Valentine’s Day is a blessing and a curse for florists. It’s the busiest day of the year, which means a huge income boost, but supplying fresh, beautiful flowers – usually red roses – to the right people at the right time, on that most romantic of days, is a logistical nightmare.
At a small party on Valentine’s night I met a man who, having worked as a florist for 25 years, took a stand this year – he turned down all Valentine’s Day orders except for one, that of a very special client.
“Enough of the madness,” he said, sipping champers. “Best decision I ever made.”
On the other hand, South Africa’s largest florist and gift shop, NetFlorist, had a very busy Valentine’s Day indeed.
Jonathan Hackner, the founder and joint chief executive of the NetFlorist group, didn’t say how many deliveries the company made on that day, but revealed that it delivered 18 000 Valentine’s flowers and hampers, along with their normal deliveries, that “Valentine’s week”.
“The logistical complexity of delivering thousands of beautifully arranged, fresh, fragile and perishable flowers is huge and requires months of planning,” he said.
“Not to mention the fact that almost 70 percent of orders are placed at the last minute, within 48 hours of February 14.”
Charissa Hector was not among those “last minuters”.
On February 4 – 10 days in advance – she placed an order for a Lindt chocolate hamper to be delivered to her husband, Haydon, at his workplace, a bank in the Johannesburg CBD, on Valentine’s Day, having received several messages from NetFlorist urging her to order early. She paid R375, which included a R60 delivery fee.
At just after 4pm on Valentine’s Day, when her husband had left work, not having received the hamper, Hector tried to call NetFlorist, but couldn’t get beyond a recorded message, so she sent the company an e-mail expressing her disappointment, adding: “Any delivery now would simply seem like an afterthought.”
By 1.20pm the following day, when her husband had still neither received his chocolates nor any call from NetFlorist, and Hector had not received a response to her e-mail, she wrote to Consumer Alert.
“They have a standard message on their call centre line saying that they are experiencing high call volumes and if your order was not delivered yesterday, it is en route this morning.
“So much for that promise,” she said.
“Since their lines are so busy, and you cannot get through, I wonder how many consumers they disappointed on Valentine’s Day.
“Surely, if they did not have the capacity to deliver all the orders on Valentine’s Day, they should have stopped taking orders.”
She got back to me soon afterwards to say the hamper had since been delivered, without a note of apology. “I think my concern is still valid,” she said.
The e-mail Hector received from NetFlorist in early February, confirming her order, states: “While we will try our best to deliver according to any specific time requested, we cannot guarantee this, and will deliver before the end of the day on the date requested.”
She was not advised that the order might only be delivered some time the following day.
“I went with NetFlorist because of their reputation and service. If they had warned me the hamper may not be delivered on the day, I would have made an alternative plan.”
In raising this case with Hackner, I asked about the issue of disclosure, making the point that given the significance of Valentine’s Day, if there was a chance that an order might not be delivered on that day, but rather a day later, this ought to have been revealed when customers were ordering.
Hackner began his response by detailing the logistical complications which February 14 presents the company. For example, on a normal day, 75 percent of deliveries are done by the company’s own vehicles in the major cities. The vehicles are equipped with technology to notify customers the moment their orders are delivered, and allows the company to act on problems – such as wrong addresses – quickly.
But on Valentine’s Day they use partner courier companies that don’t have this technology.
“Our systems are updated after 7pm, leaving us insufficient time to put an alternative solution in place,” he said.
While Hector had assumed that by placing her order early, it would be prioritised, this isn’t the case, according to Hackner.
“Orders are not delivered on a first-in, first-out basis, as this would be extremely inefficient,” he said. “Orders are collated based on delivery route and location, not on the time the order was placed.”
Hackner said no more than 3 percent of Valentine’s orders were not delivered on February 14. “Almost all of these orders were delivered by close of business on Friday, February 15, with an apology gift.”
Hector’s hamper was delivered without an apology note, and the couple were not sure if an “apology gift” in the form of “extra chocolates” was added to it. It was not apparent.
However, Hector did receive an apology from NetFlorist later, via telephone. “While we understand that some customers have been extremely angry and disappointed – we agree that the 15th is not as special as the 14th – the majority have been incredibly understanding,” Hackner said.
“We take every delivery personally and take full responsibility if we break our promise.”
He pointed me to the confirmation e-mail that says “We do not guarantee a specific delivery time”.
“Due to the nature of the Valentine’s Day occasion, all customers would like to surprise their partners first thing in the morning.
“It is unlikely that any call centre in South Africa could be geared towards managing this volume over such a short period of time.”
The e-mail in question does promise same-day delivery, but Hackner insisted “there is no issue of non-disclosure here”.
My suggestion that NetFlorist ought to warn people of the small chance of their orders being delivered on the rather less romantic day-after-Valentine’s provoked a curious response.
“You are suggesting we amend our T&Cs to state something like: ‘While we will use our best endeavours to deliver on the date requested, this is not guaranteed. In the event that delivery does not take place on the day requested, delivery will take place the following working day.’
“That would create an easy way for me to respond to your questions. I would be able to simply respond: ‘We tried our best, but please refer to our T&Cs as we do not guarantee delivery.’ Do you think that would have made Mrs Hector feel any better? I think that would be cold comfort.
“It seems you are so focused on doing what is legally correct, you have left out the human emotion.”
On the contrary, I said. Such disclosure would be showing tremendous respect for their customers, in allowing them to make an informed choice, and managing their expectations.
Hackner responded: “I do hear the point you have made. I have raised it with our team and we are engaging with it.”
I did not raise any legal issues in my query, but for the record, the Consumer Protection Act does cover this scenario in section 17. If you order something and it is delivered on a date or at a time other than as agreed, you may either accept the late delivery, or cancel it for a full refund.
But NetFlorist customers apparently don’t need to rely on CPA protection. Hackner pointed out that since the founding of NetFlorist, the company had offered a “100 percent customer satisfaction guarantee”, in terms of which if a customer or the recipient is not 100 percent satisfied with the flowers or gifts, they will send a replacement or refund their order.