Hiring Before and After Covid

 I'm going to start off by stating that what I'm about to say about hiring staff to work in my flower shop is not going to apply to everyone. Every area is different. Every hiring market is different. Recently a floral friend posted on Facebook about what a terrible time they were having trying to find qualified people to hire. They were truly discouraged and looking for advice. I've discussed this privately with many of my floral friends around the country, especially over the last 5 years so I knew that I was not alone in having trouble making good hires when we had our shop. This is a long post but if you too are having trouble hiring in your shop, it might be worth a read. 

My story begins just before Covid. As some of you may know, our shop was for sale for a full year prior to Covid. Although we had been having trouble finding good staff, with many false starts - hiring people, training them for months, only for it to fall apart in some way - I could write a whole blog on those disasters.  Anyway, during this time, we really wanted to beef up the staffing with great people so that whoever might purchase our business would be set up for success. Now before you say anything about how much we paid and how retail doesn't pay well - these were for full-time jobs, with paid vacation, medical benefits, bonuses and commissions. Our pay was better than all the other retail jobs out there, better than most of our competition and surely better than the supermarket floral departments in our area.  Guess who applied? No one. Literally, no one. 

By now, Covid had hit and just prior to that, we had parted ways with 2 full time employees that weren't working out. With the early on mess of Covid, we couldn't afford the staff we did have at first, so it was natural to size down our staff and have Kevin and I go back to working 7 days a week. It was survival time and we had no idea how long Covid was going to last. Our main goal was to preserve the jobs of our 3 existing (wonderful) full time employees and make due the best we could. Our full timers were cut back to 20 hours a week (getting unemployment for the other 20 hours) which helped us manage payroll and also make sure that we were socially distancing. Luckily our shop was big enough to do that, so we were all safe. Fast forward a few months and the business was back to jammin' again. Folks needed what we had - gifts that were safely delivered to friends and family, especially being many were missing out on important occasions and holidays. It was time to ask our 3 full timers to come back along with 2 part timers. Wow, that was a long way from the 5- full timers and 4- part timers we had just before Covid. Luckily for us, our staff did come back! There would have been no MMF if they just hung out there on unemployment. 

Well, after spending thousands of dollars on Indeed, Zip Recruiter, posting jobs on state unemployment boards and at the colleges, we finally decided to give up. Now we had to think about the business in a different way. We didn't have the staff to take every order or to take every decorating job. Years before we had learned that providing prom and dance flowers really didn't work out for us. It was unprofitable and stressful. When you are having trouble finding and keeping staff, having Prom Moms in the shop yelling at your staff over the color of a rose in a $35 corsage didn't really make sense. Now I had to be smart about weddings too. I realized that now that Covid was over we had to fulfill our commitment to our existing couples to provide their delayed wedding flowers but on much less staff. It made sense to cut off taking any other weddings because I had to wait to see what dates weddings and other events were being rescheduled to. It was a bit of a mess. Then I had a light bulb moment - why take any new weddings at all? The business was for sale, who knew if the new owner even wanted to do weddings and why take a chance on having a deposit for a wedding date that might be a problem in the future. It all made sense and after what we had been through, the staff seemed eager to put weddings behind us, at least for a while. 

What did I discover? Just like Proms seemed to put a strain on the operation without really bringing anything valuable to the business, we found weddings were doing the same thing. I couldn't really hire any new people and we were truly working with limited manpower, working them and us to death, incurring lots of overtime pay, needing extra vehicles - the list goes on. Stopping weddings not only made sense but it worked out. We noticed right away that things in the shop became less stressful. I, for one, did not have as heavy a workload as meeting with couples, creating detailed proposals, ordering flowers, etc completely went away. I was in heaven. I had never worked so little in my whole career. No waking up at 3 am with a panic attack that the coolers might go down (even though we had alarms). No getting frustrated with couples ghosting me after spending hours with them. No day of drama with vans breaking down, staff calling out or any of the other things that happened during wedding set-ups. 

