1-800-Flowers succeeds on relationships and technology

CHICAGO—"Innovation is in the history, it's in the DNA of our company," said Christopher McCann, president of 1-800-Flowers. And from day one, the 38-year-old retailer, which started as a brick-and-mortar operation before adopting online and mobile platforms, was about building relationships first and doing business second.

Delivering the morning keynote speech at Thursday's IRCE conference, McCann spoke about how the nature of the business lends itself to creating smiles, so building a connection with customers is at the forefront of the 1-800-Flowers business model.

The company started as one flower shop in Manhattan in 1976 and has gone through four waves of change. "We need to embrace change. It's inevitable. It's not a choice and it's rapid. It's about survival," McCann said.

The second wave, post physical store openings, was telephonic commerce in the mid-1980s. Third, in the early '90s, the retailer was one of the first companies to embrace e-commerce. Today, the company is in its fourth wave, the age of social and mobile commerce.

The founders of 1-800-Flowers knew that change was not a choice and were always one of the first retailers to test a new technology. In 1994, the company was the first merchant to sell a product on AOL, and it was the first website on Netscape technology in 1999. "When all of the masses started to migrate to the Web, we were already there," McCann said.

The company quickly realized that online was a way to drive their product to the masses, on a big scale. Since jumping into social and mobile—and being one of the first retailers to sell products on Facebook's Gift Shop—the company knew it needed to add brands into the portfolio. The company now includes names such as Fannie Mae, Harry & David and The Popcorn Factory.

"Integrating these brands into a common technology platform helped us express ourselves and increase the lifetime value of customers as we build a brand," McCann said.

Last summer, the retailer announced it would start accepting bitcoin as digital currency and is currently piloting a same-day delivery service in the San Francisco area.

1-800-Flowers has always pushed staff to be innovative. The management hosts mentoring programs for employees in order to start the conversation and stimulate new ideas.

"We like people who are intellectually curious and people who are challenging," McCann said. "We take what others call disruptive technologies and transform them to eruptive forces that are moving our businesses forward."

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