When Mike Whittle AIFD opened his florist ten years ago, he focused on sympathy work.

Located next door to the area’s largest funeral home and three others nearby – business was good. Five years later, his sympathy business started dwindling.

Photo: K Mike Whittle Designs

Mike did some research and discovered that cremations had reached 21% in his area. His customers were ordering less flowers for cremations than they had for traditional funeral services. Today cremations range from 92% – 97% in that market.

“We had to shift gears to save our business,” says Mike.

What steps did he take?

How can making changes help to grow your sympathy business?

K Mike Whittle Designs

Located in Marietta, Georgia, a metropolitan suburb of Atlanta, K Mike Whittle Designs creates flowers for six to eight bereavement services a week. Typically, five of those are memorials for cremations.

Photo: K Mike Whittle Designs

“Sympathy work is 61% of our total business,” Mike explains. “We really had to adjust when cremations went from 32% to about 92% at the funeral homes we service.” 

Mike not only turned his business around, he built a more profitable business. How?

Partnering with funeral directors

“Your most important relationship is with your funeral directors,” says Mike. He started there.

Photo: K Mike Whittle Designs

In addition to the funeral home next door, in his area there are two Life Centers and a Columbarium – a room or building with niches for funeral urns to be stored.

Mike met with each funeral director to see what changes he could make to better serve their customers. “We set the goal of completely personalizing memorial services to celebrate the life of the deceased,” he explains. 

Photo: K Mike Whittle Designs

Mike mapped out a plan for providing full-service to memorials. He provided customized photo catalogs of his shop’s work to the funeral homes. He committed to personalized service for the events.

As a result, “They see us as the premier shop and recommend us to their customers,” he says.

For a funeral, Whittle’s may only get four or five family pieces but usually sells six or eight designs for cremation memorials. They do this by creating vignettes that share life-story details.

Sharing the stories

“When a family comes in for a sympathy consultation, it gives you the opportunity to sell the concept of sharing their loved one’s story with flowers.”

Photo: K Mike Whittle Designs

Mom loved gardening? Let’s create a garden around her urn. “We once did a memorial flower garden around an urn atop a bar in a local Bar and Grill. We do it all,” chuckles Mike.

After one service, they released hundreds of butterflies. They incorporate balloons. The goal is to do whatever it takes to establish an emotional connection to the service for the loved ones.

K Mile Whittle Designs has accomplished that goal by using sports themes, hunting, fishing, gardening, hobbies, occupations, musical instruments and even a motorcycle. 

Photo: K Mike Whittle Designs

“That was his life,” says Mike. “We said bring anything he was passionate about. They brought us a motorcycle.” Whittle’s added a fresh flower garland over the seat and staged it with a helmet and leather jacket. “We told his story!”

Various props can be rented for services – columns, Coca-Cola memorabilia, bicycle, etc., even a covered wagon. Often, the rental price is simply factored into the cost of the design.

Staging the service

If three flower designs or more are ordered there is no setup fee charged for staging the service.  

Photo: K Mike Whittle Designs

“We place their photos, memorabilia, or whatever they bring in an attractive display. It takes 15 minutes of your time and you have a customer for life!” Mike explains.

If the family chooses a specific theme or color scheme, the Whittle staff tries to coordinate the look by suggesting it to each incoming order. They recently sold 18 coordinating designs for one memorial.

Mike asks the bereaved family and funeral home to refer others to the shop so all designs will coordinate. This builds their referral business.

Often orders arrive for particular set pieces – vaseswreathsspraysheartscrosses, etc. These are color coordinated to match family requests.

“As a result, we’ve done some of our largest services with cremations,” says Mike.

A positive result

Unlike funeral work of years past, cremation memorials are planned at a later date. A more positive sales opportunity than unexpected funerals were.

Photo: K Mike Whittle Designs

Families have time to think and plan. The florist has time to secure the necessary flowers and customize the work.

In addition to the memorial service, there are often subsequent events that require additional flowers. A reception requiring additional centerpieces. Flowers for the home. Family gatherings.

Wreaths and garlands can be used to surround the urns. Removing the front of the wreath or covering the foam with foliage, highlights the urn.

Since the urn arrangement is mobile many families host later events at the deceased’s favorite church, office, nursing home or hospice.

Sometimes they ask Whittle Design or the funeral home to deliver, but the customers often take the flowers themselves. “They love being able to multi-purpose their flowers,” he says.

Pricing professionally

Mike carefully positions the value of his flowers in a positive way.

Photo: K Mike Whittle Designs

“Pricing is where your selling comes in,” Mike suggests. “As an industry we don’t price our designs high enough.”

In a separate consultation area, Mike greets the family and offers them a bottle of water or snack. He sits with them asking pertinent questions about their loved one’s life and preferences; taking the time to learn how he can express their feelings in flowers.

Using a big-screen television he shares photos of his work, offering the opportunity to choose, customize, or upgrade their memorial flowers. He then discusses value pricing.

“You would have spent an average of $475 on a casket cover for a traditional funeral,” he explains to a cremation customer. “Look at what you can get for that! A cremation ring for the memorial table and two urns for either side, for example.”

This perspective helps to elevate the flower’s perceived value.

Sympathy flowers can be an emotional buy and hard to collect for after the service. Mike requires customers to pay in full at the time of the order. He also stays current on trends.

The funeral ark

 “A new thing for us is the ark,” he says. Local funeral homes offer a portable, wooden ark that holds a cremation urn, flowers, photo of the deceased, etc.

Photo: K Mike Whittle Designs

A 24” wreath fits inside the ark for flowers. The front area of the wreath form is cut out so the deceased’s favorite flowers or colors can form a semi-circle around the urn.

Pallbearers participate in the service by carrying the ark to the altar. “It’s a beautiful addition to a memorial service.”

Personalization is key

“This is my passion,” Mike explains. “The more you personalize the designs to the life of the deceased, the more your sympathy business will build.”

After 47 years in business, Mike has learned one thing for certain “to remain successful in business, you have to change with the times.”

How can making changes help to grow your sympathy business?