Whitney Hawkings, Founder & CEO of Flowerbx explains how her unique business model is key to her success

Whitney Hawkings traded in a career in luxury fashion, for a career in luxury flowers. Her cut-to-order business model means customers are getting the freshest flowers possible, delivered the next day. They also discuss the importance of Instagram as a visual acquisition tool for Flowerbx, and why offline marketing doesn’t work for the business.

Whitney explains how having huge names like Dior, Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo as regular customers, helped boost their sales and smooth the transition into the US market.

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Andrew Veitch: Welcome to the joy of marketing with me, Andrew Veitch. 

Today I’m joined by Whitney Hawkings, the founder and CEO of Flowerbx. 

Welcome to the show.

Whitney Hawkings: Oh, it’s so great to be here. Thanks for having me.

AV: So Whitney, you started in high end fashion. What, what was it that sort of drove your move from fashion into flowers?

WH: Gosh, that’s a great question. Um, fashion and flowers are not as unrelated as they might seem at the beginning, and it was sort of a very natural transition. I have to say they’re both working in a thing of beauty; they’re both trying to deliver, you know, we’re operating at the premium end of the flower delivery services so I wanted to deliver a beautiful branded, slick, amazing experience for our customers. Which is something that didn’t really exist in a consistent way internationally, it was always sort of haphazard, and I hope this works, fingers crossed when you were sending flowers to someone that wasn’t sort of in London, or, you know, sending sending flowers internationally. 

But working in fashion. So I worked for Tom Ford, the designer for almost 20 years and that’s where I realised there was really something missing in the market. So at that point, I was a working mom of two children, I now have three children. I was buying everything in my life online, I was buying my clothes online, I was buying my beauty online, I was buying my farm fresh, organic groceries online. But if I wanted to have flowers in my house, just because I was having a dinner party, or I was having friends over, I found there was no way to buy flowers in a really slick, convenient, consistent, sustainable way online. So looking a little bit deeper into the the sort of flower industry, I realised it was really an industry that was very ripe for disruption. So I went for it.

AV: Yeah, and I can see that because obviously, you know, your big competitor is basically a network of small florists, isn’t it? So I guess the consistency you’re going to get when it’s a network of small businesses is not going to be the same if you have complete control of the whole thing, from from end to end.

WH: Exactly. They, every sort of international player uses local fulfilment and local fulfilment, obviously, there’s no customer loyalty, they don’t care if they, they just want to get the flowers out the door. They send realistically, whatever they have in the shop, so it looks nothing like the picture and I wanted to create a completely different model where you knew exactly what you were sending. The same way if you go to Prada, or Gucci, in London, in Tokyo, in Shanghai, in Milan, you’re getting the same bag, you’re getting the same tissue paper, you’re getting the same quality of product, you’re getting the same sales staff wearing the same uniform, and you really know what you can expect from those brands and I wanted to create the same experience with flowers.

AV: Yeah, and I guess when I went to your website, it does have the feel of a fashion brand, actually, it feels much more like a fashion brand’s than a florist. I mean, was that sort of conscious that you were thinking? Let’s, let’s take some of the values and I guess photography and style that you would use in fashion and apply it to flowers.

WH: Exactly, and it seemed surprising to me that no one had ever done that. 

If you look at any florists website, across the globe, they always sort of have a mixed match of sort of random pictures of random flowers. And there was no sort of cleanliness. I wanted to strip it back the same way, back to what you’re saying, put it on a white background showcase the beauty of the flower, we only sell, sell single stem bunches of flowers. Because I feel like, of course, there’s a beautiful way to make flowers, but most of the time, it’s not beautiful. And most of the time, if it’s not done by someone very artistic with a very thoughtful end in mind, they end up using whatever they have and it looks like hell to be honest. 

So I wanted, there’s not really any way to go wrong with single stem bunches of flowers. If you have 10 peonies or 10 hydrangea it’s impossible to go wrong. If they’re the freshest flowers, if they’re cut to order, if they have great value, and if they’re the best quality flowers you can buy, there’s no one who can hate it. I dare someone to dislike 20 peony’s in a vase, whereas there are a million ways to do a mixed arrangement wrong.

AV: Yeah, do you know, I’ll admit that the flower isn’t something I know a lot about. But certainly something that is close to my heart is whiskey. And again, you have the same thing you can either have a blend where you throw it together, a whole lot of whiskies you might have or the single malt where you choose simply one and just enjoy it, you know as it is.

WH: That’s a great analogy. 

AV: Probably quite a Scottish analogy.

