Japan's Flower Business Blooms

IN Japan, a recent TV ad for Mother's Day flowers didn't even mention the holiday. ``If we put the word Mother's Day, we cannot use this ad for any other occasions,'' explains Hitoshi Mizuno of the Japan Florists' Telegraph Delivery Association (JFTD).

The Japanese flower industry does not want to limit its recent brisk sales to special occasions anymore. Rather, it wants to expand the already $6.6 billion business by appealing to a potentially big new market - individual consumers.

``Flowers have not become something ordinary people can personally enjoy yet,'' says Manabu Tomita of Toyo Menka Kaisha Ltd. ``I think we must change the character of Japanese demand for flowers.'' Toyo Menka Kaisha, a trading firm, started a chain of stores in April to sell inexpensive potted plants and cut flowers.

Flowers have been regarded as a luxury because of high retail prices, with most demand coming from hotels and restaurants.

The Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry started a ``flower study group'' a year ago to discuss how to bring prices down. The ministry will establish Japan's biggest flower market in Tokyo this autumn, expecting that the more stable supply will help lower prices.

Domestic production was worth $3.1 billion in 1988, up more than $1 billion from 1980, the ministry says. Imports have also increased 25 times since 1975, to $107.2 million last year.

Industry sources and the ministry expect that the figures will further rise as people's interest in flowers is enhanced by the ongoing six-month International Garden and Greenery Exposition in Osaka until the end of September.

``If it were the age of food shortage, people would criticize and ask, `Why does this flower expo have to be held?' '' says Chiemi Iidaka, an official of the flower office at the ministry, which is an organizer of the exposition. But now that Japan has become an affluent society, people want spiritual amenities. ``Having flowers always at home can realize such richness in life,'' Ms. Iidaka says.

The JFTD has seen the number of delivery orders increase by 20 to 30 percent annually for the last few years. JFTD spokesman Yuji Inoue says, ``People are trying to make up for unsmooth human relations by sending flowers and green plants.'' The age of computers weakens relationships, he explains.

Another reason for growing demand may be a recent trend among young men of sending flowers to women, thanks to soap opera scenes and advertisements, Mr. Inoue adds.

C. Itoh & Co. has developed a flower vending machine for round-the-clock bouquet purchases. The first machine appeared in a Tokyo department store in May.

Flower sellers are even capitalizing on Japan's labor shortage. The new chain owned by Toyo Menka Kaisha is going to provide offices with what they call ``interior landscaping,'' coordinating a whole room with plants and furniture.

``Young people will keep [their] distance from a company which has little amenity,'' says Mr. Tomita.

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