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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 14:28 GMT
Market traders worry as flower sales fall
By Ben Richardson
BBC News Online business reporter

Red, smelly and very, very pricey

In the pre-dawn darkness of Friday morning, London's New Covent Garden Market is awash with colours.

The heavy scent of pollen hangs in the air as freshly cut flowers are displayed for early-bird buyers.

Porters and traders jostle with young couples and off-duty policemen, picking bunches, loading trolleys and stifling yawns.

The Valentine's Day period is set to be one of the year's busiest for florists and things are already motoring along.

Bazaar attitude

Even at 0500 am, there are trucks, vans and estate cars parked around the market. Inside, pop music mixes with shouts as giant doors swish open and slam shut.

Trolleys scrape along the floor, dripping water and scattering petals.

"We can't get enough roses," said one vendor, who complained that auctions in the Netherlands had sold out and many growers' greenhouses were empty.

Trader's flower stall, New Covent Garden Market
Flowers from across the globe

Industry figures estimate that more than 60 million of the lovers' favourite are traded during the Valentine's Day period across Europe, with 10 million sold in the UK alone.

And its big business, with the shortage of supply driving up prices.

The cost of a top quality Grand Prix rose has jumped to as much as 2.50 per stem from its more normal price of less than 1.

More money

High Street retailers such as Interflora have lifted prices accordingly, and saying it with a dozen red roses on Valentine's Day will cost 64.50 plus delivery.

The same bunch of flowers a week later will set the love struck back a more reasonable 45.

But some of the traders at the market are keen to point out that while Friday may seem like boom-time, margins are much tighter during the rest of the year.

Still cheaper than the High Street

"The only people making any money are the growers," said one who asked not be named.

"I started 35 years ago and a rose cost about 40 pence.

"Today, it is between 50p and 60p.

"Wages and costs have come up a lot more".

Demand from independent florists, the main buyers at the market, has been eroded by supermarkets luring customers with cheaper blooms.

Tesco, for example, recently declared a price war on its High Street rivals.

More worrying, one market regular said, were the trucks from mainland Europe that brought flowers to the UK and sold them outside of the normal channels.

Dealing in cash and often going directly to florists and shops, these sellers are accused of taking a significant chunk of business away from New Covent Garden Market.

'Keep fighting'

Surrounded by blooms from countries including Holland, Italy, South Africa and Costa Rica, Alan Gardiner reckons that in the past six years his sales of red roses over the Valentine Day period have more than halved, from 53,000 in 1998 to 23,000 in 2004.

The market itself, he estimates, is only a quarter of what it was five years ago.

Traders hope for a bright future

Mr Gardiner and his business partner seem to be worried about the future and say they have had to start selling to non-trade buyers, people they would have turned away a few years ago.

The New Covent Garden Market itself paints a brighter picture.

It admits that turnover has dropped, sliding to 62m in 2002 from about 80m five years year earlier.

But spokeswoman Helen Evans is confident it can continue to operate as the UK's only wholesale flower market.

"You have to put it in perspective," she said "Sales are down from a big peak, but it is still pretty good."

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