’re going to

buy, that’s a huge advantage over telephone ordering.



”The other obvious advantage is that the delivery network is already in

place. People are used to having flowers delivered and the existing

systems for doing that are tried and tested. A mature delivery system is

essential for any remote ordering service.”





LESSONS FROM INTERFLORA ONLINE



Interflora’s experience provides a number of insights for anyone thinking

about selling high-value, perishable goods via new-media outlets.



The predominant characteristic of Interflora’s approach has been a

willingness to experiment, combined with a cautious approach to spending.

However, as Janette Wickens explains, the point comes when a more serious

investment is required.



”The problem we’re starting to experience, being in a number of different

online malls, is that they’ve all developed slightly different

protocols.



It’s becoming time consuming to service them all when new products come

along. That’s one of the reasons we’re going for our own web site,” she

says.



Flowers lend themselves to online sales because they are highly

visual.



However, the choice of products available is surprisingly limited, at

least in the case of Interflora.



According to Wickens a limited range is the only practical solution. ”Many

flowers that are available in the region or country where the order is

made are not available where it is fulfilled. We’ve found the answer to

this problem is to go for a small range of standard products.”



The possibility of allowing online customers to build their own bouquets

in an interactive way has also been rejected. ”Customers wanting to design

their own bouquets would drive the florists insane. Making up a virtual

bouquet is a lot quicker and easier than doing it for real,” says

Wickens.



A similar problem was experienced by the Brighton-based agency Victoria

Real in developing online software for a pizza delivery service. The

firm’s joint-managing director Rob Love comments: ”If you’re ordering a

pizza online you ideally want to be able to build up a variety of toppings

and see what it looks like as you go. ”Online, most people haven’t got the

graphics capability to handle that.” Love’s RealTrade software system is

designed to get round the problem.



”What we’re doing is distributing discs with all the graphics on so when

you log-on to the pizza site all you’re doing is updating the system and

downloading the order.”



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