West Coast Floral Growers and Distributors is a family owned and run nursery and retail center located in Surrey B.C. Canada, just outside of Vancouver. The company has been in business for over 30 years and specializes in growing tropical plants and succulents. It’s retail center caters to the entire lower Mainland region, from Vancouver to Abbottsford. The Wholesale Department has customers across Western Canada and ships as far as Winnipeg Manitoba in the east and the Northwest Territories in the North. Strategically located very close to the border with the USA, in recent years the company has also been expanding its operations into this market.
We spoke to Ethan Littler, purchaser at West Coast Floral, about growing flowers and plants in British Colombia. How did COVID-19 influence the company, what challenges did they face, how did the market develop? Ethan offers an insiders perspective as to what it meant to keep business going while no one really knew what to do anyway, and how the company managed to adjust quickly to new, unique circumstances. Lastly, we discuss its Dutch ties, which go back a long way and were recently tightened again through its cooperation with Van Tuijl, a company supplying them with grower pots.
Good for growing
“Many people will know BC for its fruits and wines but what most people may not know about is the robust floral industry it also is home to”, Ethan explains. “The climate around Vancouver area is characterized by long hot summers combined with very mild winters. This allows us to produce year round and to grow tropical plants that would not be possible in other parts of Canada. Because of this we have customers as far away as Manitoba (Mid-Canada, 2000 kilometers to the east) and even high up north close to the Arctic circle.
COVID-19, however, disrupted the entire industry. In Canada things really began to get serious in March 2020 which is the very beginning of our spring season and one of our busiest times of the year. As with the rest of the world we didn’t really know what was going to happen and it was only the strong the leadership of Jason, Nathan, Jill and Wybranda (i.e. the company’s management) that really kept us going.
Our retail store was able to pivot very quickly into online ordering and roadside pick-up and actually set the standard that many of our colleagues in the industry were to follow. Our model was so successful that our customers came to us asking for advice on how to transform their operations.
Employee safety was our first priority. Our sales staff was able to work from home in order to maintain social distance and for most of the month we had a very minimal team on location. It was spooky being one of three people working in our warehouse. Some days I could go hours without seeing another person. We closed everything to outside suppliers and though we had to shoulder more of the burden of loading and unloading we were more than happy to make that sacrifice to keep our people and our colleagues safe.
In the first few weeks many of our customers across Canada shut down temporarily to wait and see what would happen. Our owners considered very strongly whether or not we should suspend operations but ultimately decided to keep going and though our sales dipped initially our decision to remain open gave many of our customers the confidence to re-open their doors as well.
Looking back the entire floral industry in British Columbia has been very fortunate. After the initial dip sales went up dramatically. Nurseries and greenhouses were declared essential services and allowed to stay open and with so many other people remaining at home demand for plants and other products rose steeply and gave us one of our most successful seasons in recent years. Demand increased to the point where our greatest challenge was actually finding product to sell. We simply could not produce plants fast enough and had to limit the amount we could sell to each customer to help spread out the supply.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to work with international suppliers in this past year. The fluctuation of exchange rates and longer delays in shipping have impacted business severely.
These troubles aside, we look forward to growing our relationship with our international customers and suppliers. One of them is Van Tuijl, with whom we have been doing business with for the past two years. We typically purchase grower pots, but have recently been able to take advantage of their relationships with producers like Desch and purchase more specialized products like self-watering pots. As our customer base modernizes and a new generation begins buying we have noticed that convenience is key. Plants that are easy to grow and easy to take care of are more popular than ever and our relationship with Van Tuijl has allowed us to provide our customers with products that are not as widely available.
The new generation of customers also value more environmentally friendly products. Recycling rules and procedures in Europe are much more advanced than in North America, but because we purchase a lot of product from Holland we are able to assure our customers that these products meet the much stricter standards in Europe which adds extra value and peace of mind.
In general, the Dutch connection is quite strong. We have a large Dutch community in the area surrounding Vancouver and they have transplanted a lot of the tradition of floral excellence from Holland. As with West Coast Floral, many of the nurseries and growers have Dutch roots and Dutch is the second (if not first) language of the industry. We even have a Dutch style auction (though on a much smaller scale).
This deep connection with the Dutch system is actually what put us in connection with Van Tuijl in the first place. Other than supplying us with grower pots, the relationship with Van Tuijl is very helpful for us in keeping up with the latest trends and help us source products directly from the factories. Trends in floriculture typically start in Holland and then make their way to Canada about a year later, but because we have a close relationship with Van Tuijl we are able to pick up on the latest trends faster than some of our competitors and allows us to provide the best and newest products to our customers.
Recognizing how fortunate we have been, West Coast Floral has made sure to give back to our community. We have had several fundraisers for our local hospital and regular contributions to our local food banks. West Coast Floral as a company believes very strongly in supporting its employees and its community and I can personally say as an employee that that commitment has only grown stronger during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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West Coast Floral