At the Flower Depot, business is blooming
Ever since it's inception 11 years ago, the Flower Depot has been running down the track full speed ahead.
From its humble beginnings in 1989, when the owners grew the flowers themselves and sold them door to door, the business has grown, posting about $1 million in gross sales last year.
What's more, with its move last July into a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Tonganoxie's Urban Hess Business Center, the business now has space to continue its growth.
Steve LaForge and Jim Bennett, owners of the Flower Depot, also known as Everlasting Specialties, purchased the $275,000 building and two lots valued at a total of $37,500 from Leavenworth Area Development.
Prior to the move to the business center, the company had been housed in the 130-year-old former Tonganoxie railroad depot. Short of space, owners and employees warehoused dried flowers and wreaths in five buildings around the Tonganoxie area.
The move has gone well and business is booming, or blooming, one might say. That's in part because of the corporation's strong Internet presence.
"We embraced the Internet pretty early," LaForge said.
Everlasting Specialties entered the world of e-commerce three years ago with the introduction of its Web site, The Flower Depot. A year ago, that presence expanded with the inception of The Wreath Depot. Through this medium, they're able to reach Internet users around the globe. But LaForge notes the company is not yet selling internationally.
"This year, of our new sales and customers, 50 percent were related to our Internet sites," LaForge said.
Last year, he said, about 30 percent of new sales and customers came from the Internet.
Overall, the company's gross sales have increased by 20 percent this year.
"That's slow for us," LaForge said. "But I think it's a little healthier growth than the 50 and 70 percent we've had in the past."
And so, along with learning about growing flowers, the business owners also have learned about growing a small-town business into a successful nationwide mail-order company.
LaForge, who says he's learned not to re-invent the wheel, said he researches how successful companies operate.
"As far as customer service, we really studied L.L. Bean," LaForge said. "We looked at their customer service policy, their return policy and even the copy in their catalogs how they describe their merchandise."
LaForge says he sees the Depot's future success in vertical marketing.
"A store like Wal-Mart goes for horizontal marketing," LaForge said. "They find the customer base and products and they spread out to reach customers."
With vertical marketing, for instance, a company such as the Depot is highly specialized.
"We have primarily two products dried flowers and twig wreaths. We sell it wholesale because we want the volume. It helps to make the business efficient. We buy larger quantities and the customer buys more."
The first step of vertical marketing, he said, was to start to sell individual wreaths to consumers. This was done through the Internet site established a year ago.
The company's next step will be to sell to smaller wholesalers.
"That means to people who were like we were a few years ago, and also to manufacturers who want the base wreaths and flowers," LaForge said. "I think what's good about that is that it allows you to stay focused on your product."
As an example, LaForge said one of the company's best sellers is the twig wreath, fashioned from twigs from Indian current bushes and assembled by five families three in Nebraska, two in Kansas.
The twig wreaths are popular in New York, he said. Moreover, the East Coast is a hot spot for the Depot's products.
"We're very strong in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts," LaForge said. "Those are strong states for us but then again, you've got a big population there."
But the Depot is also faring well in remote areas.
"We have customers who live 70 miles from the closest town in Montana," LaForge said. "With the Internet, it brings the business right into their homes."
And, with the efficiency of the Depot, especially now that everything's housed under one roof, products usually are shipped to customers the next working day.
Right now, the seven employees are working overtime to keep up with the holiday demand, and LaForge said it may take about five days now to send the products on their way.
The entire business, which boasts that sales have grown 800 percent in the last five years, is stretched to the max when business grows.
"The biggest challenge is growth," LaForge said. "It's a challenge it taxes every single element of your business but it beats the alternative."