Business Is Blooming, Thanks

It was the bonsai problem that proved the value of telemarketing for William J. Marquez. The Orlando florist recently bought 10,000 bonsai trees, thinking he could leisurely sell them through his catalog. But he discovered that the diminutive trees require costly care, such as thrice-a-week soakings. If he couldn't move them fast, he would lose money on the trees.

So Marquez put all of his electronic outlets to work. He cranked out a barrage of faxes to clients, used an 800 number that promotes discounts--regulars know to call for his specials--and promoted the tiny trees through an electronic catalog on the Internet. Two months later, Marquez is breathing a sigh of relief: "We were able to make a profit and, at the same time, acquire new customers."

NATIONAL EXPANSION. This is a business that technology has helped cultivate. In 1993, Marquez, a former travel consultant, acquired a low-tech florist shop doing $144,000 in local sales. He used technology to refocus it on nationwide sales, relying on MCI Communications and telemarketing consultants to advise him. This year, sales should hit $11 million, and Intercontinental Florist Inc. is anything but local. Even though he has expanded to five stores in the Orlando area, 90% of sales come from outside Florida.

The key is constantly building a list of solid customers. Today, Marquez can reach up to 25,000 businesses overnight using a fax service. Using detailed logs of sales via 800 numbers, Marquez can quickly redirect advertising to markets where response is highest. A dedicated nontechie, he went on the Internet in March to reach people who wouldn't see his catalogs or ads. After spending about $15,000, "we just started to break even on the Internet, but it's way ahead of projections," says Marquez.

Next up, he's planning to couple his telemarketing to a nationwide database of telephone numbers. The database offers a way to track customers automatically. "At the rate we're growing, this could be a $100 million business," says Marquez. From an electronic seed, big flowers may now bloom.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.