The other thing we did to streamline the operation was to raise some prices. We upped our price for delivery. We increased the prices of our arrangements and more closely monitored what we were buying and the designs we were offering. For more on my buying strategy, read my blog "Better Fresh Flower Buying" here.   I had less designers to create arrangements. I had less drivers to deliver them. Our goal was to make every single order count. Anyone in business knows that average order and how often customers order are 2 of the most important aspects to monitor for running a profitable business. 

So now we weren't doing weddings, which was about 10% of our business prior to Covid and now we had raised our prices. Guess what? The number of orders we received did not go down and very few people complained about our pricing. We made up those wedding orders almost immediately. 

The other issue we had was during holidays. Anyone in the business knows this is when payroll can go up exponentially. Your order volume goes up, you need extra designers, sales staff and drivers (not to mention vans for them to drive). Well, we had no extra staff to call in. What did we do to manage? About 5 days before the holiday, we let every single call go into our voice mail system. The voicemail was very friendly - "Hi, you've reached Monday Morning Flowers. We are in the shop but assisting other customers. If you would like to place an order for delivery you can visit our website at sendingsmiles . com. If you would like us to call you back, kindly leave your name and number and we'll get back to you very soon". Guess what? Almost everyone ordered off the website! Not only did this free up our staff to work on designs instead of taking calls like "Do you deliver" or "Are you located in Princeton". Those calls took up so much time. Also, because it had been our policy for over 15 years to personally call every single sender to let them know within minutes that their delivery was made, we didn't have to field calls "Were my flowers delivered yet". Orders just popped out of the computer like magic. We processed them, filled them and moved on. No stopping mid design to answer the phone. As messages came in, we could work as a team to batch call them back, usually within 15 minutes. Did we lose some orders? I'm sure we did but it wasn't overly noticeable due to the heavy volume. If I was completely honest, we had almost no negative fallout at all and in the long run, I think it was better than leaving folks hanging on hold for 10 minutes like the big wire services do. 

So, what is the purpose of this post? I genuinely think that most shops are going to continue to have a hard time hiring. I might get some flak for saying this, but I don't think there will be anyone to hire even though we know what an awesome career it is. Like other businesses in other industries, I think flower shop owners are going to have to rethink their business models. Just like the fast-food companies have started using AI (Artificial Intelligence) to take orders and respond to customers, I think the floral industry is going to have to step up their technology game.  I know many are afraid to raise prices because they think they will lose customers but I think they underestimate how needed their service is. I think the consumer is used to ordering online and won't think twice about using a well-constructed website - especially one that features real designs and not stock photos. It's a known fact that customers spend more when they order online. I know for us; it was harder for our staff to share all the additional items we could add to their order than our website did. Almost every online order had one or two additional gifts added. Our website addons went through the roof during Covid and that continued after. We sold hundreds of greeting cards, boxes of chocolates, balloons and even candles. Let's not even talk about how generous customers were with tips!! 

I think it's frustrating to have industry consultants say things like - "Write a better help wanted ad" or "The way to keep staff is to do a better job On-Boarding them". I laugh when the Fed wants to see unemployment rise to get a hold on inflation, but it doesn't. I can tell them why - if someone loses a job or decides to go back to work, some poor little independent business tries to snatch them up!! There is no one to hire - point blank. Just like you see a shortage of truck drivers which is making "driverless" trucks a thing of the future, florists are going to have to figure out how to run profitable business, with less staff. Might that mean lower sales but higher profits? I think that is the only way retail florists will make it through. The last thing I want to see if the number of Retail Florists to fall even lower than it is. I want all my friends to succeed, be happy and run profitable businesses, don't you? 

I'm in the process of writing book about the floral industry right now and there will be a chapter on the future of AI and the Florist. I'd love to hear your take on it so feel free to comment. Thanks for reading!!