Inside the walls of Flowers By Bert & Peg, Pam Shea has spent 37 years searching through a sea of vibrant colors to find the exact shade that matches her customers’ needs best.

Sometimes her flowers are meant to bring joy, be it for the celebration of a newborn baby or the excitement of a wedding day. Other times, they bring comfort in a time of loss and serve as a small message of hope as a family grieves the death of a loved one.

No matter the occasion, Shea stands ready in her North Kingstown shop with clippers in hand and a smile on her face, ready to greet the customers she says have become like a second family for her ever since her mother Peg opened the business in 1979.

And right now, she really misses that second family.

For the past two months, Shea and florists like her have had to transform their way of thinking as, much like every part of the hospitality industry in Southern Rhode Island, the coronavirus pandemic has closed all floral shops to in-person sales.

It might not seem like a major barrier to customer service in 2020 but with most of Shea’s clients coming through her doors as unplanned walk-ins — and with big floral events all canceled for the foreseeable future — it’s a disruption that will likely have a wide and long-lasting impact on the floral business, particularly in tourist-heavy South County.

“It’s definitely changed the dynamic of our industry,” Shea said this week. “Never have I seen it like this. Ever. But it’s making us be more creative. We have to learn to be more descriptive when we speak to our customers over the phone. We’ve had to learn how to speak colors, speak vibrant colors instead of just saying something like ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got orange and yellow.’ It’s helping us to learn how to communicate better.”

She is not alone.

Ten miles south from Bert & Peg’s Tower Hill Road location in North Kingstown, Joy Rich works in her office at Flowerthyme in Wakefield fielding the same types of phone calls on a daily basis and doing her best to stay positive as she guides older customers through her freshly-updated website for online ordering and curbside pickup.

But finding the silver lining is all in a day’s work for Rich, who says while things are tough now, they were a lot more difficult at the start of the pandemic. She points to the early days of shutdowns as the hardest as many of the region’s top suppliers – like Fall River Florist, Bay State Florist Supply Inc., RJ Carbone Wholesale Floral Distributors, Twigs & branches Floral and East Coast Wholesale Flowers – were low on inventory or incapable of crossing state border’s due to travel restrictions.

“For two weeks I had to close because we had to figure things out,” she said. “No one had flowers … so it wasn’t really worth it for us to be open. But then Easter came and I thought ‘You know, I’m going to try this.’ and it was very, very busy.”

“That’s the issue that we’re having,” Shea said. “It’s like the food industry: it’s the supply chain. The flowers are there but they don’t have the employees as the people can’t come back to work yet to harvest them and pick them and if they do, they have to keep social distance. So there’s not as many flowers available as normal and what is available, the prices are a little bit higher just because of everything that’s going on.”

Both Shea and Rich have leaned heavily on contact-less pickup and their online ordering systems to attract or maintain customers

But even that has its challenges.

“All of our flowers are wrapped, dry packaged and shipped in cardboard and a lot of people don’t want to touch the cardboard,” Shea said, explaining all of her employees wear gloves and masks when they’re in her office and there is plenty of hand sanitizer available on every counter.

Even routine aspects of the floral industry have come with increased precautions and concerns.

“We had people calling from out of state saying ‘I can’t be with my love ones, will you deliver something for us?,” Rich said. “So I brought a girl in who does my deliveries and I said ‘How do you feel about wearing a mask, wearing some gloves? You call the people and you leave their flowers at their doorstep’ and she said ‘Yeah, let’s go for it’ and it’s been working.”

Short-term success, long term uncertainty

If you contacted Shea, Rich or any of the nearly one dozen florists in Southern Rhode Island this week, chances are you wouldn’t notice much of a difference.

With Mother’s Day set for this Sunday and families and friends who can’t currently meet in person sending flowers as a way to show they’re thinking of one another, business is booming … for now.

But May is just the start of the busiest time of year for the local floral community and most of the biggest events for the businesses have already been canceled for the rest of the year.

“All of my weddings for May have either postponed to the fall or to next year,” Shea said. “Obviously, there’s no proms, there’s no first communions, there’s no dance recitals. May is our big make it or break it month so it’s really hit our industry hard. It’s pretty much survival of the fittest. If you’re creative and you have a good product, you’ll survive but there are people out there who do nothing but events and that has really hurt them.”

“We’ve been pretty busy but after Mother’s Day, there’s no weddings, there’s no proms, there’s no graduation bouquets, nothing,” Rich said. “So I don’t really know if we’re going to stay open. I don’t know. We’re going to see how it goes.”

Weddings in particular are a costly challenge for florists to lose.

Most brides and grooms book months, or even over a year, in advance and have larger-than-typical orders, whether it’s for elaborate bridal bouquets, bridesmaids’ flowers, groomsmen boutonnieres or event table centerpieces. They can make a huge difference on a business’s bottom line. It’s not uncommon for brides to spend thousands of dollars on their orders for that one day and, if you do a great job, your work can be seen in-person by hundreds of potential clients throughout the event.

“I’m just thinking I might take the summer off and just try to get a grant or a loan or collect or whatever,” Rich said. “I haven’t really looked into that because I haven’t had to but I may have to because most of my business for July and August is weddings. It’s not people calling for flowers because they have gardens. It’s really not that busy in the summer so it’s the big weddings in Newport that keeps it going. If we don’t have those, I don’t really know what I will do.”