I suppose something else I was thinking about, you mentioned there actually, in your intro about buying the flowers yourself. I’m wondering, are flowers one of these products where there is, I’m guessing, I’m guessing there’s a lot of gifting in flowers and certainly probably the majority of times I’ve bought flowers has been for gifting. 

So you are I suppose, it is more one of these products were often the person that’s buying the product, and the person that’s actually enjoying the product is separate. Which kind of means you have to, in a way, sell it in sort of two different ways – thinking about the person that’s actually going to be enjoying the product, but also the person that’s buying it as they might be separate.

WH: Yeah, that’s 100% true. Which is why I wanted to sort of take taste out of it. We have beautiful taste, but I wanted it to be quality led, and because that way, whether you know, if this person happens to like pink roses or not, if you’re selling, if you’re sending the best, most beautiful premium pink roses, no one, it’s, it’s impossible to dislike. 

Whereas I think back to my point earlier, with mixed arrangements, you know, you could do wild, but maybe the person’s really modern and minimalist. You could do a minimal arrangement, maybe the person is really romantic, in their taste and interior taste. So I wanted to sort of take all that out of it and just sell the best. 

And actually, funnily enough, our, our sales are 50%, self purchase and 50% gifting. So that is great, because it helps sort of mitigate the seasonality in floral gifting, traditionally, like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, graduation, and that’s it. So it helps us sort of have a consistent, non seasonal sales cycle, which is great. 

Also, COVID did sort of help accelerate that. COVID did a lot of things that were really awful, but it did sort of accelerate that self love, self care, taking care of your environment, taking care of your house, treating yourself, you know, the same way people bought beautiful produce or bought beautiful food that they might not have bought before the pandemic. I think it’s something that luckily has continued since lockdowns have eased, that people do like to live their life with flowers and make their home and home office environments really beautiful.

AV: Yeah, I guess obviously, one of the challenges you have, as well is, you know, there’s just so much competition. I mean if I think about my very short walk, I’m lucky enough to live a 20 minute walk away from my office, but even on that short walk I think I walked past at least two shops, you know, on the high street, which are selling, you know, a reasonable selection of flowers. 

So you do have this competition with, with flowers being, you know, being very widely available.

WH: Yes, I can guarantee you the quality is not the quality that we have. Secondly, are they flowers that you would feel comfortable sending to your I don’t know, sister in law, daughter for a special gift? I don’t know, whoever or, or I don’t know, is it something for a special anniversary you would feel comfortable and happy sending?

AV: No, no, I think again, that is a point, isn’t it? Because there maybe is this difference between the sort of special occasions, and you know, maybe just having some flowers in the house.

WH: Yeah, that’s true. I also, so because our business model is everything’s cut to order, so literally, you order flowers today, in London, they come on the lorry from Holland tomorrow morning at four o’clock in the morning for you, they are delivered to you tomorrow. So there is a very real value in our business model. The fact that you’re not paying for the different middlemen, and you’re also getting flowers that are usually three or four or even five days fresher than anyone else, because they don’t sit around. We have a zero waste business model, so I think that value and the fact that they last almost twice as long does also, it does keep people coming back. And we know that just from customer feedback and NPS. But that sort of is an upside versus the flower stand on the road, because those flowers can be there for four or five days if they haven’t sold or even up to a week.

AV: You know what that was actually just answering one of the questions I had on my list for later because, you know, I spent most of my time in marketing in the food business and obviously, one of the challenges in food is you do need to sell it before you hit these best before dates. And I guess I’ve been thinking that flowers must be even more challenging, because I mean, clearly after they’re cut, flowers are not going to last very long. But you’re saying that you, you actually only order the product after you’ve got an order yourself?

WH: Yep. Which is great from a cash flow perspective because our customers obviously pay us before we pay our suppliers two weeks from now. It’s also great from a supply management and stock planning perspective because you don’t know that we didn’t buy them. So that I’m realising more and more, lots of friends who are sitting on tonnes of stuff that that is actually a genius, besides being super environmental and super sustainable, which was the reason initially why we created this sort of business model, this just in time delivery, but it is also really great to help ride these crazy waves that we’ve been going through all of every business you know over the past few years.

AV: I also noticed on your website, you’ve been providing flowers for Louis Vuitton and Dior, I guess, again, there’s a really helpful sort of halo effect from being able to sort of mention these these types of brands on your website.

WH: Yeah, what’s great, so when we launched, it was just a b2c, direct to consumer, flower delivery company. But it became very clear, very quickly, I guess, because of my two decades working in high end fashion, that, you know, Dior was a client, and then they would call and say, Oh, can you actually do a lunch we’re having, it’s 12 people, and of course I wasn’t gonna say no to it. 

