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International air travel restrictions designed to curb the spread of Covid-19 are strangling flower imports from South America, leaving already struggling mom-and-pop shop owners without enough inventory to meet surging Mother’s Day demand.
“Brick-and-mortar flower shops aren’t better financed than restaurants are—and we were completely shut down,” said Kathleen Menichelli, owner of Alice’s Flower Shop in Bethel, Conn. “It’s been really hard.”
Menichelli’s shop reopened on Monday after closing its doors for six weeks to slow the pandemic’s spread. She said her store immediately received “a tremendous outpouring of orders” for one of her industry’s busiest holidays—but she’s concerned she’ll soon have to stop taking orders.
Travel restrictions on passenger flights that carry cargo in their bellies have caused fewer airlines to travel back to the U.S. from South America with flowers. Voyages of cargo ships from South America have also been curtailed, and a temporary ban on non-essential travel across the Mexican border through May 20 has severed another major source of flower imports. The industry is now wholly dependent on cargo flights and the few remaining passenger flights.
“It’s still happening, but it’s just happening at much less frequency than it used to,” said Molly Alton Mullins, Wholesale Florist & Florist Supplier Association executive vice president.
At Miami International Airport, the highest-volume port for cut-stem flowers, imports have fallen by approximately 280 million stems to just under 700 million stems since the start of April compared with the same period in 2019, said Kelly M. Cahalan, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman.
Industry projections estimate sales for the Mother’s Day holiday will be down about 25% from usual, said Christine Boldt, Association of Floral Importers of Florida executive vice president.
‘Struggling’ to Fulfill Orders
Alexa Startz, manager of Garza’s Floral & Gift Shop in Laredo, Texas, said shipment delays and inventory shortages may mean lower sales this Mother’s Day.
“We were struggling to just fulfill our orders to be honest,” Startz said in a telephone interview. “We weren’t able to get the flowers over here” from Colombia and Ecuador.
The virus-related travel restrictions “affected us in getting all the flowers we want,” said Ana Suday, owner of florist Sugar & Spice in Del Rio, Texas. “It’s not going to be as good as last year.”
Dorian Butovich, co-owner of Central Park Flowers near Scranton, Pa., said “getting things in through Florida has been troublesome” for wholesalers.
“It’s just been difficult all around,” he said.
His company predominantly caters to weddings and corporate events, so it’s struggled with cancellations since March. Mother’s Day has proven to be a silver lining for Butovich, though: Holiday sales for the shop have jumped 20% to 25% this year compared with 2019.
“People are caring more about their moms,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mother’s Day success can come down to business factors like labor costs, said Gregg Weisstein, co-founder and chief operating officer of BloomNation. The e-commerce company in Santa Monica, Calif., has had about 4,000 florists join its nationwide network.
“A lot of flower shops that are small businesses that were supporting a number of employees had to instantly make reductions” in staffing when Covid-19 restrictions were put in place, Weisstein said in a telephone interview. “It’s going to come down to how much demand can these flower shops service.”
Industry heavyweights, like 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Inc., have come out strong after finding their footing in the pandemic.
“It’s going to be a different year this year for Mother’s Day,” said Chris McCann, chief executive officer of the company based on Long Island, N.Y. “People are recognizing that moms matter even more than they always do in times like this.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org