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20,000 roses, inflation and night terrors: the life of a florist on Valentine's Day

Rose prices are up all over the world this year as costs have risen for airfare, fuel, labor, fertilizer and other components. Demand hasn't changed, though, people want their red roses for Valentine's Day.
AFP via Getty Images
Rose prices are up all over the world this year as costs have risen for airfare, fuel, labor, fertilizer and other components. Demand hasn't changed, though, people want their red roses for Valentine's Day.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Scotts Flowers just before Valentine's Day is the quiet. People are focused.

The storefront at the Manhattan florist is serene and immaculate, full of tastefully arranged Valentine's bouquet displays.

Right up front is the classic: 12 red roses arranged in a circular vase: The Modern Dozen, $135. There are also single roses for sale.

In the back of the store, though, things are full on:

About a dozen people stand at long, stainless steel tables, silent and focused: trimming stems and leaves and arranging the flowers in the vases lined up in front of them.

The floor is covered in stems, leaves and red petals. Everyone drinks coffee.

Welcome to the world behind your Valentine's Day roses.

The Super Bowl for florists

Chris Palliser owns Scotts Flowers with his two brothers. He says Valentine's Day is huge - they have to get it right.

"Valentine's Day is the Super Bowl," he says. "It's the biggest holiday of the year for us."

It's also the biggest single day of the year for the $8 billion global flower industry. And it is all about the rose.

Roses actually invade the dreams of Rob Palliser, Chris's brother. "The three days before Valentine's Day, I'm having... I don't know if you want to call them night terrors or dreams, but you're dreaming roses, right? It's that all consuming."

The nightmares are kind of understandable. 20,000 roses will funnel through this one flower shop for Valentine's Day.

No room for error

And on Valentine's Day, there's no margin for error.

People want their 12 red roses delivered to their Valentine today. Scotts Flowers can't be a day late, or a rose short.

They can't swap in some other flower if their roses get stuck in Miami, which happened one year .

They can't really even prepare that much because most people place their orders at the very last minute.

"It's the last two days. It's insane," says Chris, Palliser. "At the end of the day, the procrastinators still win. That's when everything comes in."

As I spoke with Chris and Rob, a little printer behind them was grinding out order after order after order. More than a thousand orders will pass through that little printer for this one day.

A rose on any other day

Roses are not coming cheap this year. At Scotts Flowers, a dozen roses will set you back $135, which is more than $10 a rose.

But Chris Palliser says that's barely enough to cover costs. Even though Valentine's Day is the busiest day of the year, it's not all that profitable.

The reason? Blame the roses...

Most of them were grown near the equator. By the time they are placed into the hands of your Valentine, they have traveled thousands of miles and likely visited multiple countries.

The rising cost of airfare, fuel and shipping have really pushed prices up. This year, wholesale prices in the US are reportedly between $1 - $3. It's about 50% higher than last year.

"Obviously, it's Valentine's Day, you have to offer roses," says Rob Palliser. "But red roses, it's very difficult to hit the margins you're trying to hit."

A rose is a rose is a rose...

Red roses. The Valentine's day classic. The default expression of love the world over. The global competition for these flowers on this day is fierce and expensive.

"We should be charging $150 if we wanted to hit the same margin we try to hit with other flowers," says Chris Palliser.

But they simply can't pass those prices on because at the same time as prices are rising, customers have gotten pretty price sensitive. Chris and Rob Palliser say they just can't adjust rose prices to keep up with costs.

And for a big one day push like Valentine's Day, there are a lot of costs: Scotts Flowers has hired about 20 extra workers, they have rented a refrigerated truck that's parked outside for additional storage space. Then there's delivery, shipping, handwritten cards...

My love is a red, red... tulip?

To try and make the Valentine's math a little rosier, Chris and Rob Palliser are offering a lot of bouquets that feature alternative flowers this year.

"We try to educate customers," says Rob Palliser. "These bouquets have really premium flowers. A lot of people prefer them."

Case in point: The Boho Blush Bouquet. It features tulips, orchids, mums, and four white and pink roses.

It's very ethereal and light. The cost: $185.

Roses are King

Scotts Flowers is offering a bunch of these alternative bouquets for Valentine's Day and they've been selling really well this year, which is great for the shop because the profit margins are much better than for the dozen roses.

But the whole time we're talking, the printer keeps churning out order after order. These are the last minute orders and Chris Palliser says he knows exactly what they are.

"You will see red roses only coming in. That's what everyone wants."

The traditional Valentine's Day panic purchase. Probably as classic as the roses themselves.

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Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.