By Gregg Hillyer
I hear the alarm, but it seems miles away as I try to clear my mind from its deep slumber. My hand fumbles for the iPhone resting on the night stand to silence the annoying chimes piercing the lightless room. It’s 4 a.m. and not even the roosters are up. What induced me to wake at such an un-godly hour? I was one of several (fool?) hearty IFAJers on our way to Royal FloraHolland, the busiest and largest trading center for plants and flowers in the world. How big? In all, the complex is 225 soccer fields in size.
Arriving early is mandatory as the daily flower auction starts at 6 a.m. We’re driving to the Aalsmeer auction warehouse, located in the shadow of the Schiphol airport outside of Amsterdam. As we step out of the bus, we’re quickly ushered to an auction room where buyers sit in a college-like auditorium. Since bidding is done electronically, the room is eerily quiet. This is just one of several auction rooms at the facility.
With computers plugged in to register their transactions, the buyers watch several video screens at the front of the room. Below the screens, two parallel automated trains of flower-filled carts snake slowly and silently through the room. Occasionally an auction employee pulls out a potted plant or a bunch of cut flowers for closer inspection before the carts disappear through a passageway on their way to the warehouse.
On the video boards, buyers watch a round circle, often referred to as the clock. Think of it as a giant hollow ring with a ball inside that falls counter clockwise. Buyers follow the Dutch auction system, where the price is set high by the auctioneer and then the ball drops, stopping as soon as a buyer is willing to pay the given price. Each auction offer only takes a few seconds. At full capacity 32 clocks and 60 auctioneers can complete 1,500 transactions per hour per clock.
The screen carries a wealth of information, with the most important data inside the ring such as price per stem, number of flowers per container and the minimum number of containers that must be purchased. Other information on the board includes the seller, details of the flowers on offer and more.
Royal FloraHolland is actually a grower cooperative, started 105 years ago to give stronger selling clout to members. Each day flowers arrive a few hours before the auction, sorted and then cooled in an enormous refrigerated warehouse. Twenty percent of the flowers sold here are imported from members as far away as Kenya, Ethiopia, Nairobi and Ecuador. The remainder is grown in Holland. FloraHolland has a 30% to 40% worldwide marketshare. Nearly 20 million flowers are traded daily, with an annual value of 4.7 billion Euro.
After watching the auction, our group moves to the warehouse. Our senses are met with an explosion of delightful aromas. Think FTD on steroids. From our elevated walkway we see a rainbow of colors as far as the eye can see—pinks, purples, yellows, greens, oranges, reds and all shades in-between.
The inside of the vast refrigerated complex is a beehive of activity. Speed is everything when dealing with fresh, but fragile flowers and plants. Orange-colored electric moped-like vehicles move in all directions, pulling a train of flower-filled carts of various lengths. No one appears to be directing traffic. For this untrained observer it reminds me of a chaotic maze of vehicles trying to escape the chaos before Godzilla destroys the city. In reality, a sophisticated computerized barcode system is used to fill orders and instruct the drivers to the correct loading bay for shipping around the world.
By 10 a.m. the warehouse is nearly empty. All is quiet, as if both the workers and the giant complex are taking a few minutes to catch their breath before doing it all over again in a few hours. As for me and my IFAJ colleagues, we board the bus, longing for a quick nap before our next stop.