COVID-19 and the Gift Industry

By Lexi Browning

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For the gift, greenhouse and floral industries, spring profits can often determine the rest of the year’s success. But with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many businesses in the Mountain State have taken a financial hit during their busiest season. 

   At Gritt’s Midway Greenhouse in Red House, West Virginia, office manager Nikki George said March, April and May typically account for about 50 percent of the business’ annual gross revenue. 

   The closure of many wholesale clients under the state’s Stay-At-Home order resulted in a “drastic decline” in bulk sales, she said. Schools in Putnam, Cabell, Kanawha and Wayne Counties, for example, partner with the business to bring in fresh produce for their cafeteria salad bars, but in-person courses have been canceled through the rest of the school year.

   “We still have some of our wholesale customers , we have some strictly spring customers that were considered essential who stayed open and have continued business with us,” George said. “On the retail side, we’ve noticed a huge outpouring of support from the community. They’re making it a point to shop with us in any capacity that they can.”

   In April, Gritt’s Midway Greenhouse used some of their excess florals to start their “Send a Smile to a Senior” campaign, in which individuals could sponsor plants that would be delivered to senior facilities. 

   “We grow almost 10,000 tulips, hyacinths and Easter lilies every spring for our churches and florists for the Easter season,” George said. ”The churches had to close and cancel their orders and pre-orders, and we had seen where senior facilities were not allowing any visitation. We saw it as an opportunity to fill a need and do something good in the community.”

   The business lowered the costs of the flowers and opened sales to the public with a goal of sponsoring 242 plants for each resident in two centers. By the time the campaign ended, the business had surpassed their original goal twelvefold. Customers from West Virginia, throughout the nation and one in Paris, France, sponsored 3,121 flowers for seniors in 29 facilities in West Virginia and one in Ohio. 

   “We were shocked,” George said. 

   With elderly populations statistically affected at a higher rate by coronavirus, George said ensuring recipients’ safety was of the utmost importance.

   “We worked with a hospital doctor who went over the protocol with us to make sure it was safe,” she said. “We had it all written up, and everything was done by the letter. Drivers had masks and gloves, and just left them right outside of each of the facilities. Facility members agreed to take them in for us and hand deliver them to each of their seniors in the facility. We never went into the facilities.”

   Gritt’s currently offers contact-free pickup options for its customers, including a grab’n’go Mother’s Day blooming hanging basket, as well as private shopping appointments for customers who prefer to limit their exposure to others, specifically mothers with children, customers who are immunocompromised or those who are cautious about crowds. To book a private session, George recommended following their social media pages for information on scheduling. 

   “We always want to thank our customers and our community for how supportive they have been,” George added. “What started as Send a Smile to a Senior, which was right on top of the pandemic becoming aggressive in our area. Even to this point, we’ve not seen a lack of support, and we are forever grateful.”

   For Jeremy Nelson, owner of Food Among the Flowers floral shop in Charleston, COVID-19 has heavily impacted daily operations at his event-based business. 

   Since Governor Jim Justice’s Stay-at-Home order was implemented on March 24, 2020, residents have been encouraged to stay home, avoiding groups and gatherings. As a result, many weddings, proms, galas, graduations and celebrations of life have been postponed. 

   So far, Nelson estimated that 75 percent of the business’ floral sales and 95 percent of their event rentals were off. 

   “With the restrictions on the number of people that can be at any event, it puts less demand on what you need at that event,” Nelson said. 

   For Mother’s Day, the business will continue offering its contact-free delivery, which Nelson said has helped Food Among the Flowers connect friends and family at a time when many are social distancing. 

   “We have a no-touch delivery policy, and we leave them at customers’ front door or at the front door of nursing homes or hospitals, and security staff comes and gets them at those locations and takes them to the patient or the resident at the nursing home,” Nelson said. “So far it’s been really effective. We made contact with hospitals and nursing homes in advance to make sure they were accepting flowers, and it’s been working out. Folks send flowers to their loved ones because they can’t go visit them.”

   At Edible Arrangements in South Charleston, General Manager Candi Arthur said she’s been operating with half of the employees the business normally hosts. 

   “With the holidays, it was harder to judge how they’re going to play out because we can usually look to previous years to figure out where we’re going to go, but with this year it was a little harder because, for instance, it’s Teacher Appreciation Week, [but] schools aren’t in,” Arthur said. “What we’re used to seeing for teacher gifts, we’re not seeing this year. It’s Nurses Week, but we can’t go to the hospitals, so that’s made it harder to judge how to plan for this week in general because of the circumstances that we’re in.”

   What the Edible Arrangements typically earns between January and May is what sustains the business for the rest of the year, Arthur said.Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day are two of  their busiest holidays. 

   “Things are definitely down from previous years,” Arthur said. “I think that with West Virginia in general that if we support our own, we tend to keep those things afloat. We’ve seen that with other small businesses. People have really been going out and supporting their local businesses, so I think that if we continue to support our local businesses, things will be fine.”

   Edible Arrangements is currently offering curbside pickup and delivery, and the business has recently expanded to add cheesecake and cookies to its menu. The location has also continued to host their weekly “Table Talk” Facebook live sessions to stay in touch with their customers. 

   “In business in general, you have to learn to overcome and figure out ways to make things work,” Arthur said. “My responsibility isn’t just for me, my responsibility is to my owners and my employees who are working for me. I want to do the best for everybody I feel that I feel I’m responsible to… we’re a family here.”