A Friday at the Multiflora flower market in Johannesburg is not typically as busy as it is today. Buyers are ordinarily in greater attendance on a Thursday so that their freshly bought blooms can be parcelled and distributed before the weekend arrives.
But with Valentine’s Day just four days away, the business of love has whipped the market into a frenzy.
When you enter the enormous steel and concrete warehouse at 5.30am, it is deathly quiet and the fresh fragrant smell hits you before you see row upon row of two-shelved trolleys filled with buckets of flowers.
In summer, this quantity of stock is fairly standard but, of course, today there are many more red roses in the mix.
The flowers come here from all around the country, and from as far away as Kenya and Ethiopia, to be auctioned.
Multiflora is open around the clock to receive deliveries from flower farms. Today, and on all other days, the first shift starts at 2am. A team of 10 graders moves inconspicuously along the lines of trolleys with their stepladders to check the quality of the product, which helps to inform bids when the auction starts at 7am.
The market started in 1945 in Jeppe but is now near a derelict gold shaft in Johannesburg’s City Deep. It is the only auction house on the continent, through which about 900 growers market their flowers. On the most busy days, between 800 000 and a million stems are sold.
“Valentine’s Day is busy but Mother’s Day, Spring Day and Secretary Day are also big for us,” says Sonja Pretorius, Multiflora’s business relations manager.
As she greets staff and regular buyers, Pretorius says Multiflora’s business is simply to provide a platform for the transaction between buyers and sellers. There are two selling platforms; auctions are one and direct sales for fixed weekly orders are the other, she says.
After 6am, the buyers start to filter in. Early arrivals want a closer look at the produce. Some grab a cup of coffee at the little cafeteria — ironically, decorated with plastic flowers — before they take their seats in the auction hall. The space seats 400 people at two-seater desks, giving it the appearance of a university lecture hall.
Lines of up to 18 trolleys, filled with buckets of flowers, are hooked to small industrial towing trucks and drawn into the hall. It’s done in a random order determined by a draw to keep the process fair.
On the wall are four large clocks, which I’m told are similar to the Dutch flower auction clocks. These don’t count time, they count prices.
Each clock is for the auction of different categories of blooms. One is for indoor flowers, such as chrysanthemums or carnations. Another is for roses. Yet another is for bulbs, such as lilies, and gerberas. And one is for greenery and Cape blooms such as proteas.
The loudest part of the process is a horn, which sounds at 7am sharp to mark the opening of the auction.
Trolleys of blooms are wheeled under each clock. Unlike a conventional auction, the auctioneer sets the price at its highest point before the clock quickly counts it down.
The volume on auction, the number of buyers and the price similar products fetched in the previous auction are some of the many factors the auctioneers take into account before determining where to set the price.
“I look at the history. If it went for, say, R18 a bunch yesterday, I may start at R20 today,” auctioneer of 16 years Charles Kilian tells me as we walk between the rows of greenery.
Bidders equipped with headsets flip through channels one to four and push a button in front of them should they wish to bid.
The clocks tell them all they need to know: the flower variety and specifications, the trolley number, the grade, the bid price, the quantity that has been sold (and who bid for it) as well as the quantity that is left. An asterisk indicates when the bid price is per stem instead of per bunch, according to the farmer’s preference.
The button stops the clock. They tell the auctioneer through the headset what quantity they want to buy.
Buckets of flowers can be sold off either one at a time or as an entire batch, typically filling a trolley.
The clock then quickly reflects what quantity is left, before it starts to count down again. When the entire lot is sold, it is wheeled away and the next trolley comes in.
On this particular Friday, the auction lasts more than two-and-a-half hours. On Saturdays, they can be just 45 minutes, but certainly not on the Saturday following this, when many buyers will still be looking for Valentine’s stock.
The buyers say the flowers fetched fairly high prices today because of high demand. Roses typically carry the extra cost of a royalty, which the farmer must pay on each plant for specific varieties. But even so, at today’s auction some exceptional red roses go for as much as R14 a stem.
“It’s high stress,” Kilian says. “You have to be completely focused for those few hours. You can sell a bucket for every second.”
It’s an experience for buyers, too, who have to be sharp about what is happening with all four clocks in order to lock in on their preferred flowers at an acceptable price.
Potential buyers attend a compulsory three-day training course before they are able to register and bid.
There is also a fee for a seat in the auction hall. Multiflora has approximately 300 registered buyers, ranging from large buyers to street vendors. Their purchases can be distributed as far as Angola.
Operations manager Paul Sellwig monitors the auction, dealing with any issue that arises. During the short time he speaks to me, he arranges the tightening of screws on a chair and ensures that a bidder is speaking into his headset clearly. Importantly, Sellwig listens for noise from the bidders. It is the first indication that something has gone wrong.
Today, there are exclamations from the crowd, but only because a batch of red indoor flowers has just sold for an unusually high price. “Red. Valentine’s Day,” Sellwig remarks.
It’s about midway through the auction and, at the edge of the warehouse floor, two trolleys are pushed aside. “These are no offer,” says Sellwig, gesturing at buckets of eucalyptus leaves. They look fine to me but to Sellwig’s expert eye they are not up to scratch. Unsold stock is destroyed to prevent it finding its way back into the market. “It’s to ensure everything is as fair as possible,” he says.
Behind the auction hall there is a flurry of activity. Here, most of Multiflora’s 120 employees pack flowers on to conveyer belts, which assists in sorting each buyer’s order.
As each bid is concluded, just outside the auction hall a machine prints the bid details on to stickers. Staffers formulaically place a sticker on each bucket on a trolley.
After the sorting process on the conveyer belt is concluded, each buyer will find the trolleys with their purchases placed in a particular sequence in the warehouse, ready to be wheeled away — once they have paid for them.
“It’s a buzz of activity now,” says Pretorius. “But by 10.30am, 11am, it starts getting dead. Eventually it is like a ghost town.”
She says buyers need to get out with their purchases as quickly as possible as they still have a full day of trading ahead of them.
Other trolleys are wheeled from the warehouse into an attached mall next door. Here a few flower agents sell directly to the public.
Jason’s Flowers is one of the businesses renting space in the mall. Jason Xavier, a director and part of the second generation to run this family business, says the prices of flowers in his store change in real time on the shop floor. “While the auction is going on, I am buying. But I am also feeding the new prices back to the guys.”
He points to a white avalanche of roses, which he bought on auction the day before. “I speculated. I thought it was a good price so I bought a lot.”
Today, the same variety sold on auction for a higher price, allowing Xavier to put up the price on his shop floor. It’s a gamble because the opposite could happen; a lower auction price would mean the price on the shop floor would have to drop, too, to be competitive.
Business looks good but he assures me the shop should be much busier. The state of the economy makes all the difference. “It’s a luxury item and it’s highly perishable,” he says.
Mariam Abramjee has been in the flower business for almost 30 years. She runs Ring O’ Roses flowers in Laudium, Pretoria, and comes here every week.
Today her choice was easy. “I bought roses. Many, many red roses. I don’t know how many containers I bought,” she says, adding that the price was higher than usual before rushing off to collect her purchases and start her day.