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  • Always in Bloom
    By Annette Winter


    Silk flowers and fresh blend beautifully at this full-service shop.

    Fresh-cut flowers and their silk counterparts coexist in eye-catching harmony at Always in Bloom, Franklin, Tenn., where owner Margie Dobler has managed to combine the qualities of both types of blooms to the benefit of her clients and her bottom line. "Permanent botanicals have been a part of my business since the beginning," says Dobler, who with her husband, Scott, opened the flower shop in 1995.

    Initially, she was apprehensive about working with silks. "They cost from $10 to $20 per stem and I was afraid of ruining them," she recalls. When she learned that silks were not only easier to handle, but also somewhat more forgiving of unskilled human hands than fresh blooms, Dobler realized she'd found an invaluable "partner" for her new business.

    "We're a full-service store and most of my business is still in fresh flowers," says Dobler, who nevertheless reports a slow steady increase in silk orders. Some clients who've received one of her fresh arrangements will later visit the store with an eye on something permanent for their homes. Others opt for silks because they want to keep an arrangement as a memento of a special event. Dobler counts prom-bound high school students among those romantics; as another example, she recalls a recent order from a client who wanted to surprise her newlywed daughter with a permanent replica of the young woman's wedding bouquet.

    Mix and Match

    Dobler notes that silks can play a valuable supporting role in designs composed primarily of fresh flowers - for example, a bridal bouquet or party arrangement. "Even though we have good access to fresh flowers," she says, "it's not uncommon for clients to have their mind set on a flower that I know won't be available."

    In those cases, Dobler may suggest the silk counterpart. "At first they may say, 'I really want to go with fresh,' " says Dobler. But she is usually able to dispel the client's doubts with a sample bouquet. "The trick," she explains, "is to work the silk bloom into the arrangement skillfully."

    Conversely, there are times when the addition of fresh materials - usually filler - can make a silk arrangement look even more natural. "Silks can be a little stiff, and fresh flowers can give the arrangement the movement it needs," she says. "But when you're adding fresh to silk you have a water-source problem, so I try to use flowers that dry well, like caspia or larkspur, without losing too much of their fresh appearance."

    Managing Costs

    Dobler always has a good selection of silks on display. At the same time, she manages to keep inventory costs low. "I have wholesalers close by, and I let them be my storage facility," she says. "I'll buy the minimum number of stems that I can - perhaps 10 or 12 - and then see how they sell."

    It helps, says Dobler, that clients usually don't expect a permanent arrangement to be ready within an hour or so. "Often they'll place their order a couple of days or even a month in advance, and that gives me time to get what I need."

    In pricing silks, Dobler typically uses a markup of at least 2 ½ times the cost of the flowers, which includes freight and other charges. For arrangements, she then adds a 25 percent labor charge.

    As with fresh flowers, the trend is toward a more casual look. "Clients want an arrangement to look like something they might have done themselves," says Dobler. Some prefer to do just that, choosing from the variety of single silk stems on display to create their own "unarranged" bouquets. Color choices are muted, with sage greens and blush-colored blooms topping the list.

    Old and New

    The casual trend is reflected in the store, where Dobler has draped the walls with a soft, muslin-like material topped with dried honeysuckle vines. The drifting fabric combines with various carefully placed furnishings to create intimate color groupings of silk and fresh flowers, ribbons, fabrics, and gift items. But the "star" of the store is a weathered, wrought iron gazebo that evokes a romantic, bygone period while attracting some very modern shoppers.

    "I've got a good walk-in site - at the Independence Square Shopping Center," says Dobler. "I'm close to an area where there's a lot of residential construction and where people are actively seeking accessories for their new homes."

    But while upwardly mobile newcomers are a key element in her trade, Dobler also counts many old-timers among her clients. "We still have a lot of rural folk who come in wanting what we call a 'country spread,' which is a somewhat more elaborate and showy arrangement than is typical these days," she says. "They tend to prefer silk arrangements - even for funeral work - because they like to feel they're giving something that the recipient can keep."

    Friends Help Out

    Dobler keeps up on trends by visiting nearby model homes and working with local designers. "I go to every floral design class and seminar I can," she says. She's active in the local chamber of commerce and local floral associations.

    Her high profile in the business and floral communities not only has helped Dobler grow her business, but also proved to be a lifeline after a fire erupted in her store a year after it opened. A display turntable shorted out one January night, destroying the shop and its inventory. Dobler rented a new site right around the corner the very next morning, determined to be back in business for Valentine's Day.

    As the deadline approached, friends and associates threw her a "fire" shower, complete with ribbons, baskets and other supplies necessary to get a jump-start on the busiest day of the year. When it arrived, local PTA volunteers pitched in to help deliver orders.

    The Extra Mile

    About the same time, a large discount silks retailer opened nearby. "I was worried at first," says Dobler. But sales have held steady - thanks in part, she says to her commitment to personal service. It's not unusual for her to visit the homes of long-time clients at no charge, to see the d¹cor and get a feel for their tastes. "It seems to make the customer feel more special," she notes.

    But in the end, Dobler believes that her creative floral arrangements remain her best advertisement. "I really like the custom work we do," she says. So, apparently, do her clients.


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