So the b2b business just sort of evolved itself and turned into a very, very significant part of our business. Pre COVID, it was 50% of our business. And now we expected it to sort of be 15% this year, but it’s already back to 40%, just in the past couple of months. 

So it is, as you say, a great customer acquisition channel, because there you are doing an amazing event that you’re getting paid for it that’s also telling all of these wonderful clients of Net-a-Porter, of Dior, of Louis Vuitton, of Jimmy Choo, of these great brands, Oh, guess what Flowerbx is the best. So it’s been a very great sort of customer acquisition tool. It’s been a great substantial business, and also, I mean, I feel like it’s always Fashion Week, somewhere. It’s also been a great way again, mitigating that sort of seasonality and floral gifting.

AV: And actually, just on customer acquisition, I noticed you’ve got a pretty impressive Instagram following. I think it was just well over 100,000. I’m gonna guess sort of Instagram, as being one of the very visual social media platforms, it’s got to be quite an important one for you.

WH: It is, I think it’s a great way to sort of tell the brand story, and I don’t think we do it well enough. That’s kind of you, but I’m always, I’m still doing it and when do we get to hire a social media manager? Because I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m like ancient, we need some child who can come in and like do reels and Tik Tok and etc. 

That said, it’s a great way you know, people, our, our Instagram followers they do, they’re really big brand believers. You can just see by the comments how sort of engaged they are, which is so rewarding for me, just that we’re able to sort of communicate with our customers and our, and our friends in that way.

AV: Sure, I can absolutely see that just. You know, it would just be a pleasant and uplifting thing just to have in your Instagram feed, isn’t it? Even if you, even if you aren’t actually thinking of buying the product. 

So what are your sort of main acquisition channels?

WH: Yeah, well, like most brands, pre iOS, things were quite different than they are now. 

So Instagram and Facebook were huge channels for us, sort of during COVID. So much so that like, I mean, our ROAS, was like 30, it was crazy, and like, to the point where we had to turn off advertising quite often because we couldn’t even handle the demand and the volume. 

That said, April last year, when there was iOS changes with Facebook and Instagram, that playbook completely changed. But because we have really strong affiliates, we have really strong, we’re working really hard on our SEO because that hasn’t been as good of a channel for us as it should be. We have a very like, direct is usually between 50 and 60% of our traffic, which I think speaks to the brand that we created. We’ve luckily been able to sort of get through the, you know that those, those challenges with Facebook and Instagram. Google search is is a great channel for us. And so those are those are the main sort of customer acquisition. 

AV: Sure, I can certainly see that Google search would be, but I also imagine that that is going to be extremely competitive with some large companies, places and very, very big bids.

WH: Yeah.

AV: And what about, you did mention obviously some of the, the b2b stuff you’re doing but I mean, are you sort of doing offline marketing, as well?

WH: No. We have historically, we did sort of at the very beginning, we did a couple of bus ads in London that were centred around Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, so sort of automatically big flower buying occasions, and they were really successful. Like literally the seconds the bus ads would go up, we did 100 ads, across 100 buses, across London, central London, and you would see like 3x traffic like that day on our on our site. So they were effective. I think they were more effective as a sort of top of funnel brand awareness tool, than they were actually, as once people sort of knew about us and those people had seen us, there was sort of diminishing return each time we did one. 

So I think in a new market that was quite effective at getting our name out there, but they became less effective as the years went on.

AV: Yeah, I can, I can see that I mean I have to admit I’ve, I don’t think I’ve ever really got outdoor advertising to work in the sense that I’ve got it to work on on an acquisition basis. I can see maybe around awareness, but.

WH: I think because they were like your average bloke. has like his Valentine, who was dating someone who buys Valentine’s Day flowers, it’s a nice and I don’t think that average bloke is like, Oh, my favourite florist is this person. So I think it was sort of the right time and then, here’s the solution, and then it’s a great website and great customer experience and it was obvious to them. I sort of think that’s why it worked. 

I, we’ve done an out of, out of outdoor campaign once in June, I think it was around the end of May, it was around the Chelsea Flower Show, and it was just a flop. It didn’t even do anything. So I get what you’re saying.

AV: Yeah, I think it also tends to be to be relatively expensive. 

WH: Very expensive. 

AV: I noticed that you’re now expanding. Well actually, just to be clear, I know you’re available in Europe and the US, what in LA? 

Did you actually start out International? 

Was that something you added, you added later? 

