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A Valentine’s Gone Sour at $1.20 per Hour

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“Prepared I was not for such a business; therefore am I found so much unsettled…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, II, v)  

I’ve traveled the earth and survived for long periods in very remote places few people have ever heard of.  I worked hard over many years to earn multiple university degrees.  I’ve endured my share of bad bosses, bad jobs and bad relationships and learned many life lessons from all of them.

So it makes me very frustrated, after all that worldly learning over all those years, to end up in a situation where I find myself taken advantage of because of my own naivety.

But that’s what happened, and I blame mostly myself.  Two months ago, I had the thought of doing a Valentine’s Day pop-up shop for my floral business.  I don’t have a shop of my own, and just work out of my home for the most part, so I thought I’d hold temporary shop inside another existing business.  I started brainstorming possible locations, and reached out to a coffee shop that I’d visited a few times in the past few years to ask if they’d be interested in hosting my pop-up.  (I won’t name them here in this post but many of you already know who they are.)  They replied yes, they’d be very interested, and we set up an initial meeting for a few days later.

Mistake #1: I waited too late to start all of this.  Valentine’s Day is of course the biggest holiday of the year for florists, which means that we have to place our flower orders with our wholesalers several weeks ahead of time in order to get “pre-book” (lower) prices.  We had the initial planning meeting at the coffee shop on a Thursday, and my floral wholesale order was due the next day.  I therefore felt a lot of pressure to come to an agreement so I could get my order in.  I was so worried about booking a host location that I didn’t listen to my internal voice of concern when the owner proposed they take a 25% cut of the sale price of each floral arrangement in exchange for providing me a corner of space to sell.  I didn’t figure out until after I said “yes” that 25% of the sale price worked out to be almost 60% of the actual profit, once I factored in my costs of making everything.

I placed my wholesale order the next day for over $1,000 in flowers, but couldn’t stop thinking about that profit margin.  It seemed exorbitant to me, so I suggested in an email that we work on making the split more fair to me, since I’d be putting in most of the labor for the pop-up shop to make over 60 arrangements and to prep/de-thorn/wrap 150 single long-stemmed roses (that the shop had ordered).  I proposed sale price points that I thought were extremely reasonable for Valentine’s Day, that would help to sell the arrangements, and that would still leave us both with some reasonable profit.  The coffee shop countered with a payout offer that, based on the sale prices I had suggested, would decrease their share of the profits on the arrangements to 47%, but would still give them 64% of the profits on the single-stemmed roses.  I accepted their offer.

I’ve always considered myself to be relatively book-smart; I did well in school, placed high in my classes, and enjoyed learning.  But I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never had much of what they call “street smarts” – it’s hard for me to tell sometimes when someone’s taking advantage of me, or not giving me the whole story.  I don’t “get the joke” until it’s too late usually.

So I accepted their offer even though I still didn’t feel good about it.  I felt like I had to, I guess – I’d already ordered the flowers, and they had made what appeared to be at least somewhat of a good faith offer in reducing their profit margin to be more fair to me.  They were providing the space, and some marketing, and staff time to ring up sales (they made a specific point of telling me that they would make the sales at their registers, and then the customer would show me a ticket stub they’d been given – not their receipt – in order to pick up their flowers at my table).  But I still felt like I was going to be doing, by far, most of the work, for barely over half the profits.  I began to get upset and dejected, but I also tried to be positive, telling myself that if we sold everything, we’d both still end up with a tidy sum and that it was good exposure for my business – and so I began investing time and flowers into creating sample floral arrangements for their publicity efforts and to take into the coffee shop to display to customers two weeks before the holiday.

My flower studio at full capacity.

My flower studio at full capacity for the pop-up shop.

(Mistake #2 – all of these business arrangements were made via email and not, as I now know I should have done, in a signed contract by both parties with all the terms explicitly spelled out.)

I had agreed to make even more samples to try to sell during a six-hour pre-order time block at the coffee shop one week ahead, on the Saturday before Valentine’s.  I had also printed up some price signs to put on the table so it would be clear to customers how much to pay for the different arrangements (we had two different sizes).  This is when things really took a turn for the worse:  I had set up my table upon arriving that morning and had just put out the price signs, when the manager came over and seemed very surprised I had made my own signs, saying “Oh, that’s wrong – those aren’t the correct prices,” and took the sign out of the plastic holder.

I was confused and surprised – “What do you mean? Those are the prices we agreed to in our email,” I said.  She then told me that they had decided to raise the prices of the arrangements – of my product – in order to give themselves a “more even share of the profits.”  They had decided – without consulting, asking, or telling me – to raise the prices of the arrangements by 33% and 20% each, essentially giving them a much higher percentage of the profit margin than me.  She said she would re-print the signs with the correct prices, and disappeared into the back workroom, leaving me standing there in shock.  What had just happened?

I quickly did some math, figured out they were going to be taking well over 60% of the overall profits on everything, and my head pretty much exploded.  I stepped outside the shop and made some very heated phone calls to some family members to vent my frustration; the manager came back after quite a lengthy absence, and I noticed she had just slightly reduced the prices of the arrangements from what she had told me earlier (perhaps she had seen me through the window in head-explosion mode on my calls outside), but they were still higher than our originally agreed-upon prices (and still gave them over half the profits). Furthermore, I suspect they intended their price increase and higher profits to remain undiscovered by me – perhaps that was the reason for the ticket system (rather than me seeing customer receipts), and they hadn’t counted on me bringing my own price signs.

I was angry at what they’d done, but I was also suddenly very worried that this price increase would mean unsold stock for me; their new increased price points were not customer-friendly in my opinion for the arrangements we were offering.  I was now stressed that this pop-up shop would not only not be profitable, but that it would end up costing me money, perhaps a considerable amount.  I made no secret of the fact that I was very upset at this unexpected turn of events.  Someone that day told me “now Kristi, don’t have a bad attitude about this.”  That just made me even more angry – don’t have a bad attitude about someone raising the price of my product without consulting me, disrespecting me and my business, and putting my earning potential into possible jeopardy?  They were already going to make a huge percentage of the profits, but that wasn’t enough for them, they had to have more and potentially cost us both business?  I didn’t want to overreact, but yes, I felt I was allowed to have at least a little bit of a bad attitude about this.

That day, a week before Valentine’s, I took 20 arrangements to the shop and only five sold (that was Mistake #3 on my part, they had asked me to bring “several samples” and I ordered too many flowers, so ended up making 20…which no one wanted to buy a week ahead of Valentine’s & it cost me).  Only two people placed a pre-order for the following week, which also really concerned me.  The manager later agreed that perhaps we should have seen if they would sell at the lower original prices, especially since it wasn’t Valentine’s yet, but she never did lower the prices.

So what happened next?  I’d already agreed to exclusivity and that I wouldn’t have any other pop-ups for Valentine’s in any other competing establishments (so no coffee shops or restaurants), so I felt I couldn’t start approaching other venues to sell there instead.  And despite their (in my eyes) very dishonorable actions, I felt like I had to do the honorable thing on my part and follow-through with doing the shop on Fri 2/13 and Sat 2/14 as we’d agreed.  I spent 83 hours in total labor on doing all the arrangements and flower work, and my mom graciously also put in many hours to help me.  I made 63 arrangements in total, and we spent hours prepping all those single long-stemmed roses.

Roses getting ready for their big day.

Roses getting ready for their big day.

(Mistake #4: I ordered pre-book lots with the wholesaler, which means that for a reduced price, you get the types of flowers you want but you don’t get to pick your colors.  You do get to specify a “wish list” and I stated all Valentine’s colors, but that’s not what I got – the wholesaler sent me a lot of yellows and oranges and whites, more so than reds, pinks and purples…very spring-like but not very Valentine’s-y.  Mistake #5:  I should have used at least half of those long-stemmed roses to make all-rose arrangements instead of mixed-flower arrangements [which did include roses but also four other types of flowers]; people want roses on Valentine’s, and I messed up by not having all roses all the time, but I was trying to keep prices low.  Mistake #6: It’s WAY too hot inside a coffee shop for flowers, they immediately lost days of vase life in just a few hours.)

What I should have made for every arrangement (that I made for a family member's order).

What I should have made for every arrangement (that I made for a family member’s order).

