Who needs flowers in the middle of a pandemic? That was a hard question to answer for gifting retailer Ferns N Petals, which saw its business fall off a cliff even before the Covid-induced lockdown was put in place. Its network of 400-odd franchises shut down nearly overnight. Desperate for a no-contact gifting option, it came up with a crafty solution—dial-a-guitarist.  

It was a special made-for-the-pandemic adaptation. All one needed to do was make a call, and instead of the usual birthday gift, Ferns N Petals would deliver a customised birthday greeting by a guitarist over the phone. 

While endearing, the scheme’s behind-the-scenes situation was one of chaos. The team had to release app and website updates every few days to accommodate orders, says Saif Ahmad, vice president of engineering in Ferns N Petals’ e-commerce division. The platform, over the last nine months, has added more features like custom messages from minor celebrities and models.

And even when physical shops began opening up, they couldn’t all open together—different parts of the country had different lockdown rules. “We had to figure out how to re-direct orders to pin codes that were serviceable,” says Ahmad. 

The pandemic did set a direction for the 25-year-old company, however. Online sales during Diwali this year, usually a non-event for Ferns N Petals, jumped by 50% when compared to 2019. 

Ferns N Petals, in its original format, wasn’t conceived for the digital age. Even so, it preempted key nuances of the e-commerce business—on-demand, hyperlocal, same-day delivery from an online catalogue of options. 

When the company was bootstrapped on a modest budget of Rs 2.5 lakh ($3400) in 1994, models like those of concierge service provider Dunzo and e-commerce giant Amazon’s one-day delivery service Prime were still a decade and a half away. Vikaas Gutgutia, its founder, was focussed on making Ferns N Petals India’s first “branded” flower company, which would deliver right to the doorstep.

Over the next six years, Ferns N Petals grew from one outlet in Delhi’s upscale Greater Kailash market to six other locations. Brand recall grew swiftly. “We sent out direct mailers and collected information on 15,000-20,000 households in Delhi neighbourhoods. We would send them complimentary flowers on their birthdays and anniversaries,” says Gutgutia.

It did wonders for brand visibility. For its finances, not so much. Running a delivery business for perishables, in Delhi’s extreme climate, was a tall ask. The retail outlets were spending more than they were making.

By the turn of the millennium, the business was struggling financially. That’s when Gutgutia decided to go for the jugular—big, fat Indian weddings. The company became a regular supplier to wedding ceremonies at five-star hotels, where the budget for one wedding would rival what a physical store would earn in a month.

AUTHOR

Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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