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FLORAL FRESHNESS VERSUS LONGEVITY:
UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCE
by Drs. Tim & Tom Prince
Prince & Prince, Inc., Columbus, Ohio
(First published in Flower News, March 30th, 1991)
Note: Proper floral care & handling has been updated over the past two decades since this report was initially written. Please consult your floral care & handling specialist for the latest floral care information.
While most florists have an understanding of the value of providing quality products to their customers, many do not possess a clear understanding of the components of quality, and the way they impact customer satisfaction. We conceptualize flower quality into two major factors, freshness and longevity. These two factors differ dramatically in how the consumer is affected. In this report, we define the difference between freshness and longevity, explain how each is achieved, and discuss their impacts on customer satisfaction.
Freshness Defined. We define freshness as the set of quality components perceived by the consumer, immediately upon receipt and within the first day or two. Some might call freshness the "first impression" of quality. Freshness forms the initial perceptions of consumer satisfaction. Without freshness, satisfying the consumer with additional longevity is really not possible.
A fresh-looking flower has all of the attributes associated with the species or variety. Absent from a fresh flower are defects such as blemishes, damage from high or low temperature exposure, disease or insect damage, bruising or breakage, bloom malformations, or any discoloration. Fresh flowers should never exhibit characteristics unnatural for the variety such as small flower size, sparse flowering, or crooked spikes. One of the most important freshness factors is the ability of the blooms to open and develop, without developing bent neck or premature wilting. If buds don't open properly, then obtaining longevity is impossible.
Longevity Defined. Longevity is simply the days (or hours) of use the consumer obtains from the flowers. It is a second tier of quality after the initial perception of freshness. Consumers likely have varied expectations of longevity. We believe that many consumers accept the fact that flowers are natural, but perhaps fleeting, and those qualities are inherent in their appeal.
Importance of Freshness and Longevity. Many studies have shown that flower quality is very important to customer satisfaction. However, in a recent marketing study conducted by Prince & Prince, Inc., we found that 10% more consumers rate "freshness upon delivery" of highest importance compared to "product longevity". The freshness issue was also perceived by consumers as a delivery-related factor, independent from issues related to longevity. This finding makes sense if you put yourself in the place of your customers. Those unwrapping flowers at their front door, finding broken stems or shattered petals, feel extremely violated. To a certain extent, they are literally stuck with inferior product. Even if a call for replacement is made, the customer still must spend additional time and effort to obtain satisfactory product. An in-store shopper would simply bypass this inferior product. While viewing such product would decrease customers' general perception of your quality, it certainly would not leave the same negative feelings as being stuck with inferior product. The perception of lack of freshness is an immediate first impression and can be extremely damaging to customer satisfaction, your image as a florist, and customer loyalty. Therefore, freshness may ultimately be more important than longevity.
You can assess the importance of freshness for yourself in your own business. Record the number of "freshness" complaints received in a six-month period versus longevity complaints. Our research suggests that you will receive more calls concerning damaged flowers, broken stems, or flowers failing to "open", than from complaints of carnations not lasting 20 + days. One should always bear in mind that customers that receive flowers that are not fresh and don't call to complain are a bigger service problem than those that do call. Since freshness is apparently so important, how does one achieve it in balance with longevity? How should resources be allocated in a quality control program?
Achieving Freshness. The first step in achieving freshness is true commitment from top management. Purchasing floral materials only from reliable suppliers known for quality and excellent handling practices will go far to assure freshness. The second major ingredient is hiring and retaining employees with an "eye" for freshness attributes discussed above. While the skills of careful observation can be improved through training, a good portion is innate with certain individuals. Be observant of these individuals and involve them in your freshness control campaign. Continue to educate them with variety knowledge and technical information. Those assigned to judge freshness in your shop should not be punished for rejecting questionable product, but should be rewarded for not passing such product on to your customers. Do your delivery personnel have the authority and conviction to reject floral deliveries and send them back to the design room for lack of freshness? Your delivery personnel are your ultimate connection to your customers. Thus, emphasis on floral freshness and quality control are essential in effective employee training of delivery personnel.
Providing flowers that open normally without developing bent neck or premature wilting requires specialized knowledge. This freshness problem is most severe with gerbera, roses, other flowers with woody stems, flowers received in a dry condition, or flowers cut in a tight-bud condition. Any flowers that exhibit problems with bud opening are likely having difficulty taking up water or becoming "hydrated". There are two approaches that can help eliminate this problem.
