FlowerPower and the “Valentines Day Massacre”

My first and only real sales job was for a “corporate floral contractor” in NYC…

…I did really well and was asked to bring in some friends to join the sales team. Bad idea.

There were some critical factors involved in the whole story that bear mentioning up front.

One was music, since the two friends I was able to get hired on were both musicians I played with quite a bit.

Another factor was The Howard Stern show – the influence of which features very prominently in the story.

And another was the availability of “800” numbers…not that they were totally brand new, but the ready availability of an 800 number was really just starting to catch on in American small businesses at the time. Keep in mind this was in the pre-internet/pre-cell phone era of the late 20th century: the Stone Age of modern telecommunications and commerce!

I’d been in the flower business for a while, retail, wholesale, you name it. But this gig was totally different. When I showed up for the interview, the owner, Mr. Duntley, looked more like a Fortune 500 guy than a flower business guy. As it happens, he had recently bought the company after a successful stint as a sales whiz for Xerox. He tore up the NYC area, nailing down numerous million-dollar Xerox copier contracts, but he burnt out.

Well, Duntley explained the business model, which was innovative and starting to pick up steam. He hired me on the spot and I was to start the following Monday. On that first day, I met the rest of the employees, got to know the sales software and Duntley gave me two 3-piece suits he had grown out of in the waist. We were about the same height, and the suits fit me perfectly – a grey one and a blue pinstripe.

The next day, I was a suit! That was certainly something I never hoped or expected to be. The first half of the day I accompanied him while he demonstrated how the pavement-pounding cold-call sales cycle began. We went to the first high-rise office building on the south end of Madison Avenue, took the elevator to the top floor and hit every single office on the way back down. 50 floors, from one to a dozen or more offices on each floor.

The first time we came to an office with a “NO SOLICITING” sign on the door, I was prepared to skip it but he said, “Y’know what you do when you see one of these?” Then he proceeded to walk right in and do his pitch just like any other office. The irreverence! The effrontery! The anarchy! I kind of was digging it now! When we got through all the offices in that building and were back out on the sidewalk, he told me that the next day, I was to head uptown and hit the next building, then the one across the street and proceed in that fashion until Madison Avenue was done, Then do 5th Avenue, Park Avenue, Lexington Avenue, all the damn avenues, east side and west side, then repeat. Clearly, the pool of potential clients was virtually infinite. This was NYC, after all.

The second half of that second day was spent in Duntley’s office where he introduced me to the sales technology that made him such a success at Xerox. It was based on one book, which he gave me to read. The technique was 100% NLP, or “Neuro-Linguistic Programming”. He astutely anticipated my objection that this kind of approach was manipulative and unethical. He quickly and successfully countered my objection using the very same technique he was teaching me. Damn…it works! Every sales offer meets with objection, of course. To be successful, a salesperson has to anticipate and overcome the objections.

Three months later, I had personally tripled Duntley’s monthly revenues. All of the sales team that was in place on my first day was gone and in their place, he hired a tech guy to tweak the sales software and a girl to answer phones and do customer service. That girl actually wound up stealing my accounts. Every time she would answer a call from one of my customers, they would suddenly become her account, commissions and all. But she was absolutely key to the Valentines Day Massacre. so let’s get to that now.

Almost all flower shops, wholesale, retail or otherwise, make half of their annual income on three or four days. Even considering weddings and funerals, without Valentines Day, Mothers Day, Christmas, and Easter, they’d be pretty much out of business. Duntley’s business, being strictly corporate (meaning business-to-business with no walk-in retail traffic at all) was missing out on all that gravy. He was done with that noise!

I have to give him some credit: he thought BIG. And when he made plans to cash in on Valentines Day he did it in a big way. So he got an 800 number and invested in some advertising. There was a bunch of different ad stuff happening, but the one that really caused the Massacre was the Howard Stern show.

Back then, Howard’s show was still radio-only, but his show was phenomenally popular in NYC. In fact, it was just about universal in our fair city. Of course they ran commercials, but for the right price, a business could get Howard himself to read their ad copy live on the air. This was well-known for having astronomical results. But Duntley’s plan went even beyond that! Our perky little account-thieving girl he had hired was just the type of attractive, brash-but-vacuous female guest that Howard loved having on his show for laughs. Somehow, Duntley arranged for Howard to read his ad copy live on the air AND do a live interview with our “customer service” girl besides. Score!

