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Amanda Ryder Top Shops: Itís All in the Details

Lilies White led by a stylish set

Written by Amanda Ryder
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Walk into Lilies White and you’ll have a hard time holding back your excitement. Right away, you can envision how their bright and radiant designs and containers will fit into your own home décor. This is no accident, considering the shop’s two owners, Donna Swinson and Dawn Tomlinson, have an eye for style.
  At a Glance

Company Name:
Lilies White

Waterloo, Ont.

Donna Swinson and Dawn Tomlinson

Facility Space:
1,600 square feet of which 1,200 square feet is retail space

Walk into Lilies White and you’ll have a hard time holding back your excitement. Right away, you can envision how their bright and radiant designs and containers will fit into your own home décor. This is no accident, considering the shop’s two owners, Donna Swinson and Dawn Tomlinson, have an eye for style.

The 1,600-square-foot shop is located in the urban uptown of Waterloo, Ont., and was recently voted number 1 florist in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. The shop is a culmination of a relationship that’s lasted over a decade and is still going strong. Lilies White came together 11 years ago when Swinson and Tomlinson became neighbours. Tomlinson discovered her new friend’s knack for designing dried floral arrangements and recognized a business opportunity. “I was looking for a change. I had a background in sales so I went to Donna and said, you share me your knowledge and I’ll share you my knowledge and together we can do something cool.” Something cool eventually evolved from an early home-based business to a small shop in Mannheim, Ont. and most recently, an uptown Waterloo boutique.

Foliage shares an equal footing with flowers at Lilies White. The two friends and their team of designers – manager and senior designer Deb Jasinski, senior designer Meghan McMahon and three part-time staff members – look beyond the usual for inspiration. “We tend to be a little more funky . . . we don’t use basics that are typical to the industry like leather leaf,” says Tomlinson. Even florist staples like baby’s breath are scarcely found in the shop, unless they are used with a twist. “Recently we did a bridal bouquet that was actually all just baby’s breath and it was quite beautiful but we don’t use it as an inexpensive filler.” The florist uses a ton of commercial mums, in both white and dyed, a look that’s become a bit of a staple for the shop. “We really get into the use of interesting greenery – there’s always a good supply of tropical greenery, using even an aspidistra leaf rolled,” says Swinson. “We feel greenery can be such a great base to an arrangement that it’s almost just as important as the flowers.”

Lilies White has been successful in creating its own signature style and it’s one that was actually designed unintentionally. “Years ago, we started buying inexpensive crystal beads and we started threading our grasses. It wasn’t really anything that we charged for. It was trying to go along the lines of the philosophy of giving people more than they’d expect,” says Tomlinson. Another trademark has been adding unique and life-like bugs and grasshoppers to designs. Whether it be the rolled greenery, or pushing a pin in the centre of a flower, these little surprises and extra details are what keep shoppers coming back. The two owners credit their staff for coming up with these unique designs and going the extra mile. “Our staff make us look good every day,” says Tomlinson.

When creating the designs, the duo say it’s important that the flowers are made in a way that the customer can showcase them with ease. “They are definitely at the point where you could just drop them into a vase and they look amazing,” say Swinson. “We would never lay flowers on a paper and wrap them up. All the bouquets that we send out are in the European hand-tied style. We take the time so every stem gets cleaned for the customer so that it literally just needs to be cut and inserted,” adds Tomlinson.

The appearance of the store is another big draw; customers constantly tell staff that just walking into the store makes them feel good. “It gives them a lift just to come in, even if they aren’t buying something.” says Swinson. The displays in the store are all colour-blocked, which often requires that they buy carefully. “We plan ahead in that regard and then we just get really inspired,” says Tomlinson. “Like yesterday we got some really amazing containers . . . we were really excited about the vases so right front and centre, we took apart a major table and featured all these great vases. We have always been into display.” They change displays up regularly and as new products come in, paying special attention to the shop’s roadside window and mall window.

Dawn Tomlinson (left) and Donna Swinson (right) are the two style-minded ladies behind Lilies White in Waterloo, Ont.  

The two florists haven’t shied away from trying new things in their shop, even on one of the industry’s biggest holidays. “I think because of Donna’s and my past, not having ever worked in a flower shop before we owned our own, we didn’t have any sort of rules,” says Tomlinson. “So one year, in our wisdom, we decided to boycott roses. We just featured tulips, period. Tulips of every colour, shape and size and arrangements and fresh cuts. It was just so powerful to see the cooler just filled with tulips.” The concept itself was a bit of a sell and Tomlinson says it was surprisingly successful but they’ve held off on doing it again.

Weddings make up a majority of the business at Lilies White and Swinson estimates that they will do around 125 weddings this year. The florists are open to hearing what a bride wants and go to great lengths to find the perfect fit. “We give an hour consultation and we don’t just sit and simply ask what do you want . . . We actually spend the time in pulling flowers out of the cooler and grouping everything together so they have as much visual as they can. We know when we are on the right track with them because you can see it in their eyes and they’re practically clapping.”

Branding is a real strength at Lilies White as their shop logo is easily recognizable and is used throughout the shop on signs and price tags. “Our tag and our wrap has become important – the tag has value now. People ask us all the time to ensure the cello and the tag are on the arrangement,” says Tomlinson. The two owners say that partnering with their wholesalers has also been an important aspect to their business. They communicate frequently with their suppliers to work out issues and improve operations from both ends. “By listening to what they need from us and vice versa, it has become a mutually satisfying relationship,” says Swinson. “They are there for us and we are there for them. It works beautifully.”

When asked what sets them apart from other florists, both Tomlinson and Swinson agree that it’s their commitment to always offering the customer something more. Tomlinson says that from the beginning, when they set their business plan in motion, the key was going beyond. “More than anything we want customers to come back to our store, more than anything we want it to be an amazing experience and more than anything we want to give them more than they expect. I think that has really set the tone for what happens here at Lilies White.”

Adjusting to the Economy
lw4When the recession hit the Canadian economy, Lilies White saw the effects and Swinson and Tomlinson were forced to adjust the way they bought. The changes have actually made the florist stronger. “In the past, we carried a lot more home décor than what we’re currently carrying right now. That was a little bit of learning experience for us when the recessionary times hit at the end of the last quarter of last year,” says Tomlinson. The shop rectified the difference in early January when they cleared out all the leftover inventory. Now, the florist has a philosophy to buy as they need it.

“The big orders and doing all the pre-bookings – unless it’s holiday time or what have you – we really haven’t been doing that much. We’ve been carrying a lot less artwork just because people weren’t spending the money on giftware as much,” says Tomlinson. Prior to this change, Lilies White had stocked quite a few home décor items and customers would often come in looking specifically for such items – something they still do. The shop’s sign reads “Lilies White – Floral and Home Styling” and even if there aren’t as many products sitting
on the shelves, people still seek out their advice. “We are really into home decorating and I think people appreciate that when they come in. They can tell that we have a sense of style. A lot of people like our opinion on what they should put in their home and that goes over to flowers and artificial arrangements,” says Swinson.

From a financial standpoint, decreasing the inventory has been a boon to the business.

“We see that the flower business has actually increased, our bottom line is better because we’re not spending the money on giftware waiting for that to sell. It’s been just such a great fix for us,” says Tomlinson.
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