The neighborhood flower store, once a retail staple, is rapidly disappearing. Nearly 40 percent of America’s retail floral businesses have closed since 2000, with only 14,000 or fewer remaining. The number of paid employees in the field has been cut in half. A recent market report from IBISWorld put it bluntly: “The florists industry has entered the declining stage of its life cycle.”

Given this reality, I was surprised and delighted to read in a previous “Slow Flowers Journal” in this magazine last fall about a young entrepreneur, Maggie Smith, having success with her new flower shop Pine State Flowers, in Durham N.C. So, I set out to do a special interview, hoping to find out why and how she decided to embark on this against-trend store building business and what she’s learned along the way.

Maggie Smith Pine State Flowers

Q: Why and how did you decide to open a flower shop?
This was a by-chance thing and not one rooted in any planning. It was really all about my needing and wanting a way to support myself. It was 2013, and there were not many jobs for people with an arts background like me. There was this amazing piece of architecture in my community, Roll’s Florist Building, which was built in the 1930s. Fred Roll was a German emigrant who built the building, ran the floral shop, and with the acres of adjoining farmland and greenhouses, he became the largest floral supplier in the Southeast. Since the 1980s, the space was rented, on and off, to various businesses that were all short lived.
I had friends who were flower farmers, and, collectively, we were excited about locally grown flowers not just being sold at farmers’ markets but available to floral shops and designers. I could see it! I could be it!
So, with the savings I had, I leased the building and set about creating my own shop. The building came with an adjacent plot of land, which I planted with flowers.

Q: How did you build your business?
I renovated the store space myself, keeping some of the historical elements. The plan was to have three business lines: the flower and gift shop, wedding and event services, and a subscription delivery of farm-grown flowers. I started small, and I was the only employee! The shop was open only two days a week. I did a wedding, then another, and my style of naturally arranged farm flowers gained traction, mainly by word-of-mouth. I built my website and began to take orders for delivery of buckets of flowers, just like the services offered by farmers of fresh vegetables. My community is supportive of the farm- to-table concept, so they embraced me and Pine State Flowers as the only flower shop that partners exclusively with local farmers.

Maggie Smith Pine State Flowers

Q: What does your business look like five years later?
I’m really proud of how far we have come in a short period. The shop is open six days a week. We offer a weekly pick-up-a-bouquet at the shop subscription. We do floral arrangement deliveries for subscribers who want a different arrangement each month and buckets of flowers delivered each month for DIY fans. My wedding and event business is growing nicely. I’ve added wholesale grocery bouquets to my business repertoire, too. My business activity and finances are equally represented – a third each to weddings and events, retail, and delivery. It’s been a lot of effort to build a strong foundation, and I’m grateful to be in this position.

Q: Tell me you are not still the sole employee?
Thank goodness, no! I grew slowly, and as I was able to afford it, I hired more staff. I have the most amazing team. Melissa Whitling is our full-time retail manager, operating the day-to-day business and assembling the bouquets for our grocery wholesale line. Mary Rodgman is our full-time delivery driver. I’m the primary floral designer and manage the weddings and events. I do the web, and I manage the books. We have freelancers available to help when we have more work than we three can manage.

Maggie Smith Pine State Flowers

Q: What’s the biggest challenge to your business?
Having three business lines and a four-month-old baby! I’ve grown organically, and I can see ways to grow even bigger, but scaling up is always a balance. Do I find more customers and then hire and manage more staff? Right now, the business supports us. This is the ongoing challenge to small-business owners.
The other challenge is finding home-grown flowers in the winter. I’ve done work-arounds, ordering flowers from other U.S. farmers in warmer places or from greenhouses. Farmers here are getting started with winter opportunities, and I’m really excited about that.

Maggie Smith Pine State Flowers

Q: You have a sustainable business. What simple steps could any floral designer take toward increased sustainability?
The easiest and most fun is to find a local farmer from whom you can buy one thing, say snapdragons, and get all of your snapdragons this summer from your new farmer friend. Before you know it, the farm will be growing things just for you! Second, I encourage a reduced use of floral foam, which presently is not bio- degradable and is created using materials that are not earth friendly.

Q: If you could go anywhere to learn more about flowers, where would you go?
England is the land of gardeners, and I’d like to go and be a part of that culture for a while. Even though ikebana is far removed from my style of floral arranging, I find it intriguing and would love to go to Japan to learn more.

Q: What’s next for you and your business?
I’m taking time to be excited about having a successful business, a new baby and career where I can bring the baby into work. It’s modestly awesome. It’s really high quality.
I’d like to push the boundaries of what local flowers can do for weddings, and I’m exploring a way to share my knowledge about what I’ve learned about being a business and shop owner.

Maggie Smith Pine State Flowers

By Jane DeMarco