A Time and a Place: The Flower Market

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Tulips waiting to be sold at auction at the United Flower Growers warehouse in Auckland.

UFG Flower Market, Auckland, Wednesday 5.30am

It’s cold and dark outside, but from inside the roller door of the anonymous warehouse in Mt Wellington, colour shines into the dawn. Bundles of bright red tulips, boxes of yellow daffodils, and buckets of white lilies, glow under fluorescent lights. Gerberas are piled high in dozens of colours. The roses have names like avalanche, royal pumpkin, whisky, and Miss Piggy. They were cut on Monday, processed on Tuesday and delivered by the growers overnight. Neatly arranged by length, variety and grower, on hundreds of trolleys that sit in rows on the warehouse, the flowers wait to be sold at the morning’s auction.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday my florist fiance’s alarm goes off at 4.30am. She tries desperately not to hit snooze for another ten minutes. She piles Freida the dog (and this morning she’s also carrying her grumpy reporter partner) into her truck for the lonely journey down the southern motorway. But once inside, the walls of the warehouse the world of flowers hustles while most of the country hides from winter beneath their duvet.

But once inside, the walls of the warehouse the world of flowers hustles while most of the country hides from winter beneath their duvet.

The flowers arrive from the growers in two shifts. They are delivered to the warehouse between 2pm and 10.30pm the day before, or during the night shift from 3am right up until the auction starts at 6am.

Dictated by season generally there’s a reasonable idea on what is coming and being produced. But what any particular auction will look like, and total supply and varieties is not known until around an hour or so before each auction.

Where New Zealand flowers are available the UFG market doesn’t allow imported products to be sold on the auction floor. They do sell imports that aren’t produced in New Zealand like Singapore orchids. More than 500 growers from around the country sell their flowers through the UFG auctions each year.

The trolleys of flowers waiting to be auctioned at the United Flower Growers warehouse in Auckland, and the auction floor, where flowers are sold by Dutch auction, a single bid system where the price falls, rather than goes up.

Through the morning florists and wholesalers file up and down the lines of flower trolleys inspecting the stock for sale. In season are cymbidium orchids, blue hyacinth, and purple and green kale flowers. The cold, grey warehouse smells like spring.

The trolleys full of flowers are wheeled from the warehouse across the auction room. It looks like a concrete lecture theatre. The buyers sit behind desks where inbuilt tablets display the vital statistics of the flower on sale. The auctioneer sits in a window above the room looking across the buyers like God floating on a cloud in a baroque painting, listing the grower and the starting price. But instead of going up, the price goes down at auction.

This is a Dutch auction. The auctioneer sets a starting price for the flowers, much higher than its expected sale. A giant electronic dial in the centre of the wall starts spinning anti-clockwise, counting down the price, until a seller makes a bid, stabbing the “buy” button on the touch screen tablet. The auction ends immediately, the first bidder winning the flowers at the price they stopped the clock.

The Dutch auction started in Holland in the 1600s in response to the tulip panic after the introduction of the flower into Europe from the Ottoman empire. Demand massively exceeded supply on this exotic new flower, and the market needed a fast way to sell the flowers with the least number of bidders. The system is now used by flower auctions worldwide.

It’s intense and the stock moves really fast. “And that’s all gone,” says the auctioneer as the a whole trolley of chrysanthemums disappears in seconds. One employee wheels a length of linked trolleys in one door, another displays the product on sale, and another collects the sold stock to be distributed to the buyers. They barely keep up.

In the auction room during busy times likes the week leading up to Valentine’s day, the growers wait in the back of the room, nervously waiting to see what their flowers sell for. The room will gasp at the cost of roses as the florists fight for limited supply. But on your average winter Wednesday morning the price is simply supply and demand, affected by the season, and the weather. Price fluctuations can appear easily and without warning or indication. Flowers are like fashion, and varieties trend and fall out of favour without explanation. Dowdy dahlias are suddenly cool again.

This winter spring flowers like daffodils, erlicheer, and paperwhites are popular as punters try to convince themselves the cold weather will one day end.


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