The long-distance kiss that put flowers on Net
Updated: 2013-02-08 09:10
By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)
Zou Xiaofeng knows what it is like to be rejected. But like many other tales of rejection, this one has a happy ending.
It all began one day when Zhou, now 28, went to his local post office in Taizhou, in Zhejiang province. In his hand he held a bunch of roses to send to his girlfriend in a distant province.
Zou, a food salesman, had met her in 2006 and she traveled a lot on business, and sending flowers occasionally became his way of letting her know he was thinking of her. But when Zou presented his roses at the post office counter he was told that it did not make such deliveries.
He then tried various express delivery companies but got the same response. Finally he resorted to florists located near where his girlfriend was on business trips each time.
"It was so inconvenient," he says. Thinking many other people must face the same problem, Zou set up an online flower delivery website, iishang.com, in 2008, and he was lucky enough to soon catch a market that was on the rise.
While booking flowers online and having them delivered is common in the West, it is little known in China, but the business is now taking off.
The first online flower websites were set up about 12 years ago, when Internet use in China was just beginning to rise, and a little later when online selling took off. However, online flower selling failed to do likewise, and thousands of websites sprouted up but died just as quickly, Zou says.
Now, it has been revived. Turnover in the floral market is in the billions of yuan a year, and it is growing, he says.
"However, while many people are used to buying many things online, most have little idea about buying flowers that way."
About 10 years after the first market seeds were grown, it began to blossom profusely about 2009, Zou says.
"Online shopping began to become fashionable and common in about 2009, even if the number of customers was still small. As the market was cultivated over the decade, more people become aware of it, leading to explosive growth."
In each of the past three years the industry's revenue has grown about 50 percent, the Online Flower Delivery Association of China says, reaching about 500 million yuan ($80 million; 59 million) last year.
With careful nursing and great timing, Zou's business has become one of the leading websites in the industry. In iishang.com's first year its turnover was in the hundreds of thousands of yuan, Zou says, and last year it was 30 million yuan, triple what it was the previous year.
Ourbloom.com, a meeting point for online flower websites and shops, has enjoyed similar success. Yu Shui, CEO of the company, says that last year it had revenue of 200 billion yuan, double what it was in 2011, and he expects more growth this year.
But compared with overseas brands such as Interflora.com in Britain, which serves customers in 140 countries, and 1-800-FLOWERS.com in the US, with a market value of more than $2 billion, Chinese online flower websites are minute in terms of sales, consumer numbers and services. The Chinese companies also lack the decades-long experience of their international rivals.
Despite the rapid growth, Yu Shui of ourbloom.com says there are intrinsic drawbacks for the business in China, one being that sending flowers is not a tradition in the country.
"In the West, flowers are used daily for almost every occasion, but in China, people are not used to flowers as a way of expressing their emotions, and sending flowers is mainly done on holidays, such as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day."
On such days, ourbloom.com says it can receive as many 10,000 orders, 10 times the normal number.
The Online Flower Delivery Association of China says that about 70 percent of online flower websites' customers are males aged from 20 to 39 who love online shopping, and are romantic enough to send flowers to girlfriends or wives. About half of them work in the IT industry, have a bachelor's degree and live in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. About 90 percent of the flowers are delivered to recipients who live in a different city.
"In the past few years more Chinese have started to buy flowers for family and friends, but this is still quite small, which means an opportunity as well as a big challenge for the market to grow," Yu says.
Online flower selling has also been hampered by the lack of a suitable transport system in China, says He Sibo, CEO of china-gift.com.
"Shipping flowers is quite different to that of other goods. Flowers have a short lifespan and easily rot, or can be ruined in transit, so higher transport standards are needed."
In the West, flowers can be carried in cold-chain transport that is well-developed, but in China, no professional express company offers that, he says. Consequently, most express companies will not send flowers for fear of damaging them. He cites the US company 1-800-FLOWERS.com.
"They have their own gardens and florists, and can have their flowers distributed in several hours through cold-chain transport by express companies, so their business can be expanded quickly, but in China that is impossible at the moment."
Of the 3,000 or so websites selling flowers now, there is no stand-out brand. To make sure customers can receive fresh flowers in a few hours, they have to rely on the 50,000 flower shops around China to help them send the flowers, which bears similarities to the Interflora model, but which also differs in many ways.
"Interflora uses a franchise style to attract member flower shops around the world," He says. "It sets specific requirements for florists and floriculture. Moreover, the profit-sharing ratio between the website and the shops is fixed. But in China, online flower websites are unable to guarantee the quality of their products."
Yu Shui of ourbloom.com says another problem with online flower selling in China is that customers who pay the same amount for what are supposed to be similar bunches of flowers are likely to receive very different products, because of different levels of floriculture.
"Generally, the flower shops' quality, especially florists' skills cannot be guaranteed. Most shops are privately owned by couples who are not particularly interested in improving their skills."
By contrast, in the West, many florists are well trained and highly skilled. Moreover, the industry is better organized and self-regulated, meaning what they sell tends to be prettier and more artistically prepared.
"The growth of online flowers websites has now surpassed that of floricultural development," Yu says. "If the quality of flowers does not match websites' descriptions, customers are likely to be disappointed, which tarnishes the industry as a whole."
However, Chen Shousong, an analyst with the research company Analysys International, says he is not convinced about the industry's bright prospects.
"Both cultivating people's habit of sending flowers and solving distribution restrictions in China is a long and difficult task. So it's difficult for online websites to grow. If they want to succeed and ensure their long-term survival, they need to focus on providing differentiated and special services and to improve the user's experience."
But industry insiders such as Zou still believe in its bright future, especially after iishang.com received its first venture capital in December.
"That means investors see confidence in this industry as we do," he says.
And as for the relationship that turned Zou into a flower salesman that is still flourishing.