Blue-jacketed workers quickly hook the carts together and use small electric scooters to pull lines of carts - as many as 10 or 20 - to the auction rooms or, after they're sold, to the shipping area. "On the slowest day, we have more than 10,000 trolleys," says Dirk Hogervorst, manager of the cooperative's 13 auction clocks, quality control, and daily operations. "On the busiest days - before Valentine's Day, Christmas, or Mother's Day - more than 30,000."

Even on so-called slow days, some 10,000 people are involved in the sale, preparation, and shipment of blooms, and they do not dawdle.The auctions may start early, but that doesn't make the day longer; they're finished by noon. At Aalsmeer, they say, "The three keys to the flower industry are quick, quick, quick."

If the goings-on in the main hall are straightforward (and clearly explained by push-button audio in several languages), the activity in the auction rooms is a bit mysterious. Peering through large plate glass windows, it's difficult for an onlooker to decipher the blinking lights, numbers, and printed information projected on giant screens suspended at the front of the room. Below the projection screens, flower carts shuttle by on motorized tracks, their speed controlled by the auctioneer.

In one room, about 300 buyers, all men, sit at desks in stadium-style seats, surrounded­ by laptops, cellphones, and empty coffee cups. Listening to the auctioneer with their headsets, they focus on the projection screens that show a picture of the flower for sale and statistics indicating the quality, environ­mental factors, and so forth affecting this lot to be sold. Most important is the grower's logo, a trusted indicator of product quality.

The sales process - known as a clock auction - permits no bidding and counterbidding, and it works in reverse, with prices that start high and fall until a lot is sold.

Each auction is governed by, of course, a clock. A giant circle of blinking lights that represent Euro cents from 100 to zero - and which bears little resemblance to the mechanical timepieces used here until the 1980s - the clock displays the price of a single flower. The auctioneer sets the starting price, and the clock lights show it dropping until a buyer presses a button on his desktop console. With more than 10,000 transactions a day in each room - one every three to four seconds - the lights are always flickering around the clock face.

"You must love stress to do this job," says Luc Ribberink, purchasing manager of Oz Export, one of the VBA's largest exporters. "In minutes you can lose a lot of money or make a lot of money if you buy for the right price."