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Using technology in floriculture

TECHNO FLOWERS—Bill McKinley, director of the Benz School of Floral Design at Texas A&M University, plans to bring technology to use in the florist industry. (AgrilLife Communications photo by Kathleen Phillips.)

Of all the contagious things in the world, there is one people don't want to avoid--flowers.

"The more you use flowers, the more you want to use them," said Bill McKinley, director of the Benz School of Floral Design. "Research shows that there is a connection between happiness and flowers. So why wouldn't you want to have some happiness on your kitchen table?"

McKinley plans to carry that message to new generation florists and consumers, and he has his artistic eye on a technological way to do that--via the Internet and social media.

Since last summer when he became director of the Benz school, the only floral design course in the nation affiliated with an institute of higher learning, McKinley has been pursuing ways to link the tactile nature of flower arranging with the mechanics of technology.

"The Benz school is retail in nature. We're preparing students to go into the retail world to start or purchase a business," McKinley said. "So we start with the basics--what are the elements, what are the principles, how do you put those together to make a floral design? And we cover the business basics--what the typical retail florist needs in order to succeed.

"It is getting more and more difficult to compete as our economy and our world changes to a very fast-paced, technology-based consumerism," he added. "We are trying to prepare each student to enter that world and be a much more broad-based, successful florist."

McKinley has already begun to "infuse technology" with current students as well as throughout the industry through collaborations. Among the potential methods are online courses and free video chat rooms.

"Being an art form, floral design is so personal. Whether you like something or you don't depends on your aesthetics and your background," he said. "So with respect to color, if I say the color 'mauve,' I have a perception of what mauve is, and you have a perception of what mauve is. But they might not be the same.

"What technology can do for us is provide that point of reference. In a video chat, I can request a matching product and hold up a color for whatever it is I'm trying to put together," he explained. "Then you have that same point of reference and you know what I'm saying when I say the word 'mauve.'"

To demonstrate, McKinley entered a video chat with colleagues in three different cities and trained his camera on several floral arrangements which had been designed to coordinate with an invitation to an upcoming entertainment venue. The three colleagues could see the arrangements on their computers and offer input about how well the designs met the purpose.

"As the world shrinks due to the technology and the availability of communications, what's to prevent me from collaborating with a friend?" he asked. "I can get their perspective on whether this is a good idea instantaneously."

In addition to collaborating on a design with peers, McKinley said, a florist could use the video chat technology with suppliers to make special purchases or to assist customers planning special events.

"If a florist is doing a party or event and needs something specific in terms of texture, form or color and my supplier is able to show me exactly what it is, I can see it on a video chat," he said. "We're all very visual in this field, and we don't always know exactly what's available, because the cut flower market is very fluid. What's available this week might not be available next week, or the cost may go through the roof or drop. If we know what our options are, we can make efficient, logical, business choices."

Likewise, if a bride does not live in the same town where her wedding will be, McKinley suggested, she might appreciate having a video chat with her florist to check on the flowers or to share a sample of fabric to match.

He believes the use of this technology will grow in the floral industry because it has become affordable through a variety of free services online.

"It does not cost to participate in this kind of technology, so I really do think that once florists and customers figure that out, why wouldn't they want to be able to see what they're going to buy before they buy it? That seems like a logical progression forward," he said.

Adding social media components to a floral business also will be important, he added.

"That is another issue that I believe retailers really need to be taking advantage of," McKinley said. "You need to have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, or whatever social media you choose. The percentage continues to increase on those younger-aged shoppers finding you through those outlets."

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