The calendar is filled with occasions that call for a flower arrangement (pssst: Valentine’s Day is almost here). Whether you need a simple-yet-elegant stem or a spectacular bouquet, it pays to choose a shop and the flowers carefully.

Buying a floral arrangement is like buying art. You’ll want a shop whose use of color and flower types fits your individual taste. This is even more important if you are spending hundreds of dollars on centerpieces for a wedding or other special event.

You’ll also want to evaluate other factors: quality of products, variety, quality of advice, reliability and promptness, and price. Through special arrangement with The Inquirer, you can access Checkbook’s ratings of local florists for quality and price free of charge until March 5 at Checkbook.org/inquirer/florists.

If you want an arrangement delivered, seek exotic or unusual flowers, or need advice, your best bet is a retail florist. But if you’re willing to pick up blooms yourself, need a typical bouquet, want to arrange the things yourself, or would like to save money, you have other options. Wherever you buy, remember that flower prices are a product of supply and demand. At holiday times, consider buying something less popular. Also consider buying stems and using a vase from home.

Supermarkets and warehouse clubs

Supermarkets, warehouse clubs, and other mass merchandisers count on big-time foot traffic, selling flowers to shoppers who stop in to buy a few things, but leave with a cart full of other stuff. What you’ll get ranges from basic bunches of carnations to full-service.

Supermarkets and big-box stores offer one big plus: price. Checkbook’s shoppers found that supermarket prices averaged about 60 percent lower than those at traditional florists.

Street vendors

Street vendors cater to impulse buyers: Hand over some cash and arrive home a hero. The quality of the flowers can vary a great deal. Many street sellers get their blossoms from the same wholesalers that supply florist shops, but some vendors may be peddling several-day-old flowers. Checkbook’s shoppers found street vendors’ prices averaged about 70 percent lower than those at retail florists.

Florists

Good retail florists can help with any flower-oriented need, plus delivery, wire services and helping with big events such as weddings. Their business models and styles range from wire service-only (with that standard FTD look) to custom shops creating original designs arranged with unusual or exotic flowers in vintage or artistic vases.

Many florists evaluated by Checkbook received high ratings from their surveyed customers, but the ratings for some shops prove that a rose is not a rose: Consumers often lodged complaints about late or missing deliveries; florists showing up with the wrong items; poor-quality products; lousy attitudes; and wire-service arrangements that showed up with fewer (or lower-quality) flowers than ordered.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers also found big price differences among area florists: Some shops charge more than three times as much as their local competitors for the same products. For the Valentine classic — one dozen long-stem red roses — prices ranged from $15 to $72 among local shops, and for stargazer lilies, prices ranged from $2.50 to $10 a stem.

National Networks, Online Options, and Oh Man There Are Now Even Florist Scammers?

If you need to send flowers to someone outside the Delaware Valley area, you have a few choices: ordering directly through a florist in that city; asking a local florist to coordinate things, or turning to a national floral network.

Checkbook’s take: Work directly with a retail florist — either located here or where the recipient lives — rather than relying on a national outfit. The best florists keep track of their experiences with florists in other areas and will follow up to make sure your blooms are delivered.

Another good option: Identify and use a good florist in the distant city. By cutting the local store from the transaction, you avoid wire service charges and other fees. You’ll also communicate directly with the florist who will assemble and deliver the arrangement. On the other hand, you won’t get help from your neighborhood florist or its wire service if there are problems.

Using a national service or an order-taking company means customers have little control over finished product. So it’s no surprise that many buyers run into problems. A very common one: An order-taking service charges a customer too little money for an arrangement and sends the order to a participating florist, which eventually rejects it. The service then sends the order to a different florist, and again, after several hours, the job is rejected. Sometimes this flower-order merry-go-round continues for days, even weeks. Just as bad, a florist chooses to fill the underpriced order but skimps on flowers. This often happens when an underpriced order is accepted by a disreputable florist willing to take a little money to get rid of old flowers.

No matter whom you hire to arrange your arrangements, pay by credit card. If you run into thorny problems with a florist who is unwilling to make things right, you can contest the charge with your credit card company and at least will get back your money.

_______________________

Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org are a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices.