Plastic crackles and scissors snip. The fragrance of roses, tulips and other perennials wafts. Around 40 workers arrange piles of flowers into bouquets.
Ever wonder how those quintessential Mother’s Day gifts get from the garden to your local Walgreens looking so fresh? Many of them pass through the packaging lines at Stoughton-based wholesale florist ERI Floral.
This time of year is the busiest for the company, even 30-40% busier than Valentine’s Day, said ERI Floral director of operations Katie Sappey.
“Everyone has a mom,” Sappey said. “Not everyone has a lover.”
ERI Floral has been in Stoughton for nearly three decades. In 2020, it moved into its 30,000-square-foot building on Glacier Moraine Drive, a crucial stop in the rapid bouquet production and distribution process.
The floral arrangements, which are made up of species imported from various South American countries, were slated in the coming days to head to grocery stores and pharmacies across the Midwest ready for purchase.
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“We are putting out a total of 220,000 bouquets this weekend,” said company president Bradford Anderson in an email Friday afternoon.
The flowers’ freshness and quality has helped ERI Floral partner with 1,200 retail customers to date, he said, adding the business also recently launched an online flower shop — Floricity.
Customers are located around the Midwest, with Chicago being the densest market, Anderson said. The company employed 75 wrappers and 52 drivers for Mother’s Day — the number of workers fluctuates with certain holidays and seasons.
“We have people who have been doing this for 15 years,” Sappey said Tuesday.
The Glacier Moraine Drive space is a far cry from Anderson’s childhood home, where the company, formerly known as Exclusively Roses, operated from 1995 to 1999.
In 2000, the company rented a space in downtown Stoughton for nearly four years and then moved into a 5,000-square-foot space, he said. By 2020 the building had grown to 11,000 square feet, and ERI Floral was bursting at the seams.
Building the business
Anderson’s late father Jim Anderson built the business from the ground up — starting with some travels around the Fox Valley and other areas of Wisconsin.
During his travels in the mid-90s, the older Anderson saw how the bustling paper mills in the Fox Valley employed workers who would purchase flowers at local convenience stores.
“When that industry started to decline, so did flower sales around that area,” Brad Anderson said. “That timing worked out, right around the time (Jim) was starting to do more business around Milwaukee.”
Anderson said his father walked into a Milwaukee-area Walgreens and asked the manager about the florals they sold. The flowers were shipped in from overseas, but “they weren’t getting quality.”
“Soon after that, he hired a few drivers and started picking up other convenience stores in Milwaukee,” Anderson said.
ERI Floral was able to get flowers from overseas to store shelves in less than a week compared with nearly two for its competitors. The product is more fresh that way, he said, as it comes directly from the importer with no stops in between.
It wasn’t long before 90% of the company’s bouquet sales would come through the pharmacy chain.
Brad Anderson graduated from UW-Madison with an economics degree in 2012, but he didn’t originally intend to take over the family business.
That quickly changed when his late mother, Debbie, was diagnosed with cancer while he was attending college.
When Debbie died, Anderson said, he “jumped right into Valentine’s Day production.” From there, he “made a lot of changes and brought in a lot of technological upgrades.
“Everything was done with manual invoicing,” he said, adding that prior to taking the helm, ERI Floral was a paper-only business. “We found the integrations to connect with customers electronically.”
Now, Anderson feels like he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be.
After years of rapid growth assisted by Anderson’s innovations, the COVID-19 pandemic almost tossed a wrench into ERI Floral’s operation.
“Going into this was one of the scariest things of my life,” he said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Sales dipped by around 30-40% when the health crisis struck, he said. But luckily, many of the company’s customers were deemed essential businesses amid COVID lockdowns in 2020. And demand for flowers soon picked up again as people isolated at home.
“People were in their homes and they needed ways to brighten their environment,” Anderson said. “We became like a shining light. There were some weeks where we doubled (our product output) year-over-year. It was unbelievable … to experience something like that and have to deal with supply chain issues.
“We managed to get through that and around that time, we also looked into direct-to-consumer (business models),” he added.
Emergence of Floricity
About a year ago, ERI Floral’s e-commerce side business Floricity was born.
Floricity has a subscription model where customers can buy curated bouquets in a single order, weekly, biweekly or once a month. Single orders start at $55, and weekly at $44.
Brick-and-mortar stores will always be around in some capacity, Anderson said of what prompted Floricity’s launch, but online is the way of the future — which the pandemic especially highlighted.
But even with all the digital innovations Anderson brought about for ERI Floral, he’s still able to find pockets of his father’s legacy within the Glacier Moraine Drive building and beyond.
“There’s a lot of stuff that throughout the day reminds me of him,” Anderson said.