A buyer may bid 200 to 300 times a day, so he prepares well in advance to make informed guesses about how the market will react. At dawn, before the auctions begin, the buyers check online for the latest supply information from growers and discuss customers' orders with the sales force. Then they tour the large refrigerated area to take a rough count of the quantities of blooms.

"If there are just 600 trolleys of tulips on Monday, you know that's not sufficient and the price will be higher," says Ribberink. "Will we pay 50 cents a rose or 55 cents? Do I need to buy a lot quickly or can I wait for the price to come down?" The buyers develop their individual plans based on their assumptions of the day's market, but they must be ready to change plans immediately depending on their competitors' purchases. "Then we have to decide in a fraction of a second: buy now or wait," he says.

Successful buyers have what the Germans call fingerspitzengefühl, says Ribberink, that is, a natural talent for trading in the tips of their fingers. Twenty years or so ago, a buyer had only a few factors - price, quality, and the grower's name - to consider in bidding, adds Hogervorst, but with technological advances, now there are 10 to 20 factors flashing on the screen. "In the past, a transaction may have taken eight seconds, not four, but today there's so much more information, a buyer must be much more prepared," he says. "It's more of a profession than it used to be."

About 150 buyers use the Internet to place bids from remote locations, accounting for 10 percent of daily turnover. While the Inter­net and online communication among the sales force, clients, and auction hall have increased transparency and speeded up the auction process, technology hasn't replaced the need for buyers to be "on the clock" in the auction room. "A lot of buyers say, 'I want to feel how the market is, and I want to see what my colleagues are doing," says Hogervorst, who has visited the New York Stock Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade. "The mechanism of how we set a price is different, but the feeling of tension on the trading floor is the same."

By the time a visitor is ready for lunch, most of the auctioned flowers are distributed, packed, and on their way by truck or airplane to more than 80 countries. A rose sold under the clock in the morning can be gracing a dinner table the same evening in Paris, Rome, or New York. And early the next morning, under Aalsmeer’s clocks, the stately procession of flowers and plants begins again.

Visiting Aalsmeer’s Flower Auctions
Auctions are open to visitors on weekdays, 7-11 a.m., April through September; the rest of the year, the hours are 7:30-11 a.m. the best time to see the action is before 9 a.m. on a Monday.

Aadmission is 4.50 euros for adults, 2.50 for children. bus number 172 runs from the square in front of the Victoria Hotel Amsterdam, across from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. The ride takes about 45 minutes. At Aalsmeer, follow signs to the visitors’ center in the large building with the red tulip logo. A self-service restaurant and souvenir shop are inside. For more information, visit www.aalsmeer.com, call 011-31-297-29-21-85, or e-mail info@vba.nl.