Knowing this would lurch our little company, FlowerPower, suddenly into the high-volume city-wide retail floral stratosphere, I was asked to bring in another friend to help answer phones. We anticipated a 2-to-3-day run of non-stop order taking and I’d already brought in Dead Bob to join me on the sales team about a month prior to all this. So, I brought in Steve Two-Thumbs-On-Drums to help take orders. We were planning on a 36-hour all-hands-on-deck shift immediately prior to Valentines Day. We had Steve in a week prior in order to get him up to speed and fully trained for the Big Day.

Steve was nuts. I knew that. Dead Bob knew that. Everyone who ever met Steve knew that. But it was only a temporary job, a week or so at best, so I thought it would work out. But during his week of training, Dead Bob and I were blown away by one of Steve’s frequent “breaks from reality”.

See, he would bring in his lunch from home and, thanks to him, we all discovered that if you put a Tupperware container of refrigerated left-overs on top of one of the big steam-heat radiators we had in every office, the food would be warm enough to eat by lunch time, and without melting the Tupperware. Brilliant!

One day, along with his refrigerated left-overs Steve brought in a half bag of frozen Lenders mini-bagels. Just about the same size as a mini donut. Lunch time came around and Steve tried a thawed-out mini bagel, but it was nasty.

That’s when we all found out the windows to our 14th-floor offices actually opened (nobody had ever tried to open them…). All the buildings in that part of town were of an age, you see. Big old industrial loft buildings, most about as tall as ours. Not modern office buildings by any means. So, Steve is obviously going to chuck his mini-bagel out the window. No big surprise, we know he’s nuts.

But then Steve exclaimed, “Oooooo! Look!”

One glance out the window at the street below and Dead Bob and I both knew exactly what Steve had in mind. Our building was in the heart of New York City’s fur district and it was comprised of fur businesses owned and operated exclusively by Hasidic Jews. Any New Yorker would know that they are the most orthodox, conservative and observant members of Judaism, with their strict interpretations of biblical law resulting in their unique daily mode of dress among other things, but the main thing is, the men all wear a big black hat and a long black coat. Every day, year-round, no matter the weather. And there was one walking east on 28th street, 14 floors below us and across the street. Biiiiig black hat.

Dead Bob and I, before Steve even picked up the mini-bagel, both started with the , “No, Steve, no way, Steve, Nooooo….”, but Steve was crazy. And its not at all like Steve was anti-Semitic, or anti-anything. He was just nuts and here was an irresistible target of opportunity.

Now, everyone has heard of guardian angels. And some of us have heard that drunks have more than the rest of us and the ones they have are the most patient and hard-working ones. But crazy people have a different breed of guardian angel. I am convinced that the craziest guardian angels get assigned to guys like Steve. My conviction is based mainly on the fact that no amount of high-flown physics or Kentucky windage or even sheer luck could have aided Steve’s mini-bagel in knocking that big black hat right off the guy’s head. It HAD to have been divine intervention. Not a million-to-one-shot. An impossible shot. Yet the big black hat was on the sidewalk with the mini-bagel and our innocent Hasidic victim was stopped dead in his tracks and scanning all the upper floors of all the buildings on our side of the street for his cowardly attacker. The three of us ducked behind the radiator.

Dead Bob said, “Hey, maybe we should get the hell outta here…the window’s open and he could count the floors up to it then come up here and cause ….ummm….problems.’

When we finally took a look out the window, the mini-bagel was on the sidewalk, but the hat and its wearer were once again striding eastward, so we finished our lunch.

But that wasn’t even the massacre part.

The three of us were massacred on the phone taking orders at one point for an uninterrupted 36 hours!!! We had taken orders for 16 hours the day before that! The sheer volume of orders was unbelievable. So unbelievable that I had to ask Duntley how he was going to make all those deliveries.

“No problem, I put Murph in charge of all of that. We have some big rental vans confirmed for that day and everything’s going to be fine.”

Murph was a rugby buddy of Duntley’s who had been with us since before I started working there. It seemed to all the rest of us that Murph might have  taken a few too many unprotected hits to the head in his rugby endeavors. We guessed that Duntley was doing him a favor by giving him a delivery driver job. Murph had thus far managed to get the company’s regular weekly deliveries under control, but that was under normal, expected volumes and circumstances. And that was with three vans. I found out that Murph had rented a total of five vans for Valentines Day. Duntley hired five drivers and Murph was supposed to route all the deliveries. FlowerPower’s normal, expected volumes were exceeded by orders of magnitude and Murph figured two more vans ought to be enough!

Point number one: Valentines Day orders are ALL supposed to be delivered ON  Valentines Day, or your sweet Valentine, the object of your affections and longing, the apple of your eye, ear, nose and throat may suspect that your ardour is less than all-encompassing. Fail to deliver on Valentines Day and you have a refund on your hands.