WH: No, we started London only and then, but it was always my plan for it to be international. 

I mean, I didn’t leave my amazing career to be a florist, not that there’s anything against florists. But I didn’t want to do be a London florist, because there are plenty of those. Like the beauty for me, and the beauty and the concept of what I wanted to do was an international solution. So it was never just going to be in London florist. And like people ask me now they’re like, did you always want to be a florist? I’m like, I’ve never wanted to be a florist and I certainly do not want to be a florist now. 

Then we quickly expanded, now I would say not quickly, I would say after like a year and a half, we expanded across the UK, which was the obvious step. 

Then we went to France because I lived in France for a long time and I speak French, so it just felt like the obvious sort of evolution for me. And then across Europe, and then New York first, just to sort of dip our toe into the US. Because again, that felt like a very European and international client, and we had our b2b, existing clients who automatically said, Oh, great, you can do this in New York, too. So it was like the first month, I mean, we had, we beat our target in like five days, because it was all just with existing clients, and it was a very modest target. 

But so that b2b adoption, which I hoped would happen, did happen. And then during COVID, just like that, before US Mother’s Day in 2020, or whatever it was, and I was like, we’ve got to open up the East Coast, because now every florist is closed, this is the real opportunity for us to do it. So we did it like three weeks, and it was 100% the right decision. So that’s how that happened.

AV: But I’m guessing in the US that you must have been just concentrating on relatively small geographic areas?

WH: Yes, so New York and LA. And even now, they’re so nascent sort of as far as businesses, but we’re doing sort of hyper local in New York, LA, Williamsburg, sort of certain territories where we’ve seen early adoption.

AV: That makes sense, and I’m very impressed that you managed to sell into France. I have tried on more than one occasion to break into the French market and for, for whatever reason. Things that I do that work fine in the UK, or or even in the US, when I apply them to France, they just do not work. I don’t know. There just seems to be something about the French that makes them not like my marketing, and I don’t know what to do.

WH: To answer your question, we closed France, we closed during COVID. So I can share similar sentiment towards French and marketing. It works now, but we don’t invest anything in it, it sort of is it, whatever happens, happens. But we saw the same thing, that any money, you know, for every dollar we spent on marketing or advertising, you’d get 10 times more out of it in the US than you would in France, same in the UK. So we’re like we have limited resources, limited funds. So let’s spend it where we’re gonna get the biggest return.

AV: So Whitney, what is next on the Flowerbx journey?

WH: Global flower domination. But first, I’ll start with really sort of driving meaningful growth and penetration in our existing markets in the US and then expanding across the US. Which I think, it turns out it’s a big place, the US, so I think that’s gonna keep me busy for the next few years.

AV: Yeah, well, certainly one of the things again, I have had some limited experience of selling in the US. And I think I mean, obviously in the UK, within about four hours, you can drive across all the parts of the UK where most people live. When you move to the US distribution is a little bit more challenging than a four hour journey, just about anywhere. So I’m gonna guess that it’s going to make quite tricky for, for you.

WH: Yeah, thanks for stating the obvious. 

AV: Well, it wasn’t obvious to me 

WH: The inherent challenge that flowers are dying the second, the second you get your hands on them, they’re already dying. So yeah, I think I’ve got my work cut out for me. 

But luckily we have an amazing head of logistics and operations who has, she’s sort of has a lot of experience in cold chain perishable goods, etc. Because that’s what you need. And that’s not a skill set that I, I necessarily had, I would say I’m gaining it quickly. But um, but that’s why it’s also sort of ripe for the cracking, I feel like that I want to do it because I know it can be done and no one’s ever really done it before. So that’s part of the challenge and part of the opportunity.

AV: Oh, fantastic. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I really enjoyed that. I’m sure listeners did too. 

Unlike Whitney, most ecommerce businesses aren’t able to order on demand. We have stock to manage, so one of the things that will often happen is we’ll need to clear some stock, perhaps we’re in food and drink and the stock is approaching its use by date, which certainly happened to me a lot when I was a CMO. Or maybe you’re a fashion brand, needing to clear stock because it’s end of season or perhaps you have a size fragmentation issue. 

Why not install Machine Labs and we can help you with that. We can run reverse product recommendations where you can start with the product that you need to sell, and we will go off and find appropriate customers in your database who are likely to buy it. Stock management is a vital thing for profitability. There’s nothing worse than a DTC business, something to write products off, with Machine Labs, we can really help minimise that waste. 

So thank you for joining me today and I look forward to speaking to you again on The Joy of Marketing.

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