"This is a really good time to push UK product, given the current weakness in our currency," said Auction Fresh founder Nigel Lister. "Having worked for years in both retail and wholesale flowers, I know how difficult it is to source English flowers." His new app helps to answer questions on when, where, what price and in what quantity flowers are available, replicating Dutch systems supplying non-English product. "An interim idea is my AuctionFresh app," said Lister.
"I decided on the smartphone option because I wanted a grower to be able to take a photo of available product and load it onto a global platform (multiple language and currency screens are coming in further releases) instantly. Buyers can see what's available and the price, and make an offer through the app or just make contact with the grower in different ways, including an inbuilt Facebook Messenger facility.
"Ben Cross from Crosslands Nursery in Walberton, West Sussex - a third-generation alstroemeria grower - has worked with me in the process of development and he finds the functionality very easy.
"Within an industry that imports 97per cent of its cut flower consumption, I would like to see more English growers using the app so, working on a narrow budget, exposure of the idea to growers is important. If there is interest, I would like to extend the concept to plants."
Cross said the app works well, is a good idea and the potential is there. He added that imports have gone up in price by about 28 per cent and he is booked for talks on his work at flower societies, colleges and clubs until 2018, showing the amount of interest. But commercial growing in the UK, and particularly in West Sussex, is a shadow of its former self, he pointed out. Cross grows 40 Alstromeria varieties on three acres under glass but said 50 acres have gone from the area over the past 20 years.
He called for EU financing, funding to compete with Fair Trade imports, the NFU to include flowers in its Fruit & Veg Pledge, the Government to take the industry seriously and a Jamie Oliver-type spokesperson for the sector. Cross supplies artisan growers when they are short, at Christmas, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Easter peaks, when they cannot produce.
Mike Bourguignon, manager of Dutch international florist association Florint, said he believes the depreciation of the pound will cause a 20 per cent price increase and trade barriers will add another 15 per cent to that, which might reduce consumer demand.
In Spain, VAT on flowers and plants increased from eight to 21 per cent in 2013. Florists experienced a 26 per cent sales drop. The VAT rate returned to 10 per cent and sales went back up.
Gill Hodgson, founder of 300-member British cut flower grower co-operative Flowers from the Farm, said: "Brexit is a fabulous opportunity. Some florists are reporting 25 per cent more expensive orders than three weeks ago, for the same order." She suggested that this may mean more florists seek flowers from closer to home, particularly if trade barriers mean delays at ports for imports.
Hodgson called the higher prices and subsequent increase in demand for home-grown product "the silver lining of Brexit". The ongoing decline of florist shops, exacerbated by Brexit, should not concern British growers, she added. "Supermarkets are always going to come out okay and will always run flowers as a welcoming feature, even as a loss leader. Is it possible for the high street florist to struggle any more?
"Florists are now increasingly working from home or lock-ups and are becoming event florists, with social media taking the place of the shop window. Those looking for a different-looking product are sourcing British flowers, and not just sweet williams. They want varieties you can't get at the wholesaler from a grower that might only grow 200 plants and not five acres' worth to make themselves different from the supermarket."
She added: "To me, British flowers were always better value because they're fresher and have better variety and scent retention. Our growers don't want to equate with better value because they are competing at the better end of the market. British flowers are better so people have to be willing to pay more. We're not chrysanthemums, carnations, roses and lilies. We're larkspur, delphinium and sweet peas. Florists can't survive on British alone but can add more different British varieties to imported varieties."