What’s behind that bouquet of roses you receive on Valentine’s Day? Love? Sure. Lust? Maybe. But beyond all that mushy stuff are the practical wheels of business, turning just so to ensure that the flowers you receive are bright, fresh, and—most importantly—on time. 1-800-Flowers gave Fortune a peak at how they manage to deliver 5 million Valentine’s Day roses in the dead of winter.
1. Thanks, Colombia!
If you really love your roses, thank the sender—such a sweet gesture!—and then express gratitude to the Republic of Colombia because that’s probably where they came from. Chris McCann, president of 1-800-Flowers.com, says that 65% of his company’s Valentine’s Day flowers come from South America—Colombia, primarily. Twenty-five percent are produced domestically, mainly in California, and the other 10% come from various locations around the world.
2. No country for free range flowers
The bush from which your roses came is at least two years old. It takes that long for the plant to mature enough to produce a harvest worthy of Valentine's Day. 1-800-Flowers works with just three or four key growers every year, though some of them operate large networks of as many as 25 farms that range from 10 hectares (two-and-a-half acres) to 400-plus. And if you’re imagining open fields of row after row of roses bushes—free-range roses, if you will—that rustle in the wind and soak up the sunshine, stop. These flowers are grown in controlled greenhouses—some in soil, some in hydroponics.
3. V-Day: A flower delivery Super Bowl
Valentine’s Day is actually 1-800-Flowers’ second biggest floral holiday, behind Mother’s Day. But Valentine’s Day is far more challenging from a logistics standpoint because—unlike Mother’s Day, which is always on a Sunday—Valentine’s Day falls on a different day of the week every year. And senders of Valentine’s Day flowers almost always want them delivered precisely on February 14, whereas customers are more likely to have flower arrangements delivered in the days leading up to Mother's Day.
4. Okay, maybe more like a flower delivery Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
1-800-Flowers takes its first step toward meeting Valentine's Day demand a few weeks after Valentine's Day the previous year, when it sends growers its “stem guidance,” or projections of how many flowers of which varieties it expects to need next year. 1-800-Flowers has to predict not just who will want flowers and how many flowers they’ll order, but also to whom those flowers will be sent. “Demand is one side of the equation,” says Tom Hartnett, president of the company’s consumer floral brand. “You might live in New York, but you're delivering something to California.” What’s the best predictor of that? History. That’s “one thing we have on our side,” Hartnett says. “We’ve been in business for almost 40 years, so we have a lot of rich data,” says Mark Smith, vice president of operations.
5. Shrink to grow
Another critical step is something called “pinching,” when the grower cuts back a rose bush to ensure that it will bloom in time for Valentine's Day. This year’s roses were pinched in late summer. They then bloomed in time for a Christmas harvest and will bloom again for Valentine’s Day. A harvest in February means they’ll bloom a third time—rather conveniently—around Mother’s Day. A pro-tip from McCann: there are lots of rose sales in the summer because the bushes will bloom a fourth time. “Roses are abundant and the demand is lower.”
6. Floral cryogenics?
If there’s one key to 1-800-Flowers’ supply chain for Valentine’s Day roses, it’s what McCann calls the “cold chain.” Once farm workers pluck roses from the bush, they’re placed in a wagon or a sack like a mail carrier’s. Then the flowers are trimmed for stem and head size and piled into what the industry calls a half box, a 12-inch by 10-inch by 30-inch container that’s pre-cooled with cold air pumped into one side of it and heat absorbed from the other. "Once that flower is cut, we want to get it down to a 34-degree temperature, which basically suspends life until it gets into the flower shop. That provides our customers with the longest [flower] life," McCann says. Once farm workers place the flowers in these boxes, they're hauled to the airport where a plane takes them into Miami International Airport.
7. Welcome to Miami
More cut flowers are cleared through Miami International than any other airport in the United States. Why? Because the airport is in close proximity to South America and because “it’s just what has developed over the years,” McCann says. The airport’s floral customs area is refrigerated, which ensures that the flowers will stay fresh. “That didn’t used to be the case, ya know, 25 years ago. You would run into problems where if it was a real hot day or customs was moving too slowly the boxes would be sitting out on the heated tarmac,” he says. “It’s gotten more sophisticated.”
8. On the road again
From there, the flowers are loaded onto trucks on contract with 1-800-Flowers that specialize in transporting cold goods. (The company uses trucks because it’s harder to ensure that flowers stay cold on rail or air transport.) “The trucking companies that we use are pretty much dedicated to the floral industry,” says McCann. Their containers are—of course—refrigerated, plus they do things like add granular ethylene gas prohibitors to the back of the truck. Here's a botany refresher: once you cut any plant, it effectively starts to decompose, which produces ethylene gas, says McCann. “The greens on a stem could start producing ethylene gas that could hurt the flower.”
9. Delivery day
1-800-Flower’s fleet of trucks hauls the flowers to the 7,000 independent florists in the United States that fulfill and deliver 1-800-Flowers orders to homes and offices.
Always have a contingency plan. Always.
The company’s dependence on truck transport means that bad weather could knock steps 7 through 9 entirely out of whack. See under: Winter Storm Pax, February 2014. The blizzard carpeted parts of the Northeast U.S. with between one and three feet of snow. “We had frozen country throughout the Southeast and up though part of the Northeast and Midwest,” McCann says. “It caused major disruption to our normal holiday.” As the company saw the storm coming, they deployed what they referred to internally as “Lovestorm,” which required making deliveries one or two days early to ensure recipients got their products before the storm hit. “We notified customers that because of impending weather we’re delivering your product a day early,” he says. “Those audibles are being called constantly.”
Catering to a class of slow-pokes
It should be noted that with this supply chain, “a flower cut today [can] be available for sale tomorrow,” McCann. Flower arrangements that are delivered this Valentine’s Day will likely be harvested on Thursday, since things move a bit slower on the weekend. After Saturday, the process will soon start all over again, as 1-800-Flowers’ preps for Valentine’s Day 2016. It’s ironic that the company plans so far in advance for customers who are proven procrastinators. Seventy percent of its Valentine’s Day orders are placed within five days of the holiday and 50% are placed for same-day delivery. “We try to get our male customers to plan ahead," McCann says, "but you know what that’s like.”