Feb. 9, 2010 at 9:00 AM ET
If you study hidden fees and price distortions for a living, Valentine's Day is your Super Bowl. Can you name another industry where the true price of an item is routinely more than double the advertised price? Yet that's precisely what you'll encounter this week, when you realize that Valentine's Day is Sunday and you'd better get your order in fast.
In fact, really fast. Before we get to the nitty-gritty of the free market mess that is Valentine's flower shopping, let me tell you procrastinating lovers out there this important news: Because Valentine's falls at the end of weekend this year, price distortions are even worse than usual. To get a good deal, you're going to have to accept shipment on this Thursday , Feb. 11, a full three days early. Most sites are applying weekend shipping rates to Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So as we click through the thorny world of flower shopping online, know that you should really place your order immediately to avoid paying a serious procrastinator's premium.
On this romantic holiday, the stars align for confusion marketing and consumer gaffes. Unlike airline tickets or lingerie, which can be purchased at an early-bird discount, flowers are perishable, so there's really no way to avoid the last-minute price spikes. Also, men aren't great comparison shoppers, and they feel quite a bit of pressure -- some real, some imagined -- to perform on this day. Finally, as the calendar clicks down, and the price of store-bought roses climbs, a swarm of radio and television advertising promising romantic rescue completes the perfect storm of consumer risk.
Are the advertisements legally deceptive? That's for the Federal Trade Commission to decide. Do they smell bad? I'll gladly offer my opinion here on the top florist sites, stated in the form of familiar scents.
Scent: Fetid Water. Remember, roses in a vase need fresh water every few days!
To the untrained eye, FTD.com might seem to have the best deal. There it is, right on the home page: "Starting at $19.99," next to a beautiful picture of two dozen roses.
Finding something for $20 on the site is quite a quest, however. On Monday morning, Clicking on "shop now" brought you to a page of roses and other Valentine's gifts sorted in apparently random order -- some costing $80 or more. Clicking on sort by "lowest price" didn't bring up the $19.99 roses, but it did bring up the chance to buy a $20 teddy bear, then some more expensive boxes of chocolates. Four rows down, the low-to-high price order reset, and the "Simply Cheerful" bouquet of roses appeared for $19.99. The site apparently fixed its sorting order later that day, and by Monday afternoon the least expensive bouquet did appear atop the sort-by-price page.
Still, finding the $19.99 bouquet was just the beginning of the quest. Clicking on it immediately brought up a box offering "good," "better," and "best" choices. Good, including a “free” vase, cost $29.99. The other choices were even more expensive. There was no option to click on the original $19.99 flowers, which I can only assume would be considered "bad." But a little perseverance made the pop-up box go away, and a careful click brought up the option of actually purchasing the $19.99 flowers. Sort of.
Next, I filled in the delivery zip code and pick a delivery date. So far, the flowers still seemed to cost $20.
On the subsequent page, when the purchase was added to the virtual shopping cart, came the first mention of fees and taxes -- not the cost, mind you, simply the fact that there are fees and taxes.
Next came the delivery address form, and the chance to personalize a card sent with the flowers. Still, the price is was $19.99
Only after clicking "continue" did the punch line arrive. On the same page that the a billing address and credit card were required, the true price was unmasked. In my case, I was told that my $19.99 flowers would cost $38.49 – or $42.77 if I wanted them delivered on Saturday. In both cases, a $15.99 service charge and $2.51 in taxes were added to my purchase. For those keeping score at home, that's basically the same pricing structure I found at FTD.com in last year's column on the same topic.
A spokesman for FTD.com -- part of United Online, which owns other brands like Classmates.com and NetZero -- said the firm couldn't submit to interviews, citing an upcoming investor earnings call report. It did issue a statement, however.
"We sell a dozen roses starting at $19.99 as indicated on the Web site. The service fee like other similar charges such as taxes, shipping, etc. must be listed separately from the price of the product.," it read. "After we have received the necessary information to determine all charges for an order, some of which vary, we list those charges collectively in one location, which for us, is the checkout page. This practice is clear and consistent with other sites in our industry as well as with many other industries on the Internet."
Scent: Gingko trees (pretty before they begin to smell like dog poo)
You can't listen to or watch sports this week without hearing from Proflowers.com. If you'd like to order from the site, listen carefully. The coupon codes you'll hear do work, and by using them you can turn a rotten deal into an average one. Still, shop this site with your eyes wide open and your nose held shut -- it's the worst at revealing the true price, which isn't shown until after the customer enters their credit card number.
When going directly to the site's home page, the most economical rose bouquet shown there cost $39.99. The price included 18 roses and a "free" vase. It didn't include "care and handling," however, which cost $2.99. Delivery added $9.99 and shipping the free vase cost an extra $1.63. Add $5.19 tax, and by the time you clicked your way out the door, the $39.99 arrangement cost $59.70.
To make for an easier comparison to FTD.com, I'll describe a click trail through a $19.99 offer of one dozen roses, using one of those ubiquitous coupon codes.
