Sun, 10 Oct 1999

A rosy blooming business for Aalsmeer flower auction

AALSMEER, Netherlands (JP): It's 6 a.m. in Aalsmeer, a city less than an hours drive from Amsterdam. But the city is no longer asleep. Traffic is already heavy with container trucks painted with colorful flowers on both sides.

The trucks were coming from and heading toward one place, a huge commercial building that houses the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, where some workers have already been spotted working, long before the official working hours.

"It's like this every day, five days a week," said a worker, who has been with the auction for over four years.

"The working hours are not normal at all, but I enjoy it, although it means that I have to go to sleep early every day except on weekends," said the man who works from 5 a.m. until about 4 p.m.

The auction's activities even carry on into the evening and sometimes all night as growers send their flowers prior to the following day's auction, while potted plants and garden plants are delivered during the day. All the flowers, potted plants and garden plants are then kept in refrigerated halls to maintain their freshness.

Prior to the auction, inspectors evaluate the quality of all flowers and plants before allowing them to be sent to the auction halls.

An ocean of various plants and magnificent cut flowers of different varieties -- tulips, roses, lilies, carnations and chrysanthemums -- are neatly stacked in trolleys, ready for the hustle and bustle of business.

The flowers come not only from growers in the Netherlands -- the largest flower and plant exporter in the world with an estimated 60 percent of global market share -- but also from as far away as Israel, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

"The Aalsmeer Flower Auction is the world's largest flower auction," explained public relations officer Veronique Bol-van Kemenade, "So, it's common if we have to work around the clock as flowers are not the same as other products, they need special care because they will not last very long."

Some 80 percent of the products sold at the Aalsmeer Flower Auction are exported to countries, such as Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States and Switzerland. And with an annual turnover of about 3 billion guilders (US$1.45 billion), the Aalsmeer Flower Auction can rightfully call itself the financial heart of the floricultural industry.

The real business at the Aalsmeer Flower Auction begins at 6:30 a.m. as around 2,000 buyers -- exporters, wholesalers as well as large retailers and street traders -- pack the five auction halls -- four for flowers and one for plants.

The auction will go on until everything is sold to the interested bidders and usually ends at around 12 p.m.

"Most of the people taking part in the auction are those who buy large quantities of flowers," Bol-van Kemenade said, adding that it also serves smaller customers at its Cultra wholesalers center.

In each auction hall, large display clocks are placed in the center, high on the walls, explaining the product on offer, the supplier, the currency being used, the buyer, the quality of the products, the units of flowers on offer, the number of flowers per unit and the minimum purchase allowed.

In order to become a buyer, one has to register before getting a buyer's card with his own number on it. When this card is passed through the slot of the bidding bench, a push-button is released and buying can begin.

During the auction, every clock has an auctioneer and an assistant who puts information about the products into a computer, making it information visible on the clock.

And when the trolleys of flowers or plants are displayed to the buyers, the auctioneer calls out which flower he is offering. He can be heard by the buyers through a microphone or speaker unit placed on each bidding bench, before starting the clock. The clock runs from the highest to the lowest price, which is always per unit, or per single flower or plant.

If the light indicates the price a buyer will pay, he quickly pushes the button, stopping the clock at that price. If the number on his buyer's card appears on the clock face, it means that he is the first to push the button and he is the buyer. At that moment, he tells the auctioneer, using the microphone on his buyer's bench, how much he wants to purchase. If he only takes a portion of the consignment, the remainder is up again for auction.

When a consignment is sold, the trolley is rolled out of the auction room into the distribution area, where it is packed, In the meantime, the computer prepares the invoice.

"The whole auction process is easy," revealed Dunnt van Arnheim, a buyer representing large retailers mostly in Germany and has been in the business for over 10 years.

"The trick is to patiently wait until the clock shows the prices that you favor. But don't be too slow, or you lose the chance of getting the flowers you need," he added.

The Aalsmeer flower auction, run by a cooperative association called Verenigde Bloemenveilingen Aalsmeer, was formed by the merger of two auctions in Aalsmeer: Bloemenlust, established in December 1911 and the Central Aalsmeer Auction, established in January 1912. Both auctions started in cafes.

Bol-van Kemenade said that there was used to be exploitation in the auction: traders went from grower to grower looking for products and agreeing on prices with them on the spot, while the growers also did not try to sell their own products.

"At that time, home growers were at the mercy of traders," she said, adding that it all changed when the two auctions merged in 1968.

Now the cooperative association has around 5,000 flower, pot- plant and garden plant growers as members.

The members are required to sell all their products through their own auction organization and pay a contribution and duty on the sale of their products. This income is used to pay the operating expenses of the building and the employees.

Although buyers, wholesalers, exporters and wholesale companies are not members of the cooperative, they are registered and are just as important to the auction as the growers.

"These days, the auction is where supply from the growers and demand from the buyers come together and where the prices are determined," she said. (ste)