Thank goodness I was rescued by family, friends, and coworkers who ordered and bought arrangements in advance of the coffee shop sales.  I took 41 arrangements (and all the single roses) to the coffee shop on Valentine’s Day.  Only 19 of them sold, so I left with 22 unsold arrangements.  And I think they probably only sold about 20 long-stemmed roses the entire weekend from behind the register.  About halfway through my 8-hour stint at the coffee shop, I discussed with the manager reducing the prices on the arrangements to try to sell more; she said she’d consider it but then disappeared and never came back (and never reduced the prices).

I think there were many factors for why so many of the arrangements went unsold: the price points, the rose and color factors, the weather and very low customer turnout (75 degrees in February probably lured people to go outside instead of hole up in a coffee shop), and lack of signage and marketing.  (My brother and nephew even showed up with a sign to hold out on the sidewalk to tell people Valentine’s flowers were for sale there, I really appreciated that; I also was very touched by all the friends and family that stopped by the shop to show their support.)  I didn’t lose money on the whole thing as I’d feared, but for the entire venture, I only made about $100 profit – which comes out to a whopping $1.20 per hour for my 83 hours of labor.  Which is so sad it’s actually funny.

Thinking back on the whole experience, I’m mostly angry with myself; right after I’d found out the coffee shop increased the prices, a friend of mine and I were talking about it and she told me “Just stand up for yourself!”  I guess I don’t feel like I did that, and I’m not sure why, but it makes me feel ashamed; I felt intimidated for some reason, and scared by the financial risk factor.  I was disappointed that something I really should have been able to enjoy and look forward to, instead turned out to be something I dreaded and didn’t enjoy at all.  I began to doubt my abilities.  I was cranky and pretty much intolerable that entire week, which I’m also not proud of.  And I was unsettled by how much greed comes into play for some people when it comes to business.  This was my first time doing a shop like this, and I certainly learned many – MANY – lessons for the future if I do one again. 

So…it wasn’t the greatest Valentine’s Day, but I’m sure other people had days worse than mine, so I try to keep that in perspective.  (And at least there were no overwrapped bricks of cheese this year, read that story here.)  I was pretty discouraged after I came home that day; I didn’t think I even wanted to look at another flower for a while after that.  And yet the next morning, the first thing I thought of when I woke up was the bucket of leftover withering flowers sitting in my workroom, and I felt bad that I’d neglected them.  Out came the clippers and I found myself working those stragglers into vases and their own arrangements before I’d even had breakfast.  

I have a lot of thinking to do now about future directions and next steps.  Stay tuned.

 À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

The Fine Line Between Lovely and Lonely

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“Alone she was, and did communicate to herself her own words to her own ears…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, I, iii)

Last Saturday, I made the 25-mile trip into downtown Austin by way of the Metro Rail train to grab some dinner and support a local improv theatre called The Hideout.  Their show that night was called “Fakespeare,” in which the troupe created a never-before seen, completely improvised Shakespeare-ish play, along with some very funny improv skits and games along the way.  The train was a new experience for me (and brought back fond memories of riding trains in England and France), and I had a great meal at the 1886 Bakery & Cafe inside the historic Driskill hotel before the show. 

The Metro Rail station in downtown Austin.

The Metro Rail station in downtown Austin.

Austin's landmark Driskill Hotel, built in 1886.

Austin’s landmark Driskill Hotel, built in 1886.

A scene from "Fakespeare," in which the troupe performs in the audience-named "Thou Shalt Do It Again."

“Fakespeare,” in which the troupe performs a scene in the audience-named play “Thou Shalt Do It Again.”

This was a solo venture, which is not new for me; it’s the norm actually for most of my outings.  It’s not that I’m completely anti-social – after all, I sat in the theatre as part of a group of similar-minded Shakespeare fans to watch the show – but more often than not, it’s just more convenient for me to do things I want to do by myself.  I’m sensitive to the fact that most (if not all) of my friends and family don’t share a lot of my interests, and it doesn’t feel right to force the issue just so I won’t be alone.

I had a perfectly lovely UNunhappy time.  It was a lovely stroll around downtown, a nice dinner, an entertaining show. Which was why I was surprised on the train ride home to find myself feeling lonely.  I don’t get lonely very often, but I found myself thinking it would have been nice to have shared those activities with someone else.  Surely I’m not the first person to notice there’s only one letter’s difference between lovely and lonely?

