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LOCAL FLORISTS HOPING FOR ONLINE ORDERS

By GLEN BOLDUC, Staff Writer, Morning Sentiniel Online

Mother's Day means a lot of money spent on flowers.

But some local florists want to make sure that people spend their money locally, especially when shopping online.

So they banded together to buy advertising in local newspapers urging customers to "Order Flowers Locally," advising they will "Pay Less / Get More."

Seeking to compete with the huge online florists, local florists believe they offer consumers an edge in buying their holiday flowers.

If someone Googles for flower deliveries, companies such as FTD, 1-800-flowers, and ProFlowers come to the top of the list.

Lisa Lagrange, owner of KMD Florist and Gifts in Waterville, said these companies are mostly telemarketers that have little to do with the actual product.

"There are a lot of layers involved" in the delivery of flowers, she said.

Customers don't realize that online florists are "just order gatherers," said Aurilla Holt, owner of Berry & Berry Floral in Hallowell, Gardiner and Windsor.

"It's creating a middleman for the consumer, and that's what you're trying to eliminate," Holt said. "Nobody wants to create a middleman." That's because middlemen typically drive up costs, she said.

Besides, Holt said, when someone orders a bouquet from most major online flower companies, they end up getting the arrangement from a local florist anyway.

"It's a racket," she said.

Most fresh flower gifts sent in the United States and Canada are locally designed and delivered by professional florists. Online flower companies simply send local florists the order, then take a chunk of the sales as a commission.

Lagrange estimates that online sellers probably take about 20 percent of the cost, so customers end up getting about 20 percent less product as local florists try to protect their profit margins.

"It's throwing off the balance of the money," Lagrange said.

Besides losing commissions on orders, local florists also face challenges on delivery, as high fuel and transportation costs eat into their bottom lines.

"We live in an area that has a lot of rural locations," Lagrange said.

The florists' efforts in advance of Mother's Day -- one of their biggest days of the year -- comes as consumers increasingly turn toward the Internet for many of their shopping needs.

The florists also compete against another insidious competitor: "teleflorists," national florists who buy phone numbers -- but not storefronts -- in thousands of local markets.

In this case, dialing a local telephone number may actually connect a bouquet buyer with someone in California

"It's not illegal... But it's deceptive to the consumer," Lagrange said.

One way to ensure you're shopping locally is to ask the person on the phone if you can come in and see the flowers.

Teleflorists "don't know what products we have," Holt said. "They can't even pronounce the name of them half the time."

According to VeriSign, an e-commerce infrastructure provider, Mother's Day-related spending hit $4.4 billion in the United States last year -- a 24 percent increase from 2004.

"So many people are online for just about everything," Lagrange said. "The regular person isn't going to put that much thought into sending flowers for Mother's Day."

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