Valentine’s Day bouquets delayed as traders grapple with new border system

Wed 14 Feb 2024
Posted by: Danielle Keen
Trade News

Not only does today mark Valentine's Day – the most romantic day of the year or just shameless commercial opportunism, depending on your disposition – but it’s also two weeks since the formal introduction of the UK’s new Border Target Operating Model (BTOM).

The first BTOM deadline (31 January) introduced new document requirements for medium-risk plant and animal products, namely plant health certificates and export health certificates, which need to be paid for by the supplier and signed off by a registered official.

As the deadline approached, concerns were raised that the system would not be fully functional or able to handle the volume of shipments with new paperwork attached.

‘Nightmare’ scenario

Rosario Rospo, director of Wholesale Flowers Nationwide, stallholder and liaison office at London’s Columbia Road Market, characterised the situation as “an absolute nightmare” and described delays caused by inspections as already having an impact on the timelines his business has to work to.

“Buying from the auction and then aiming to sell the same day absolutely won’t happen anymore”, he says:

“The only way it’ll get easier is by thinking three to four days ahead. Once upon a time you ordered Monday, the flowers arrived Tuesday. Now it’s a case of, if the paperwork’s in order it arrives Wednesday, if not it’s Thursday.”

Unexpected delays of this nature caught Rospo and other shop owners out in recent weeks, given the perishable nature of the goods:

“We’re working to extremely tight time constraints. If the flowers are late, worst-case is the shipment is refused, best-case the flowers won’t last as long and the public wouldn’t come back, so it’s still lose-lose”.

Valentine’s heartbreak

Diversifying suppliers isn’t an option given the sheer volume of flowers that are processed and then shipped through the Netherlands. This created problems from Rospo’s Valentine’s Day shipment, having ordered initially from Ecuador. Delays when the shipment reached the Netherlands left the flowers unsellable.

This is unsurprising as British Florist Association figures estimate that 80% of the UK’s flowers are shipped through the Netherlands, leaving supply vulnerable and costs in danger of rising:

“Everyone’s losing out – the seller on the EU side is losing out, the wholesaler is losing out, then it creates an issue on the supply-side because the flowers that do make it across are a lot more expensive”.

Long-term, Rospo foresees significant struggle for the industry and warns “lots of businesses could fall away” as a result of the costs associated with disruption:

“Costs are only going to go up, up, up – they’ve been going up since Brexit, so this is the last thing we need.”

Covid recovery

This isn’t news that John Dawson, owner of Dawson's Flowers & Landscapes, wants to hear. Dawson says his priority is continuing to regrow the business after the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit the cut flower industry especially hard.

Dawson said:

“Covid saw far more disruption than anything else, [and] getting ourselves back to full capacity is still our biggest priority.

“It was a difficult time for florists, obviously we had to shut down, but also flowers are a luxury, it was one of the first things to go.”

The BBC reported that the EU’s market lost €1bn in the first six weeks of lockdown, with the Fairtrade Foundation declaring the corresponding impact on Kenya – which provides over a third of the EU’s roses supply – a humanitarian crisis.

Reflecting on his lockdown experience, Dawson says his shop still has a way to go, currently at 30-40% of where it was pre-pandemic.

‘Fine so far’

However, he remains sanguine about shortages, which haven’t hit his business yet. He says border checks are at the lower end of his list of concerns with no warnings from his suppliers yet:

“We were expecting to have a lot of issues when we heard about the disruption on the news but it’s not played out like that so far.

“There’s been nothing different this year so far; we haven’t had any issues with deliveries, and none of our suppliers have reported any problems at the border.”

These suppliers include a mix of English wholesalers and direct suppliers from the Netherlands. Asked whether there’s been any difference between the two, Dawson said:

“None at all – everything’s still coming in on time and they’ve not put prices up yet.”

IOE&IT input

Institute of Export & International Trade’s (IOE&IT) resident sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) expert, trade and customs consultant Laura Williams, says that while the situations can be “complicated and costly” it doesn’t have to be in the long-term:

“There are more concessions for the plant side of the changes than for the animal.

“In terms of reviewing documentation it’s a 24-hour turn around for animal products, whereas it’s only 4 hours for plants.”

The plant industry also benefits from electronic documents being readily accepted, with a number of entries - “roses and Christmas trees, for example” - being permitted on a single health certificate.

She adds that there’s greater opportunity for those businesses importing plants to gain trusted trader status in order to have goods assessed at their warehouse, rather than a border control post.

Once the application has been approved, a member of staff can gain ‘Authorised Operator' (AO) status to carry out the necessary inspections themselves, which should alleviate the inspection-related delays hindering some businesses.

Serious doubts

Not all sellers are as optimistic about BTOM, as Reuters reported fears of steep price increases in the industry. One shop owner said she expects a 25% mark-up on the traditional Valentine’s Day bouquet of red roses by next year.

Last month, the Dutch association of wholesalers in floricultural products (VGB) also expressed concerns, calling for the UK government to consider a further delay to the introduction of the new rules following five postponements since 2021, when the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement came into force.

The organisation’s much-shared statistic - that under the new rules the number of steps required to import a petunia from the Netherlands to the UK had risen from 19 to 59 - reached the UK parliament, with Labour MP Daniel Zeichner presenting it to trade minister Greg Hands while questioning him on the potential delays.

Valentine’s Day flower sales

The British Florist’s Association (BFA) estimates that approximately 250 million cut stem flowers are sold each year on Valentine’s Day globally. The holiday accounts for more than 5% of flowers sold throughout the year.

Everyone’s favourite romantic flower – the red rose – increased in price last year with both Dutch and Columbian flowers up 9%, attributed to rises in air freight and European energy price rises respectively.

In the UK, it’s estimated that 4 million bouquets of flowers are sold each year on Valentine’s Day.

However, cost-of-living trends may continue to dampen this spending. Last year, Barclay’s Bank found that couples were making an effort to spend less on the holiday, with one in six making a ‘no present pact’ – seeing as flowers are the most commonly anticipated gift among British women, that could also go some way to hurting florists’ sales.