I’m mostly used to being alone by now.  You see, I must somewhat-sheepishly admit that I’m the Ross Geller of my social circle of friends and family, in that I’ve been divorced more than anyone else in the group (twice now).  Some questionable decisions in the past and a well-meaning (but misguided) save-him complex led to two failed marriages and some very wealthy therapists out there.  (But seriously, those therapists are also heroes in my eyes who helped save me on many occasions, so thank you.)

Despite me being used to being alone, it still seems to be an anomaly in other peoples’ eyes.  As I arrived to the cafe for dinner and asked to be seated, the host asked “Only for one?  No one else is joining you?”  Bravely staring him down in a non-threatening but assertive manner, I replied “Nope, just me” as I was then escorted to an enormous booth that could have seated six people.  Why not give the single girl the most conspicuous table?  (Whenever I eat out alone, I always think of that great scene from ‘Hope Floats‘ where Harry Connick Jr consoles Sandra Bullock by saying It’s not for sissies you know, dining alone. Gotta be made of some pretty stern stuff to do that.”)

"It's not for sissies you know, dining alone."

“It’s not for sissies you know, dining alone.”

But I needn’t have worried.  The entire time I was there, not only was I alone at my gargantuan booth, I was the only person in the entire restaurant.  At 7:15 PM.  On a Saturday.  I began to think I’d missed a health department report or something.

What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

My soup and salad tasted fine though, and finally as the waiter brought the check I asked “why am I the only one in here?”  He laughed and said “It’s August in Austin, no one wants to come to the city when it’s 105 degrees outside.  Plus, we don’t really get hopping until later when they rope off the streets for the revelers.”  Hmm.  Still thought that was weird.

The suspicion of my solo-ivity didn’t stop there.  The rows in the theatre consisted of four seats each.  I sat in an aisle seat, and a few minutes later a man and his party of three asked me if the rest of the seats in the row were free.  When I said yes, the woman with him said “Really, all of them? You aren’t saving the one next to you?”  Sigh.  “Nope, they’re all free for your big butts” I said (in my mind).

On the train ride back home, all around me were couples and groups of people riding together.  I seemed to be the only solo traveler.  Even the police officers serving as our Metro marshals traveled in pairs.  Then bizarrely, everyone exited the train before my station (which was the last one).  During the last leg, I was the only one left on the entire train.  And for the second time that night, I found myself surrounded by empty seats.

It's like a scene from the Twilight Zone.

It’s like a scene from The Twilight Zone.

I felt mocked somehow.  Venture out alone, we’ll show you alone!  (Insert evil laugh here.)

Of course I’m not alone in being alone; I see Twitter tweetmates who also document their solo journeys, getting on with their lives.  Whether by choice or not, we march on, making the best of our solo situations.  It’s not our fault that people in general don’t like “lone” anything; heck, even Johnny Depp couldn’t save ‘The Lone Ranger’ from an unexpected demise this summer.  Our society looks down on singles for some reason as it caters to couples, but the joke’s on them.  Being alone and single has its definite perks, such as: 

  • I can eat cereal for dinner EVERY SINGLE NIGHT if I want to.  Ha!
  • The only person scared by my troll-doll hair first thing in the morning is me.
  • I can ignore that razor in my shower for umpteen days if I feel like it.  A little stubble never killed anybody.

I could go on, but let’s be honest, there’s too many to list.  (But if you want to add your own in the comments section below, I’d love to see them).

I’ve talked before about how I’m a bit of a loner, and about how I’ve traveled alone to faraway places.  And while there’s a degree of pride in that self-sufficiency, I’m only human – I know and remember well that there are certain things in life that are best shared with another by your side.  I’ve been lucky enough to have many of those experiences in my past, and they were great.  I can’t help but think that a little loneliness in my life now is the price I pay for decisions made in the past, and I get that.  I don’t mind paying the toll – the journey was expensive, but educational.

No one knows what the future holds, and I’m a believer in good things happening when you least expect them.  Risk is fraught with both reward and (sometimes-harsh) reality.  I’m more open to the possibilities of change now than I have been in quite some time.  But for the time being, I accept both lovely and lonely into my life. 

And maybe I’ll even go shave.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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