Entering the code on the home page led to a page full of featured offers, including the 12-rose deal. Clicking on that enabled me to select a free simple vase, or two other vases that cost $7 and $10. Then, I picked a delivery date from a handy calendar which made it clear that some dates cost more for shipping. Letting Proflowers decide between Thursday and Friday shipping cost only the "standard shipping rate." Specifying Friday delivery cost an extra $5. Saturday delivery cost an additional $10, and actual Valentine's delivery cost $15 more.
More than what? To find out standard shipping rate at this point, users must click the word "details" and dig through an imposing page of information. "Standard Express Delivery" (is it standard or express?) costs from $5 to $15. Looking deeper, I found the care and handling charge, along with the vase shipping charge, buried within morning delivery fees, priority rush delivery fees, international delivery fees and white meat only fees. (I made that last one up just making sure you were still with me.)
Naturally, the vast majority of shoppers would bypass that pop-up and proceed to checkout at this point. To keep costs down, I gave Proflowers the delivery option.
Then, I entered the delivery information and filled out the card.
Next came the billing information, including credit card number and expiration date. Billing for what? I still didn't know.
Against my better judgment, I clicked to see what the price might be, believing the promise that I'd have a chance to review the order before it was final. That turned out to be true. But again, serious sleuthing was required to find the grand total. The review order page popped up with a large button at the top giving users a chance to "confirm order." To echo a line from Woody Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant: At the bottom of the page, away from everything else on the page, designed to require scrolling to see, read the following: Total: $35.28.
The good news: that was a bit cheaper than FTD.com. The bad news: the price was even more obscure.
Proflowers, which is operated by Liberty Media, did not respond to an interview request on Monday.
Scent: One yellow rose
For a refreshing change, flower buyers should consider 1800Flowers.com. The site is running a special right now that promises shoppers no shipping or service fees. Saturday delivery costs $7.99 extra, but that's clearly described in a large note atop the first page. Clicking through a purchase revealed that $29.99 purchases really did cost $29.99. The company deserves major props for separating itself from competitors on the hidden price issue.
"We want costs to be very visible, to be transparent to the consumer with what their total costs will be," said Joe Pititto, vice president of corporate communication. "This is a very confusing marketplace."
Pititto said the up-front pricing was "good for our brand," even if some consumers might be tricked by competitors' lowball advertisements.
So why does 1800Flowers.com rank only one rose? On its home page is a picture of beautiful red roses, and the words, "starting at $29.99 ... roses, flowers, gift bundles, plants, chocolates."
Sadly, there are no roses for sale at $29.99. The least expensive roses listed on Monday cost $34.99. Pititto said the $29.99 price applies to the entire list of gift options, and one floral arrangement is available at that price, so he didn't feel the page was misleading. And after msnbc.com's interview with the firm, a rose arrangement costing $29.99 appeared.
I'll let readers be the judge. At least the true cost of the rose arrangement was revealed in two clicks.
Lingering concerns over past practices also limit 1800Flowers' rating. Recently, former shoppers at 1800Flowers received notice of a class-action settlement around confusion over shipping fees. Those who bought from the site between March 2006 and February 2008 are entitled to $10 gift vouchers according to the terms of a recent settlement, still awaiting final court approval. The firm denies any wrongdoing, but readers can read more about the settlement and reach their own conclusions.
(Details here: http://www.molnarsettlement.com/)
So a scorecard of our findings so far (before the cheapest arrangement at 1800Flowers was changed) reveals the bad news for consumers.
Least expensive roses:
Despite all that clicking around, and all that futzing over fees, the prices were virtually the same. Of course, each site offered dozens of floral choices, and your after-charges could vary widely from mine once your order is personalized.
So there is simply no way around this fact: Shopping around for Valentine's Day flowers requires a lot of clicking and a commitment to a lot of typing before you can truly make sure you get the right price. Women (and men) lucky enough to receive flowers this week should appreciate the effort.
Fortunately, there are additional choices Teleflora.com (scent: a carnation. Pretty, but odorless) isn't cheaper, but it is delightfully simple. The site charges a $14.99 service fee that's clearly labeled. The least expensive arrangement costs $29. It takes two more clicks to find the total price is $44.98. Not bad, but not great. One very nice feature of Teleflora, however, is the ability to choose which local florist fulfills the order.
More adventurous shoppers could consider ordering from a small but growing list of direct-from-Latin America growers, who will ship stems right from their farms to U.S. addresses, such as Fiorentina Flowers in Ecuador. Minimum orders can be steep, however, at 100 stems or more.
And of course, the nicest (and often cheapest) thing to do is buy from a local florist. If you are sending flowers long distance, look up a nearby florist online, then call and ask what $35 will get you.
Or, if possible, head to the store on Wednesday or Thursday to beat the rush, place the stems in water, and deliver them yourself. Big box stores like Costco and Wal-Mart often have good deals, and so do local grocers. You'll know exactly what you're getting for the price, you'll probably save some money, and you'll be the one smelling like a dozen roses. Given the state of the economy, knowing how to get a good deal is pretty romantic.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement issued by FTD.com to ProFlowers.com. Msnbc.com regrets the error.