Surviving and Thriving on Main Street: Westboro’s Flowers Talk Tivoli turns online workshops into national sales

Flowers Talk Tivoli
Photo by Mark Holleron
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For Elizabeth Young of Flowers Talk Tivoli, what started as a simple series of online floral workshops aimed at home gardeners during the first COVID-19 wave this spring has blossomed into relationships with new customers from across the country.

Young’s DIY workshops, in which participants learn to create their own terrariums, hanging gardens, planters and holiday displays, began as a way for the Richmond Road business to stay connected with local customers during the pandemic.

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But they’ve since grown so popular that Young is now shipping workshop kits across Canada.

“People enjoy it and feel a sense of normalcy in the workshops, because they are creating beauty for their homes,” she says. “It’s a relaxing and uplifting thing for them to do, instead of just worrying.” 

Pandemic pivot

Young opened up her first flower shop, Flowers Talk, in 2005. After hearing that the owner of Tivoli Florist – Young’s personal “all-time favourite flower shop” – was looking to retire, she purchased the business in 2014 and renamed it Flowers Talk Tivoli.

Like many small businesses, Young’s store was forced to lay off employees and close its doors to in-person shoppers when most retailers were ordered to shut down in March in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“That first week was terrible. Everybody was very confused and anxious, and some people thought we were closing the business for good,” she recalls.

Young immediately pivoted. In March and April, Young was the only person in the store, taking orders over the phone, fulfilling online purchases and arranging curbside pickups and deliveries.

“I created a chalkboard and instructions for people to text me their name from their car, and I would bring the order out with no contact. That is still how we operate,” she says.

“I was stressed beyond belief, but I couldn’t just lock my doors and go home. I thought, ‘If I don’t keep up with this, then there won’t be a store for my staff to come back to once all of this clears up.’”

Thinking back to that period, Young says she worked 16-hour days amid fears of accidentally running afoul of rapidly evolving public health guidelines.

“I was stressed beyond belief, but I couldn’t just lock my doors and go home. I thought, ‘If I don’t keep up with this, then there won’t be a store for my staff to come back to once all of this clears up,’” she says.

Operating her business was further complicated by restrictions placed on flower farmers across Ontario. This meant that Flowers Talk Tivoli – which normally receives 10 shipments of flowers from seven different suppliers each week – was limited to three weekly shipments from a single supplier.

Thankfully, suppliers were able to reopen in preparation for Mother’s Day, which is also around the same time that Young was able to bring back many employees.

Workshops

Young has long hosted in-person workshops to deepen her relationships with customers. But as soon as she realized she could no longer host 12 people in her store for the weekly sessions, she pivoted to streaming them on Facebook Live, and later on Zoom.

“I didn’t want people to forget about us and go to the big-box stores or big flower websites and order from them,” she says. “We have such strong relationships with our customers, so I wanted them to still see my face, even though I couldn’t see them.”

Young’s online reach became so wide that she started getting inquiries on Instagram from people in different provinces interested in buying the supplies necessary to participate in her workshops. 

With the help of local website developer Venture Creative Collective, Young set up her site to accept orders and ship DIY kits across the country.

In the coming months, Young plans to expand her online product selection to include flowers, planters and giftware. And with her busiest quarter fast approaching and 14 online workshops planned before the holidays, Young anticipates business will be “non-stop.”

When it comes to posting online, Young says her philosophy has been to never obsess over trying to be perfect.

“If I did that, I would never post anything on Instagram and Facebook, or do any live workshops,” she says.

People are craving human interaction and a sense of normalcy now more than ever, Young notes. That is why she hopes her workshops will allow families and friends across Canada to “come together on Zoom and create something beautiful for the fall and winter.”

Surviving and Thriving on Main Street is a new editorial series profiling Ottawa businesses finding success through entrepreneurial creativity and innovation in the face of challenges and adversity.

Digital Main Street (DMS) helps small businesses impacted by COVID-19 in Ontario to recover and grow. Through government-funded programs such as Future Proof, main street businesses (restaurant, retail shops, skilled trades, and home-based businesses) can access their own digital squad, business advisors and training resources – for free. Develop digital ads, create a new online business model, or set up a digital marketing strategy for your business – all free through Digital Main Street.  

Learn more about Digital Main Street programming by visiting Invest Ottawa's DMS website.