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Christmas Gift Guide
Tech Industry

Mother's Day orders overwhelm Net florists

Demand for floral gifts is surpassing that of even Valentine's Day. As a result, procrastinators are out of luck.

Mom is more popular than that special someone in your life, at least according to online florists, who say Mother's Day demand is outstripping orders for Valentines' Day.

ProFlowers.com, an Internet-only flower shop, ran out of flowers to sell on Tuesday but scrounged up a few more later in the week. By Friday afternoon, ProFlowers.com had sold its inventory through, and posted this message to its customers: "Thank you all for helping to make Mother's Day such a great success! We are now accepting orders for delivery on or after Tuesday May 11."

At 1-800-Flowers, giant of the online flower trade, the company was too busy to take phone calls from the press. Baxter Phillip, executive vice president of Phillip's 1-800-Florals says Mother's Day is his biggest holiday ever online.

"We forecast for tremendous growth, and we blasted through it on Tuesday," said Bill Strauss, chief executive of ProFlowers.com. "It was a huge success, but a disappointment that there were a lot of orders we couldn't get to."

James McQuivey, e-commerce analyst at Forrester Research, was one of those disappointed ProFlowers customers, and he thinks he knows why.

"Everybody has a mother, and not everybody has a sweetheart," he said.

Forrester estimated that Valentine's Day generated $250 million in Internet orders for all gifts, including flowers, and McQuivey expects Mother's Day to do even more. "More people are willing to buy online than even three months ago," he said.

That would be consistent with trends in the physical world. According to the Society of American Florists, Mother's Day is the second-largest flower-giving holiday of the year, accounting for 26 percent of "occasion" orders. Christmas and Hanukkah make up 30 percent of those special occasion orders, while Valentine's Day generates 16 percent of holiday orders. Total retail flower sales topped $15 billion in 1998, according to the society.

"In the floral industry, Valentine's Day is biggest one or two days; but Mothers Day is the biggest week," said Phillip, whose family-owned flower chain in Chicago has been peddling posies since 1923. Since Mother's Day always falls on Sunday, people are accustomed to ordering early.

The floral industry is well suited for online commerce, said Phillip, whose company has been taking orders online for more than three years. Even before the advent of the Internet, florists had zipped orders around the country electronically for years through six different networks.

Letting customers order online was a natural next step, with the added benefit that customers can view a photo of the floral arrangements before ordering. That's not possible over the phone, the most common method of ordering.

At 1-800-Florals, online orders increase 40 percent to 70 percent a month, and it's really just a boutique player, Phillip said. Other sites with national brands could see business double from month to month, he said.

At 1-800-Flowers, the heaviest day last year was the Friday before Mother's Day. But this year, with three days to go, orders had already surpassed the 1998 total, a company spokesman said.

1-800-Flowers funnels its orders through its 120 stores and other florists via one of the networks. That's a different model than ProFlowers, which delivers via Federal Express direct from growers, bypassing distributors.

ProFlowers more than doubled its Valentine's Day traffic for Mother's Day, CEO Strauss said, and the company has been growing at 40 percent a month.

"We are in the midst of growing our systems to handle about 15 or 25 percent more than we could handle this Mother's Day," Strauss said.

Unless mothers lose their popularity, that may not be enough.