With Spring in full bloom, flowers are ubiquitous in China’s concrete jungles, from the boutique florists lining luxury malls, to the fashion brand campaigns across WeChat Moments. It’s no doubt a common phenomenon in many global cities, but it’s newer territory for Chinese consumers, for whom just over a decade ago flowers would be a lavish purchase. Now, entrepreneurs like Alice Fu believe flowers are “no longer a ‘luxury’, but a necessity of life.”
The sentiment is powering a rising floral retail industry that’s expected to reach 100 billion RMB by 2020. But unless a florist is like Fu, who specializes in providing flowers for weddings and brand events at her Beijing-based studio Flowever, they have their work cut out for them. In 2015, flower consumption per capita was just $5, compared to 10 times that amount in the U.S. and Europe. Personal flower consumption in China accounts for approximately 10 percent of total sales, which is considerably lower than in Western countries.
Flower culture in China has a long history, where it’s been traditionally associated with extravagance and prosperity. In more recent years, however, a rising middle class and a growing market of millennials seeking a lifestyle upgrade have created a new opportunity for florists. Mass-market flower stalls in first-tier cities have been overtaken by high-end disruptors like Beast and Roseonly, which target the gifting market with decorative flower boxes, candles, and small trinkets.
But these brands are only part of the story. Smaller, more independent specialists have also been popping up in droves, offering consumers more floral variety for personalization, as well as options for weekly subscriptions. Florette, a Beijing florist that launched in 2013 which offers a delivery service where bouquets start at around US$75 and bi-weekly subscriptions start at around US$90, is on the more upscale end of the spectrum.
Most of Florette’s customers purchase flowers for special occasions—the three main ones in China being Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and Chinese Valentine’s Day, or Qixi (七夕)—but Florette co-founder Isabelle Sun says she’s been witnessing more people buying flowers, alongside more traditional gifts like wine or fruit baskets, for a number of more personal occasions.
“[Our customers buy flowers] to brighten up their friend’s life and homes,” Sun tells Jing Daily. “It’s starting to seep into their lifestyle, but people still think of flowers as gifts rather than for themselves.”
Sun explains that pricing is still a major barrier in changing consumers’ purchasing patterns. “The cost of buying flowers is still quite high compared to the income of the average Chinese consumer,” she says. “Even white-collar workers probably prefer to use their salaries to dine at very high-end restaurants, and then to buy tech gadgets, and then to buy flowers.”
E-commerce startups like Reflower and FLOWERPLUS are starting to change that by offering weekly subscriptions at a considerably cheaper rate. FLOWERPLUS’s pricing starts as low as US$5 per week for a basic bouquet, which is about equivalent to sending a document by express delivery in China. The cost-cutting, rule-breaking online innovations are attracting major investors and attention; FLOWERPLUS’s vice president was named an honoree of Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia for the company’s app, where users are encouraged to share photos of their bouquets with friends in their social network.
Chinese consumers’ growing appetite for flowers hasn’t gone unnoticed by luxury lifestyle companies in a number of industries, such as dining, as even if consumers aren’t buying flowers directly, they’re trading up for more quality experiences. WF Central, the newest luxury lifestyle mall on Beijing shopping street Wangfujing, recently welcomed the city’s second location of Tomacado, a half restaurant, half florist launched by a female professional looking to spice up the office lunches of her colleagues with Instagram-friendly surroundings.
Luxury brands are also seeking out studios like Flowever to create activities or decoration for their media partners as well as for VIP customers. Fu, for example, has worked with Tod’s to host floral arrangement workshops in their store.
Florette’s clients, meanwhile, include brands like Lanvin, Prada, Miu Miu, and Christian Louboutin. In some of its most recent endeavors, Florette worked with Van Cleef & Arpels for its “When Elegance Meets Art” exhibition at Aman Summer Palace, as well as with French celebrity florist Eric Chauvin for a dinner for the Qatar royal family at the Forbidden City. Chanel even sought out Florette last month for the Beijing launch event of its latest Coco Crush jewelry line, providing close to 100 vases filled with bouquets of white tulips for the hotel rooms of Chinese media and event participants.
Sun says she only expects this side of her business to grow as more brands seek solutions for product launches, editorial shoots, campaigns, and PR gifts that are more customized, quality, and atmospheric.
“Members of media typically receive gifts from brands, but these are very physical items and you know you’ll be getting them,” Sun says. “But having a bouquet of flowers in your room—that’s something else altogether.”
It’s considerable progress from a time Sun remembers, when her customers “just liked to look” at the freshly cut flowers in her workshop.
“I guess they needed to work up the courage to really experience them.”