Re-Cutting Stems. The first and easiest approach is to re-cut all flower stems under water. This procedure helps eliminate trapped air in the stems and can be used on all cut flowers. Many commercial devices with varying levels of sophistication are available for achieving this. Nicely packaged underwater cutters for consumer use are also available. Re-cutting stems underwater may not entirely solve hydration problems. For more difficult problems, specially prepared hydrating solutions are needed.
Hydrating Solutions. Many fine commercial products for mixing floral hydrating solutions are available. They are products that acidify clean water (ca. pH 3.5), possibly adding anti-microbial or wetting agents, but do not include sugar. Flowers are simply placed in solution for a short period of time to initiate the proper uptake of water and eliminate any air blockage in the cut stems. The proper use of hydrating solutions requires some trial and error experience, since over-treatment can cause too rapid opening buds in some situations. Therefore, start with small-scale trials. Almost any flower that your shop has difficulty in obtaining proper opening is worth treating with a hydrating solution. After hydrating, the flowers should be placed in preservative solution.
Achieving Longevity. Longevity of fresh cut flowers is determined by many factors. These include species and variety, handling techniques used throughout the distribution channel, floral preservative usage, and handling by the floral consumer. Without question, one of the most economical and consistent ways to achieve longevity is through the use of floral preservatives. Floral preservatives contain sugar, an acidifying agent, anti-microbial agents, and other minor ingredients. The sugar provides osmotic balance allowing petals to continue to absorb water, and provides for energy needs. The acidifying agent provides for better water absorption and along with the anti-microbial agent, reduces microbial growth.
Recent research has shown that this anti-microbial action of preservatives is not only important for keeping the holding solution clear of microbial slime, but also keeps the interior of the floral stem clear of any microbial blockage that may reduce water uptake. This blockage in the stems can occur even when holding solutions are clear of slime, if the proper anti-microbial action is not occurring.
Many excellent commercial preservatives are available and we recommend their use. However, correct usage of preservatives requires some knowledge of the interaction of preservatives with your local water quality. Water that is highly alkaline or water that is extremely pure may fail to develop the desired acid pH when preservative is added. This failure can lead to poor microbial control both in the holding solution and within the floral stems. This can be corrected by purchasing a preservative designed for your water type, or by your own addition of citric acid.
Preservative should be provided with all purchases of fresh cut flowers. The water quality issue is important here as well. We have worked with florists with broad market areas that serve consumers with different local water qualities. It may be necessary to provide different types of preservatives to customers depending upon their location and water supply. If you are experiencing longevity complaints strongly from one market area, then some investigation of the water quality preservative interaction issue should be conducted. Consumers that have water with high alkalinity will nearly always experience more bent neck problems than others, because the sugar reduces water uptake, while at the same time, the proper vase solution pH is not obtained.
Balancing Freshness and Longevity. Meeting your quality goals requires balancing the resources that are applied to freshness and longevity. We believe that consistency in meeting reasonable customer expectations of freshness and longevity is very important. Going beyond customer expectations of longevity (20 day + carnations) may be successful at times, but does not substitute for consistent freshness.
Concentrating efforts on longevity maintenance alone without assuring proper hydration of flowers can be destructive. The use of floral preservatives with high levels of sugar can actually aggravate problems with bent neck and failure of buds to open, since sugar can decrease the uptake of water by stems. This is one reason why hydration solutions don't contain sugar.
The elimination of extremely negative first impressions of freshness should be the first goal of a quality control program. Only after a high level of freshness is achieved will investments in longevity enhancement be fruitful. Balancing investment in human resources (trained observant employees and management commitment) with investment in chemicals and equipment also is necessary to achieve overall quality. We have personally observed large retail floral operations that use modern preservative mixing and injecting equipment, but also load their delivery trucks with arrangements containing broken stems, bent necks, and shattered petals. In these instances, the florists' failure to balance freshness with longevity obviously reduces customer satisfaction and customer loyalty.
Prince & Prince, Inc. PO Box 2465, Columbus, OH 43216-2465
Office: 614-299-4050; Mobile: 614-264-0939 E-mail: FloralMktResearch@att.net
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