Point number two: There were at the time 7 or 8 million residents of New York City Greater Metropolitan Area. It seemed to us that every single one of them placed a Valentines Day order through Duntley’s new 1-800-FLOWERS tol-free number and those were all because of the Howard Stern Show ad campaign.

Point number three: Cut flowers are perishable. More perishable than vegetables (and even those seem to rot in a refrigerator as soon as you turn your back on them). Many perishable items come packaged and boxed in a way that would allow for them to be stacked floor-to-ceiling in a delivery van. Flowers are no different….until they are artfully and lovingly placed just so into a tasteful and evocative bouquet or floral arrangement. At that point they are just inviting disaster. They are fragile. Delicate. More so at the top than at the bottom. So stacking them floor-to-ceiling was in no way an option. God forbid a damaged arrangement or bouquet be delivered unto your sweet Valentine, the object of your affections and longing, the apple of your eye, ear, nose and throat. Unlike a delivery that wasn’t actually ON Valentines Day, a delivery of damaged flowers might suggest to your paramour that you actually intended to send a subtle message. That you in fact consider either them or your entire romantic affair damaged or unworthy of tender care. That you could care less if your love were handled roughly and carelessly, as if by a drunk baggage handler at LaGuardia Airport. Deliver a Valentines Day order damaged and you have a refund on your hands.

I can remember the exact moment when I realized Duntley was planning all along on issuing refunds by the thousands. Knowing full well he wasn’t going to make all those time-sensitive deliveries, he was planning all the while on cashing in on the brand recognition that the whole media extravaganza would create. I guess he figured it would easily out-last the ill-will of failed deliveries, refunds and the unintended interruption, for some, of this mid-February modern wrinkle in the eons-long mating ritual of the modern western hemisphere homo sapiens.

I guessed that he was planning on all that sudden brand recognition resulting in an eventual and inevitable boost to his weekly bouquet subscription business as well as to his monthly corporate accounts.

That moment of clarity and realization came at about 6:15 PM on Valentines Day itself, as Dead Bob and Steve and I were finally leaving the building, a job well-done. Knowing that Murph was staging all the bouquets and arrangements for delivery in the building’s service entrance hallway – about 100 feet long, we decided to go out that way instead of through the normal front entrance, just to get an idea of how deliveries were going. After all, the realistic delivery window was now down to about 3 hours.

We saw both walls of the service entry hallway, all one hundred feet of it, stacked floor-to-ceiling with floral arrangements and bouquets. The ones that weren’t at the top of the stack were getting mushed into undeliverable floral pancakes. Outside, along the building wall and up the street for another hundred feet was a similar stack of bouquets and arrangements. Murph was nowhere to be found.

Well, the reason Dead Bob, Steve and I agreed to do this grueling phone order marathon was because we were getting a healthy commission on each order we took, and all we had to do was talk on the phone and enter the orders correctly. We were not fully aware at that point that we would only get commissions on orders that were successfully delivered and against which no refund was requested. In all his advertising, Duntley had 100% guaranteed delivery on Valentines Day.

Steve was already done at FlowerPower, since he was only hired temporarily to take phone orders. Dead Bob, on the other hand, was under my expert tutelage as a sales trainee. I, personally, was planning on a long and lucrative career in the corporate floral sales arena – and looking forward to a nice Valentines commission check besides.

But as the three of us took in the carnage lined up against the walls and along West 28th street, we knew our commissions and who knows what else were on thin ice.

As it turned out, I only lost about 15% of my orders to refunds, but Dead Bob and Steve both lost about 90% of theirs. Clearly Murph was getting some help from Duntley in the delivery routing department, to my distinct advantage.

Dead Bob and I carried on at FlowerPower, but he only lasted another three or four weeks. All for the best. We’d meet in the subway station in the morning to take the train to work and Bob would have a couple of Budweiser tall boys ready for each of us. Sometimes a few lines of coke besides. Hence, the Dead part of his character’s name. Anyway, he said it helped him do the sales pitch I taught him. The post-Valentines Dead Bob era was mostly a blur, especially the afternoons, what with liquid lunch and all.

I wasn’t long for FlowerPower myself, although I didn’t know it at the time.

My next newsletter will detail the circumstances that not only prompted my departure from the world of suit-wearing corporate floral sales but soon after resulted in my willing and permanent departure from New York City itself. And while Dead Bob was minimally involved at some levels, that story is really all about the Grateful Dead, exploding Brooklyn apartment buildings, subway train wrecks, and Steve Two-Thumbs-On-Drums. I know, you can hardly wait……




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