It’s hard to predict exactly what effect the shutdown will have on the local wedding industry. Last week, Gov. Gina Raimondo said she doesn’t expect to the state will allow weddings with more than 50 guests to take place before August.

That approach has led many brides throughout Southern Rhode Island to push their events, which can include anywhere from 100-250 people, to the fall or to 2021. And wedding clients for next year and beyond, who might just be starting their floral vendor search now, won’t be able to visit shops like Bert & Peg or Flowerthyme until in-person sales restrictions are lifted.

“Now it’s all bridal appointments online through Zoom, it’s very different,” Rich said. “But I love meeting my brides in person. I feel like I can book a wedding by meeting somebody, talking to them and getting to know them and on a computer, it’s very mechanical. It’s a little harder to express your personality … so there haven’t really been a lot of brides calling for next year. There’s been a few but not as many. I think they’re very leery and they’re waiting.”

Both Rich and Shea have said they’ll do whatever they can to accommodate their brides.

“We were fortunate at my shop,” Shea said. “I told my brides, I sent out an email when the whole Covid thing started and assured them that no matter what date they had to move their wedding to, this was no fault of their own and I would certainly work with them. If I had to hire extra staff to come in for the day, I would and fortunately right now, nobody has double-booked. It’s been great.”

Shea has even partnered with local event planner Ainslie Daley and her company Down Home Events to find a way to help brides who might be scaling back their plans in order to say “I do” this year.

“A lot of brides still want to get married on their day, whether they have the big party or not,” Shea said. “She’s putting together what they’re calling micro weddings and it’s like a package where she’ll do a small cake, a bouquet for the bride, a boutonniere for the groom and have it all ready so they can just get married. Every little bit helps. They say what colors they want and I put together a beautiful bouquet. I get to do my job and do what I do so that’s been helpful.”

Attitude is everything

Even though they may feel powerless to control when large events return or when they can welcome customers back through their doors, Rich and Shea are doing their best to remain positive through what could easily be the most negative time of their professional careers.

And they notice their customers are as well.

“My driver has said everyone’s home because no one’s going anywhere,” Rich said. “She’s said people have been tipping, they’ve been very nice and extremely happy to get flowers. So thrilled. She’s noticed a big difference. People aren’t just saying ‘Oh, thank you’ and closing the door, people have been like ‘Oh my God, thank you” and they give her a big tip. It’s been very different for her.”

Rich said flowers can be a lifeline at a time when personal connections seem so far away, giving an example of one client who was thankful she was open as her daughter goes to URI and all her friends have left for the semester, leaving her alone. A simple gesture like flowers, Rich explained, can make a world of difference.

Shea agrees.

“It’s like the perfect thing,” she said. “It brings a smile to people’s face. It helps. It helps people know that they’re thinking of them. So, it’s been a mixed thing because people can’t be near their loved ones but they’re able to say ‘Hey, I love you, I’m thinking of you, here’s some flowers.’ It’s been a weird thing but it’s working.”

As for what the two recommend for customers who might want to send some flowers of their own? Well, it’s spring and that means one thing: Vibrant colors.

“For this time of year, I would suggest doing a lovely bouquet with all sorts of bright, beautiful flowers with a lot of texture and a lot of color,” Shea said. “Something in a vase decorated with possibly a butterfly or a dragonfly. Some people like the cardinals because those are symbolic and just something that would last them and be able to sit on the table and every time they look at it, they would be able to think of you and know that you were thinking of them.”

“Right now, there’s a lot of beautiful spring into summer flowers like French tulips and peonies that are coming in,” Rich added. “People have been calling and they want something a little different. People have been actually calling for more like bright things, they want like bright Gerber daisies and bright roses and we really are trying to promote the bright yellows and the oranges and the hot pink colors as opposed to very soft, subdued colors like we usually get a lot. It’s definitely a lot more colorful this year.”

That extra splash of color translates to the business owners’ attitudes as well.

When she’s not in her office filling orders, Rich has a long list of activities keeping her busy like yoga, reading, cooking, doing puzzles, walking and photography. But if there’s one this pandemic has taught her, it’s that she really loves being part of the community around her.

“I am a social, type A person,” she said. “I really love having people come by. I love being here so it’s hard. I walk in and it’s like ‘Oh, here we go again,’ I’m alone and I’m taking calls but I’ve noticed that I’m on the phone a lot with people, talking to my customers and schmoozing a little bit. I’m trying to connect that way as opposed to years ago where it was just a quick phone call and you were off the phone because you were busy. Now, there’s a lot more time to talk to people.”

Shea is the same way.

“I’m a positive person and I try and find the good in everything but it’s getting harder,” she said. “We’re a small business so our customers are like family. We have known some of these customers for generations. I’ve done the birth of their kids and then I did those kids’ weddings and now I’m doing flowers for those people who got married and i’m doing flowers for when their kids are born. It’s the whole circle of life.”

But Shea wouldn’t have it any other way. Her mom Peg built the business from the ground up in the seventies. She’s spent nearly 40 years keeping it afloat. Now her niece Rachel works with her.

Three generations. One simple message: Coronavirus won’t be the end.

“We plan on being around as long as people will have us and are loving our flowers,” she said. “We plan on staying around.”

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