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Source Newspapers Article December 13, 2007

Florists warn of Web impostors

By Joelle Quartini - Staff Writer
Point Park News Service

For Jennifer Gatto, a thoughtful gesture soured when she decided to send flowers on Mother's Day.

She knew she wouldn't see her mom on the special day, so she went online to send an arrangement. But she didn't realize she'd pay more for the card and vase, or that shipping would cost $10 extra on Saturdays.

The package reached her mother, but everything was packaged separately and her mother had to arrange the flowers herself.

"They con you into thinking it's a really great deal and then your end result comes out to cost a lot more than if you go to a regular florist," said Gatto, 21, of Ross.

Internet sales have brought new competition to the flower industry, but florists warn that consumers need to know what and from whom they're buying.

Flowers are one of the biggest selling categories on the Internet because of the convenience and the information consumers get through pictures and explanations on Web sites, said Jack Howard, vice president of national sales for Teleflora, a 70-year-old wire service for florists.

"We've definitely seen a huge shift in orders going from traditional local florists to the online players," said Howard, whose company makes online sales where orders are transmitted to a network of local florists.

The company also works to help local florists by arming them with Web sites so that they can compete, Howard said.

"There's no reason they can't compete in the Pittsburgh market and get their market share," he said.

Orders that don't go directly through a flower shop can lead to higher costs and bigger hassles, florists say. Some telemarketers -- called "petal pushers" by the Federal Trade Commission -- buy local phone numbers to make customers think they're a neighborhood florist, according to a recent alert.

In reality, a national company is taking the order -- along with a processing fee and a percentage of the sale before passing the order to a florist.

That decreases local flower sales and misleads customers about their purchases, said Jennifer Sparks, spokeswoman for the Society of American Florists.

"Make sure when you call local florists to ask for their address," she said. "If they hesitate, or don't give you one, there's the red flag."

Jim Ludwig, 56, of Shaler, owner of Jim Ludwig's Blumengarten Florist in the Strip District, said he has seen the effects of impostors.

"We were smart enough to realize what they were doing," he said.

Ludwig's grandfather opened the shop in 1929. Since Ludwig and his wife, Linda, took over in 1975, the way that orders are sent and received has changed. Half of their new customers are from outside Pittsburgh, and nearly all sales come from their Web site and telephone orders. The shop has a "do not fill" list of companies whose orders it won't take.

When an order comes from an outside company, a florist might have to substitute the flowers requested or give a lower quality, Linda Ludwig cautioned. "When you call a local florist, you know what's fresh and what the florist has."

Lisa Caruso, 56, of Upper St. Clair said she sends flowers only through local florists.

"If there was a problem, then I could go back to them and say that whatever network you used had a problem," Caruso said. "This way, I feel I have a local connection."

Still, many people find it easier to order online, regardless of the extra charges.

Dan Brown, 34, of Sharpsburg said that when he wanted to send flowers for a friend's birthday, he used an online company. The sunflowers arrived intact and on time.

"It alleviated me having to get in my car and drive to the florist," he said. "I did it all online."

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