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Special section Thrifty gifting

Surprise! More flowers are bought for Xmas than Mother's Day -- how to buy and how to save.

Flowers: The perfect gift at any price

Flowers: The perfect gift at any price

A grocery store is usually the next step up on the price ladder. You can probably get a good deal if you happen to shop right after the flowers are delivered, says Karen Marinelli, a Pennsylvania-based floral industry professional who consults with retail and wholesale florists. But because neither grocery stores nor big-box stores are set up to care for flowers in terms of refrigeration and a watering regimen, quality deteriorates fast.

"Temperature is really important for cut flowers. A difference of five degrees makes a huge difference in vase life," says Marinelli. Flowers consistently kept cold from the time they are picked through transportation and retail display should last 10 days in the home, she says. But if you're looking at a display of bouquets poking out of buckets containing room-temperature water that may be dirty or slimy, forget it. Puddles on the floor by the display are another red flag. Bacteria and mold will flourish in the stagnant water and your flowers will suffer for it.

Amy Stewart, author of "Flower Confidential:  The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers," advises avoiding flowers kept near the produce section, too. Many produce items, especially apples, give off ethylene gas that makes flowers wilt.

"I'm not against people buying flowers in a supermarket or a superstore. Go for it," Marinelli says. "But if there's any question, don't buy it. Even if you pay an extra $5 at the flower shop, it's going to last through the holiday season."

"Supermarkets and (stores like) Sam's are going to give you the best price," says Paul Goodman, an Oklahoma-based consultant who runs Floral Finance Business Services. "If you want to have design services and you want to have delivery, that's the retail florist's market."

Florists fall into two categories: physical and online. Marinelli advocates florists because, unlike big-box stores or supermarkets, they have an incentive to care for the plants. "The florist paid for them the minute they got them," says Marinelli.

Goodman likes florists for their service, but that means higher prices.

"The retail florist is in the special occasion business," he says. "It's not going to be the cheapest, by any stretch of the imagination."

Marinelli and Stewart agree that buying online can be risky. If you want flowers delivered to long-distance loved ones, it's best to order directly from a florist in their city. You can use the Internet to find a florist, but don't place the order online, Marinelli and Stewart say. Chances are you'll have found what the industry calls "order gatherers" or "fake florists" who will charge a hefty $10 to $15 fee. and are the top two order gatherers in the industry, Goodman says.

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