- Written by Caroline Marshall-Foster
Steve Wood and Tracy Rowbottom make an odd couple. One is boho chic, a fabulously creative florist and designer who spent 20 years running their own shop and laughs a lot. The other, whilst certainly not taciturn, is more serious, as an accountant more inclined to use a calculator than a pair of scissors and will probably get more excited by the profit margin of a product than its design potential.
However, while they may be poles apart in character, they are a great team and share a common goal; to restore the reputation of Country Baskets within the florist industry and make it the first choice for florists who want something different for their customers and a better profit.
Oh and they both know it isn't going to be easy, not least because in certain quarters Country Baskets is the devil incarnate because they let anyone register as a member.
You see although they have all the very best attributes you could want from a sundries wholesaler; a huge range of some super products, keen prices, plenty of parking, a Pick, Pack and Deliver service and a soon to be launched new website, the fact they are open to anyone has caused issues.
"I think our honesty backfired on us." says Steve somewhat ruefully. "Fact is virtually every other wholesaler and manufacturer sells to the public and non-florists, be it under their own name, a second trading name or via a website. We on the other hand have always been upfront and never tried to hide things, thinking honesty was the best policy and florists would understand why we were doing what we were doing. Instead it came back to bite us in spades and now we need to put it right."
“I think our honesty backfired on us. We have always been upfront thinking honesty was the best policy. Instead it came back to bite us in spades and now we need to put it right.”
However what isn't perhaps realised is that whilst Country Baskets do sell to anyone – heck the whole company was launched from a market stall in Halifax some 25 years ago by the original owners Paul and Linda Spencer who tragically died in a helicopter crash back in 2008 - they also use a lot of that revenue to support their trade buyers and that's the bit they haven't been quite so good at promoting as Tracy explained.
"I joined the company back in 2010 and think we were better at handling the dual role we played, not least because we were much more active at trade level. Trouble is when the company was bought by venture capitalists the pressure was on us to open up new business and we had to do some very aggressive consumer promotion. Given at the same time we had effectively dropped all our visible trade promotion florists seeing consumer focussed TV ads was probably like red rag to a bull. I don't blame them for getting irritated and wondering why they should bother with us."
Fast forward to November '15 and it is genuinely a very different story. No, they aren't going to stop selling to the public. To be honest the buying power they have to serve that side of the market makes it possible for them to be incredibly keen on prices for the trade side. But what they are going to do is make the balance a lot better as Steve, who was appointed Chief Executive in a major management shuffle in August and now has far greater control, explains.
"Look I can't turn back the clock. Never mind the cost of running and stocking eight branches I have an annual wage bill of £6 million and there is no way I am making any of my 350 people redundant and at risk of losing their homes. Nor am I prepared to stop our trade element, we have far too many very loyal customers to do that. Instead I and my team have to find a way of making what we do work for all our customers, past, present and future."
"I can’t turn back the clock. Instead I and my team have to find a way of making what we do work for all our customers, past, present and future.”
Which is why Tracy is now the official ambassador for the Gold Card customer base. Because having had her own shop for 20 years and been heavily involved in the industry as a demonstrator and competitor she doesn't just understand how tough it is to run a shop but has enough nunce to take her experience of being with Country Baskets back into the florist shop psyche. "I've learned so much since I joined the company. Not about design so much but the business of retailing as well and really want to share that with florists so they can use it to their own advantage. And I want to understand what they want and need from us ... not just in product terms but advice as well."
So whilst Country Baskets may have one of the biggest ranges on offer – there were over 6,000 different lines last time we looked - not only are they looking to increase the savings for Gold members they also want to invest more time and money in helping their Gold Card customers on the business front as well as continuing the help they've already been giving the industry at large.
"I've always believed in putting what we can back into the industry" says Steve. "For example not a lot of people realise that for the last three years we have been heavily supporting the British Florist Association. We've financed their membership of Florint, paid them to host Hub meetings at our branches and are still sponsoring demonstrations and competitions, including the Debut Designers presentation at Fleurex. We've just contributed £10,000 to fund the salary of an admin assistant so they can reach their goals faster and launched a scheme whereby purchases made by BFA members generates a commission for the association – again so it can carry on the work it does."
"Not a lot of people realise that for the last three years we have been heavily supporting the British Florist Association."
Now they want to do more and for all florist shop buyers. Which is why Tracy will be starting her own column covering key areas of retailing and business based on her own experience, why they are launching a series of Gold only workshops covering subjects like Social Media, Marketing and Running a Shop and even offer Gold Card members the chance to take space at their consumer facing open days so that they can sell their own services to an already interested audience in their area.
"It may seem odd but loads of florists have already taken up the offer and found it's worked for them" says Tracy. Oh yes and they always use Gold Card florists for their dems and put them forward for any design work they get involved in ... like the work they were asked to do for the Tour de France.
And last but by no means least there are the all-important tweaks being made to the pricing structure, the area where Steve's calculator comes into its own! "In an increasingly competitive market, we are being chased hard by people like The Range and Hobbycraft, so we don't have huge margins to slash prices. That said one of the first things I decided when I was appointed chief exec was to look at the whole Green to Gold pricing policy.
It is early days - I've only been in the role for three months - but it is top of my list and already keener prices are feeding through, especially for those customers who put their faith in us through a tiered discount scheme and Killer Deals that are only open to Gold Card holders. Oh yes and I need to make sure more florists realise we operate a Price Match on non-promotional prices which guarantees them the best prices available. It's been going since 2011 but I'm flabbergasted so few florists seem to know about it so another thing we need to get out there!"
"We operate a Price Match on non-promotional prices which guarantees the best prices available. It’s been going since 2011 but few florists seem to know about it so another thing we need to get out there!”
As Steve says its early days and he doesn't kid himself that he can change all the negative perceptions about Country Baskets overnight. On the other hand he and Tracy have incredible confidence that savvy florists who use the deals and range Country Baskets offer can not only save money but make money as well.
And that's why they are going on a major PR exercise over the next six months. Not just to showcase all the fabulous products they sell, promote all the events they are planning and involve more florists in their special events but hopefully dispel the myth they are the devil but actually a company that genuinely cares about the floristry industry.
Visit countrybaskets.co.uk to browse their massive range of products.