War of the roses
The day after Mother's Day, Tom Weisheipl was feeling so bone weary that it was hard to keep his eyes open.
The Rochester owner of Flowerama on South Broadway had just passed through the whirlwind, the floral business' most frenzied shopping season, the equivalent of Christmas for most retailers. And Weisheipl, his business picked clean of flowers, was already making plans for replenishing his depleted inventory.
Yet for years, florists have grumbled that a good portion of their hard-earned profits are going to "floral gatherers" and "call centers" that advertise in printed directories such as the Yellow Pages or White Pages as local shops but in fact aren't.
"It's a tough market. It's tougher when you got people saying they're local when they're not," Weisheipl says.
Now relief has come in the form of a new state law that prohibits the use of deceptive advertising — online and off — by companies that misrepresent their location by using a false address and "local" phone number.
Come Aug. 1, when the law takes effect, it would also bar any business from advertising on the Internet or in the Yellow Pages unless they also list a physical address. Minnesota became the 26th state to adopt such legislation when it passed last month. The legislation, which was carried by DFLers Rep. Steve Simon and Sen. Sandy Pappas, passed overwhelmingly in both chambers.
A survey of the floral section of Rochester's Yellow Pages provides several instances of advertising that would be illegal under the new law. "American Blooms" and "Bloomstoday.com" list 1-800 numbers to call, but advertise no address. "Telefora" provides a "local Rochester" number, but the woman who answered the call said she was from Salt Lake City.
"It's a huge problem across the country. It's been a huge problem in Minnesota, and the hope is that this is definitely going to alleviate the problem," said Kym Erickson, president of the Minnesota State Florists Association and general manager of Soderbergs Floral & Gift in Minneapolis.
Local florists say they can lose anywhere from 15 to 20 percent from such transactions, forced as they are to sell such arrangements at discount. And consumers lose out as well, they argue, because of the extra service and delivery charges tacked onto the purchase price. The resulting arrangement also tends to be of poorer quality with fewer flowers, they say.
"The Web is becoming the way most people shop and there are people who are going to take advantage of you when you're on the Web," said Gary Fiksdal, owner of Fiksdal Flowers in Rochester. "It's not only in flowers, but everything else."
Good for business
Jack Hawkins of Carousel Floral in Rochester said the "wire services" that order flowers from faraway may have been a good thing years ago, but not in today's high-tech world, where anyone can deal directly with local florists in other cities through the internet or by phone.
Many of these order gatherers mislead people into thinking they're local, but they just hire local florists and take a commission, so you get less for your money, Hawkins said.
"When we explained it to the Legislature, they passed through the whole process quickly," said Hawkins, who's on the board of the Minnesota State Florists Association.
Local florists generally viewed the law's passage as good news for their businesses. With its large number of floral shops, Rochester is considered a "floral hub" that has grown up around the city's medical institutions such as Saint Marys Hospital and Mayo Clinic.
However, one local florist worries that the law may have come too late, as more and more dot.com businesses migrate to the harder-to-regulate Internet.
"This has been going on for 20 years. It's kind of funny. It almost seems too little too late, because now people aren't looking in the phone book anyway. They're looking on the Internet and that can't be monitored," said Kevin Patton, owner of Flowers by Jerry.
Law has teeth
The bill has what its proponents call an "enforcement arm" and a lower threshold for proving false advertising. Minnesota florists would be allowed to bring an action against a company they believe was using deceptive practices on the basis of geographical misrepresentation. They would not have to prove monetary damage, loss of profits or intent to deceive.
"The law actually has some teeth built into it," said Brian Gamberini, government relations coordinator of the Society of American Florists.