By Jeanette Brown Gertrude Stein's famous line tells us a "rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." And who didn't learn from Shakespeare that a rose would smell as sweet if it were called anything else? But heading into the busy flower-buying season, that doesn't mean all florists are alike. That goes especially for the online florists that blossomed early in the e-commerce craze, the biggest of which are now turning the corner to profitability.
As the holidays approach and our lives grow even busier, surfing the Net for the best deal on a centerpiece for the holiday dinner table takes up valuable time. So as a gift to you, we've sized up two sites rated near the top by market research firm BizRate to help you find the best deal with the least hassle.
I'm hosting Christmas dinner this year for the first time, and I've decided that a simple, elegant bouquet of long-stem roses in classic winter white will go best with the table I plan to set. My mind made up, I set out to shop, pitting 1-800-flowers.com against competitor FTD.com. And in a narrow decision, I'd recommend FTD over its primary rival.
MAGIC WORDS? Hands down, 1-800-flowers.com wins on breadth of selection. When I searched for "roses," 11 pages came back, giving me a total of 113 to choose from. But that doesn't mean it was easy to find what I wanted. When I typed in "white roses," no selections turned up. I had to scroll manually through six pages of rose arrangements before I got to what I wanted: "Winter Roses," a bouquet of 12 long-stemmed white flowers arranged and delivered in a glass vase.
Was this my fault for simply not knowing the magic words? Nope. When I typed "winter roses" into the search engine, I got the same results: No match found. The search function just isn't very good.
FTD.com's rose selection was far more limited, with just 33 options. But when I set out to zero in on white roses, I thought I'd found a winner in FTD. The site's search engine lets you use pull-down menus to cite specific things you want, narrowing your search to a specific flower and color (or, alternatively, to a price range).
GRAINY PHOTOS. However, disappointment was waiting. A search for white roses turned up three pages of results -- and nary a picture of a white rose until the second page. As it turned out, if you clicked on pictures of some of the red bouquets, you could discover from eensy-weensy print that you can also get many of the arrangements in white. But before I figured that out, I had already bought the white-rose arrangement on page two of the search results.
1-800-flowers also outdid FTD on presentation. The latter's picture quality was much poorer. Its "thumbprint" photos are tiny, and even the larger images you get when you click through are too grainy for me. Since I'm already foregoing the ability to smell my flowers when I buy online, I'd at least like to see them clearly. At 1-800-flowers, the thumbprint image was at least clear enough to make me want to investigate further. When I clicked on the bouquet I wanted, a new page with a larger image appeared. If I was still unsure, I could click again and get an even bigger image, crisp and clear enough to make me confident my choice was the right one.
So why is FTD better? Because it's more flexible, slightly cheaper in my test, and I prefered its customer service. Example: My greatest reservation about 1-800-flowers was hidden in small print on a page detailing its delivery policy. If no one is home when the flowers are delivered, they'll be left outside the door. In Greenwich, Conn., that might be just fine. But I'm not so sure that flowers left outside my Brooklyn apartment would still be there to greet me when I returned from work. Though FTD.com also won't let you specify delivery time, the site says you'll get a call to make sure someone is home to receive the delivery.
VASE-LESS DELIVERY. Prices were close, but FTD a little bit cheaper. 1-800-flowers charged $69.99 for my arrangement, about the middle of its price range, which started at $29.99 for three roses in a bud vase and topped out at $209 for an arrangement of four dozen. If I placed my order by 2 p.m., same-day delivery was guaranteed at no extra charge. (This offer applies to only about 40 arrangements, ranging from birthday cakes to apology teddy bears. Luckily, my choice was in the mix.) Standard shipping for all orders, $8.99, and tax, $6.52, brought my total to $85.50.
FTD charged $67.99 for the same thing. The hitch: At FTD, the flowers came without a vase. For my purposes, entertaining at home, I don't really need one more generic flower vase. But if I were having them sent as a gift, the absence of a vase might bother me more. Like 1-800-flowers, FTD could deliver my order the same day if I ordered by 2 p.m. The difference: At FTD.com, almost all arrangements are available for same-day delivery. The charge for standard shipping was the same, $8.99. I was pleasantly surprised to learn at checkout that FTD's price, unlike its rival, included no additional sales tax. The total came to $76.98, beating 1-800-flowers.com by almost 10%.
FTD did better on service, as well. I usually shop without staff assistance, but when I do need a question answered, I resent having to work hard at it. At 1-800-flowers.com, finding help took some scouring. A tiny link offered it only as I was close to placing an order. No customer-service button appeared on the home page.
CAN'T CHAT. Once I found my way to customer service, 1-800-flowers gave me four options: I could consult a page of frequently asked questions, I could send an e-mail (with a promised reply time of within 12 hours), I could initiate an online chat session with a customer-service rep, or I could call. The FAQ did answer most questions I'd usually have. But e-mail queries required a specific order number, making it difficult to ask questions if you hadn't already placed an order.
I did get a quick response to my e-mail, in under an hour, though only to tell me to call the help line. Chat was a disappointment: I tried four times to start a conversation but repeatedly met with an error message and finally gave up. On the phone, service was quick, courteous, and helpful.
I preferred FTD's service because a link to customer service was prominently displayed on every page, because clear descriptions of shipping charges answered my most important questions well before I got to checkout, and e-mailed questions will be answered even if you haven't already placed an order.
In the end, each site had its strengths and weaknesses, but FTD.com came out with a slight edge. And since neither site makes searching for your favorite flower as easy as you'd think it would be, one of FTD's apparent shortcomings -- having less to choose from -- may in the end also mean more time saved. And the less time I spend figuring out flowers, the more time I'll have to make sure Christmas dinner turns out right. Brown covers e-commerce for BusinessWeek from New York