Shirley Crawford, owner of Garden Arts, believes qualities like superb customer service and attention to detail have helped her to build a loyal clientele.

Business Milestones: Garden Arts Celebrates 30th Anniversary

Though it’s more like 50 years she’s been creating gorgeous floral bouquets, Shirley Crawford has built a loyal following since returning to her hometown to open a floral shop.

Shirley Crawford, owner of Garden Arts, believes qualities like superb customer service and attention to detail have helped her to build a loyal clientele.
Shirley Crawford, owner of Garden Arts, believes qualities like superb customer service and attention to detail have helped her to build a loyal clientele.

No two days are ever quite the same for Shirley Crawford, and that’s how she likes it.

The owner of Garden Arts, 102 N. Elida St., in Winnebago, Ill., takes each day as it comes. Crafting custom floral arrangements for all life’s occasions is never cookie-cutter – especially when you’re a small-town florist who’s been working with local families for 30 years.

“A farmer dies, I know I can put wheat and cattail in the arrangements, make it look rustic, and their family’s going to like it, because that was their personality,” says Crawford.

Of course, as a full-service florist, Crawford gets personal with all of her customers, whether she’s helping them with fresh and silk floral arrangements, home dcor, candles or home delivery. She thrives on repeat business, in some cases serving funerals for longtime clients and even second- and third-generation weddings. Such is the nature of floral design.

Garden Arts may be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but Crawford figures it’s more like 50 years she’s been sharing floral arrangements with others. She was a child, living in on a farm west of Winnebago, when her flower-loving neighbor introduced her to floral art through 4-H. Successful 4-H competitions, including a few runs at the State tournament, sealed her fate.

Out of high school, she helped a couple to launch their own floral shop, and at the age of 20, Crawford opened a small shop of her own in Pecatonica, Ill.

A few years later, she sold the business and moved on to Madison, Wis., where she worked with a wholesale dealer of flowers. Working with florists around the region, she quietly longed to return to her roots.

Crawford’s homecoming in 1989 seemed familiar, in many ways. Like before, she started what was the only floral shop in town. She rented a small space in Winnebago, rigging up a cooler with a used compressor and some patio doors. Rent was cheap, and a clientele had to be built.

Plenty has changed over the years, not the least of which is Crawford’s storefront. She used to be downtown, right at the end of the city’s one-block business district, but about 5.5 years ago opportunity presented itself at a high-visibility location a few blocks away. “I kept driving by this building when it was empty and I kept thinking, ‘It’s too bad that’s empty. It’s a nice storefront,’” Crawford recalls. “And then I was like, ‘Duh.’ Now, I have new people stop in almost every day, and those are people who wouldn’t have seen me downtown. Impulse is important in this day and age.”

Customers, she finds, tend to be in a hurry more than ever before. High school kids might wait until the day before a dance to call in their orders; a generation ago, they planned weeks ahead.

Bridal planning has changed, too. Where brides are often tempted to arrange orders simply through text messages and emails, Crawford finds some old-fashioned personal interaction helps, too.

“I want to make sure I know what they really want,” she says. “You can get a good sense of what their interests and tastes are like. They might not even realize what they’re really telling you, but you can see where their tastes are going.”

The internet, it turns out, is providing some helpful advantages to small-town florists. Back in the day, faraway family members might have called up a wire service, like FTD, to order flowers on Aunt Sally’s birthday. FTD sends the order to Crawford and takes a cut for itself.

Now, those family members can go online and order directly from Crawford – a trend that’s prompted her to buff up her website in recent years.

Scroll through these days and you’ll see a variety of photos of floral designs. But just because you see them doesn’t mean you have to settle. This being a small operation, Crawford promises a custom design every time.

“It makes people feel good they can do that,” she says. “I think I’d feel better if somebody sent me a gift that had more thought into it than a standardized arrangement like ‘FTD No. 105.’ I like customizing more. It makes people happy.”

And keeping people happy is one of Crawford’s top priorities. “Make people appreciate you,” she says. “If you have respect for your customer, you’re going to get their business again.”

Crawford finds a little education is often an easy way to keep people happy. Customers easily take for granted that certain flowers are seasonal, or that exotic flowers may take some time to acquire. And, yes, she does offer delivery.

“I like to educate people on things like that,” says Crawford. “I’ll tell them they need to cut a rose with a knife, not a scissors. I notice my young people, if I do give them some hints, sometimes I’ll see them again. That’s neat.”

It’s also important to educate oneself in an ever-changing market, and Crawford finds it’s often helpful to network with other area florists. She feels no temptation to silo herself from potential competitors. In fact, she welcomes the new ideas that can flow from open communication.

“I know several owners of flower shops, and we compare notes or go out and talk business,” she says. “And what difference does it make? You’ve got your clientele, I’ve got my clientele.”

At the same time, Crawford isn’t afraid to ask for help when she needs it. She’s hired someone to help keep up the books, which allows her more time for floral design. She’s also hired a web developer to keep an eye on the website. Crawford’s two to three part-time staffers have also become trusted advisors. One designer, in particular, has been there for nearly 18 years.

“It’s like a marriage: you have to figure out each other and your particulars,” says Crawford. “She’s put up with my pickiness on design. She’s a great person, and it makes a lot of difference being able to work with someone you trust.”

After more than three decades of arranging floral bouquets, Crawford expects she’ll someday retire. She talks openly about it, and how she hopes to be able to pass on her work to someone as passionate and eager to learn as she was in her youth.

“There’s plenty of opportunity here for someone, maybe a young, more vivacious person who can take it by the hands and introduce some upbeat things, or a new way of doing business,” she says. “I’d rather do that than close it someday.”

Besides, her creative mind is always at work (and play).

“I’ll wake up at 2 in the morning, sometimes, creating an arrangement,” Crawford says. “It’s all in my brain.”

For now, every day still brings with it fun new challenges and opportunities for exciting new designs.

“My husband will ask me in the morning, ‘What’s your day like?’ and I’ll tell him I don’t know, because I’m not there yet and the phone hasn’t rung,” Crawford says. “Sometimes, I might start out with just a few orders for the day, and by the end you’ll add five or six more to that. You just never know what’s going to happen. I don’t think I could do a job where I was consistently doing the same thing. This job isn’t like that. And that’s what I like about it.”