Flowers have always been a passion for Shirley Crawford, who’s spent a lifetime designing beautiful displays. Learn how her business has blossomed, thanks to passion and a dedication to small-town customers.
Flowers have always captivated Shirley Crawford, owner of Garden Arts, 126 S. Benton St., Winnebago, Ill. As a little girl, she gravitated toward flower arrangement projects in her local 4-H club. As a teenager, she learned the trade through an apprenticeship. By age 18, she was managing a store, and at age 21, she owned one.
While she’s taken some detours over the years, Crawford has never wandered far from her first love: flowers. For the past 23 years, this creative personality has lived her dream in Winnebago.
“I guess I got pretty lucky,” she says. “I think I was supposed to do this. I place a lot of that on luck. I don’t know how I got started – I just did it.”
With the help of two part-time assistants, Crawford offers custom arrangements, seasonal gifts, home decor and candies from her small storefront at the edge of Winnebago’s business district. Occasionally, she offers other creative services, too, especially around the holiday season.
“I have a lot of customers who’ve had me come in and do the floral decorating of their homes,” she says. “It’s like interior decorating, but the floral end of it. I don’t handle furniture, but I can really put an eye to your floral home decor.”
Most of the time, however, Crawford works her magic on floral arrangements, snipping stems and assembling bouquets with ease. About half of her orders go to customers in Winnebago; the other half head to Rockford.
Crawford has come to know many of her customers personally, serving their family members from cradle to grave – at births, weddings, holidays and funerals.
“Funeral work is one of my favorites,” she says. “It’s bad to admit, because we do a lot of funerals in which we know people, since it’s a little town. But I love meeting with the families, because I feel like I’m helping them, in a way.”
When Crawford’s father-in-law died this past summer, she inserted a fishing pole and lures into the casket cover arrangement. She offers the same personalized service for customers. “It’s neat that you can personalize it a lot better, and I always tell people that if they see something at home that they want me to put in that cover, I’ll do that,” she says.
Growing up in Seward, Ill., Crawford discovered early that she enjoyed arranging flowers. By the time she was in high school, she was learning every aspect of the business from Denny Nagel, then owner of Nelson’s Flowers, in Loves Park, Ill. A few years later, she ended up in Macomb, Ill., working for a couple whose floral business was a side investment.
“They needed a designer and I was teaching them everything – how to process the flowers, how to order the flowers,” she says. “I guess that’s what gave me the incentive to go out on my own.”
When she was 21, Crawford opened her first store, in Pecatonica, Ill. She sold the business five years later when she moved to Madison, Wis. While there, she owned a health club and worked part-time for a florist. Eventually, she began working for a flower wholesaler – a middleman between florists and the farmers in South America, where most cut flowers originate. Though it provided a new perspective on the business, Crawford missed the design challenges, as well as the customer relationships.
“I knew what my customers were going through,” she says. “I knew this was an important wedding for someone, and I felt responsible for getting them the best materials. I love designing and I wasn’t able to get that part of my life fulfilled.”
When she opened Garden Arts in 1989, the floral business was changing. Fewer cut flowers were being grown domestically, and florists were facing new competition from big-box stores. How people ordered flowers was changing, too, so Crawford joined FTD, a network of florists who fulfill orders submitted online or by telephone. She estimates that today, nearly 85 percent of her business begins with a phone call or an online order.
“I always debate its usefulness, and I’ve dropped it a few times, because it’s expensive to join and be part of it,” she says. “But I can get more customers that way. If somebody new moves to town and I’m sending to them from their friends back home, they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were there,’ and you can pick up customers that way. It’s all the networking, for the most part, that helps us out.”
The industry is still evolving, and Crawford is keen to adapt. While she often relies on Facebook messages and face-to-face contact to market to customers, she’s also noticed the influence of Pinterest and do-it-yourselfers – not always with positive results.
“A lot of brides think they can do their own flowers, because they see all these ideas and they think it’s real simple to put them together, but they find out differently,” says Crawford. “Sometimes I miss out on a wedding I think I might have gotten, all because they saw those Pinterest ideas.”
In her experience, DIY wedding flowers aren’t for everybody.
“They don’t know what to look for in quality,” she says, adding that she’s very picky about the flowers she works with. “I know how to process them, because there’s a way to make them last longer. You can order flowers online and have them brought to your house, but what condition are they going to be in?”
In a few cases, she’s bailed out brides who were in over their heads. She’s also helped customers with extra products, such as pew bow ribbons, which she can buy for a better price.
“Sometimes, I’ll have someone bring in silk flowers that brides bought at half-price, and they’re like, ‘I thought I could do this arrangement and I can’t,’” Crawford says. “They’re just silk flowers, and I’ll do the arrangement and have about half of the flowers left.”
Crawford doesn’t fear competition. In fact, she runs toward it. In 2007, when a new grocery store opened near U.S. Highway 20, Crawford bought a floral display cooler there and started selling small-scale arrangements to grocery shoppers.
“The owners approached me about having flowers down there, and my banker was like, ‘Why would you want to compete with yourself?’” she says. “I told them it’s better to compete with myself than anyone else.”
On a winter afternoon, Char Hendrickson, a part-time assistant, is assembling coffee mug floral arrangements for the grocery store. She tapes a soft green chunk of floral foam into the cup, snips segments from a pine branch and inserts them into the foam. Her woolen sweater sticks to the pine sap as she clips and builds the arrangement. She adds some real holly, purchased from a Wisconsin farmer, and a clump of red berries for color. She inserts some pale-green Athos mums, and tops it off with a pine cone twisted around a green wire. It’s small, simple and festive.
Hendrickson has worked here for 11 years, and her specialty is small arrangements. “Shirley’s taught me lots,” she says. “She’s very good with people.”
It’s the people that keep Crawford excited about every new day. She’s done weddings for couples whose parents hired her for their own weddings. She’s even rearranged her schedule to accommodate high school dances.
“The kids come in at noon on Saturday and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I forgot,’” she laughs. “Those are appreciative kids when I can whip something up.”
That service goes a long way.
“I like to please them, because I want them to remember me,” she says. “I see a lot of those kids go through college and then come back, and they remember me.”
When she’s not at the store, Crawford enjoys spending time with her 21-month-old quadruplet grandchildren – one boy, three girls – in suburban Chicago. In fact, the store is closed every Tuesday so that she can babysit them. “It makes my week and keeps me motivated,” she says.
But even when she’s away, Crawford is never out of touch; she’s always ready to help an eager customer. For a creative mind, there’s never a day off.
“I’ll wake up at 2 a.m. thinking of an idea – it’s a hazard of the business,” she says. “I think every artistic person does that. Anybody who’s good at what they do does that.”