Burlington’s Brant Florist fights multinationals; builds online web presence with SEO, website
Doyle and Tim Bolt
More than $1,000,000
Opened in 1961. Owned by the Bolt Family for 35 years.
Brant Florist expertly designs bouquets to catch the eyes of customers.
But when it comes to online sales, the family-owned Burlington shop is struggling to get the attention of prospective clients.
Ken Bolt bought the store with his wife, Elaine, in 1977. When they started, they were the sole employees; today, the downtown Burlington shop has a staff of 15.
Bolt passed ownership of the business on to his sons Tim and Doyle 10 years ago, but still manages the store’s digital strategy, which has been in place since their website launched 1996. Today, the site receives about 3,000 visitors per day, and online purchases account for approximately 20 per cent of Brant Florist’s total sales.
Bolt estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of customers — whether they ultimately order in store, via telephone, or online — find the store through its digital presence. As the primary avenue for finding new customers, Bolt says it’s crucial that the website appears as a top result when potential customers search online for flowers in Burlington and surrounding cities.
“The florist listed number one is going to get a substantial amount of the hits,” Bolt says. A quick Google search reveals that competition for this spot is fierce. Brant lands on page one when searching for “flowers in Burlington,” but is buried in a sea of results when that query is broadened to the GTA.
Independent florists previously ruled the industry. But just as online presence has become a key business driver, Brant’s website — and the websites of many other small shops —are being beat by tech-savvy players new to the florist game.
Understanding why means looking back to 1910 and the creation of floral wire services. Using a network of telegraph lines, they functioned like the internet does now. Customers could walk into a Toronto shop, have orders wired to Vancouver, and the flowers would be in the hands of their sweethearts the next day. Independent stores were the gatekeeper of this service, and would balance outgoing and incoming orders to make the business profitable for everyone involved.
Florists still join wire services, but the business has radically evolved as rules changed and the technology moved online. In the 1990s, the networks opened to non-florist affiliates (typically called order gatherers). Bolt says that by 1998, the industry had undergone a dramatic shift.
It is easy for order gatherers to disrupt the business — they have no stores, no inventory, no designers, and no delivery vehicles. They simply act as middlemen online, receiving a handsome cut of profits in return.
“All they are is a website, an office, [and] a phone,” Bolt explains.
This means the cooperative quid pro quo is gone. Gatherers collect and send often heavily discounted orders without filling requests themselves. This gives local florists business, but only a tiny margin of the profits they used to get from the more balanced system in pre-internet days.
Because they don’t have the overhead associated with traditional shops, gatherers can spend more on SEO strategies and pay-per-click advertising spots, making them very well entrenched middlemen. This pulls customers from cash-strapped independents who can’t buy their way to the top of search results.
Mike Childs, managing partner of internet marketing agency Toronto SEO Group, says prime locations on search returns are essential for growing a small business’ web presence.
“A good chunk of [customers] never go past the first three [listings], never mind into the third page,” he says.
While some small businesses, including Brant Florist, try to compete by purchasing pay-per-click ad space, it comes at a high cost. Just like the name implies, the company gets charged every time someone clicks on their placement. Bolt’s goal was to spend no more than $25 per acquisition to keep the advertising profitable; however, in practice, he found prices are prohibitively expensive, running up to $60 for each sale.
Because it’s now so difficult to compete, Bolt has seen the number of orders he sends to other shops decline by 40 per cent since their peak in 2000. These outgoing wire orders previously brought in 35 per cent of Brant Florist’s total revenue in the late 1990s; today, they account for just 20 per cent.
Still, the company remains profitable because local, in-store sales remain strong. And Bolt is still working to adjust the business to the industry’s new reality. He plans to continue working on his SEO strategy in an attempt to boost web traffic, and promotes the phrase “Real Florist” in advertising campaigns and on his website. The idea is to highlight the difference between order gatherers and independent shops, and encourage customers to buy local.
Once they’re in the door, says Bolt, the store’s quality and service will keep them coming back.
“Our goal is always to develop a lifetime customer,” he says. “Once we have won that first order, we’re pretty much guaranteed that we’ll get additional orders in the future.”