Three major stores remain in Johnson City: Roddy’s Flowers, Anna Marie’s Florists and Broyles Florists, Inc., which also has a location in Jonesborough.
Roddy Bird is one of the owners of Roddy’s Flowers, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this weekend. Bird knew he wanted to be a florist when he was 4 years old. At 6, he started selling wreaths out of a little lean-to beside the road.
“I would go over to the cemetery every day and look at the flowers and was just fascinated by the arrangements,” Bird said. “I know that’s a little morbid ... but it just fascinated me.”
Now, almost 50 years later, Bird’s store is one of a smattering of floral shops still in Johnson City, a number that Bird said has decreased steadily over the past few decades, declining from a peak of about 25.
Some might attribute the decline to the public’s increasing reliance on grocery stores and large retailers, which can purchase flowers in bulk and sell them at prices with which small stores cannot compete.
Walt Engel, one of the owners of Broyles Florists Inc., said florists already experience a host of problems from the get-go, particularly with preserving their products, and are now in direct competition with big box stores like Walmart, Walgreen’s and 7-Eleven.
“That’s a major, major competitor that you didn’t have to have when you were opening a flower business back in the 1950s,” Engel said. “And it’s been growing and growing and growing since then.”
Despite the threat posed by larger brands, Engel said small floral shops still have distinct advantages including superior designers and higher quality products which, while more expensive, are often more desirable.
While some businessmen believe grocery stores present one of the more potent adversaries for small mom-and-pop florists, Bird said there are other reasons behind the rapid decrease in floral shops in Johnson City.
“The competition isn’t as much with grocery stores as it is with obituaries saying, ’in lieu of flowers,’” Bird said. “If you look at obituaries it says, ’Don’t send flowers, make donations.’ That’s what’s hurting us.”
Bird said about 60 percent of his store’s profits come from people purchasing flowers for funerals and believes many people refrain from this practice because they believe it’s a waste, a notion that Bird wholeheartedly rejects.
“A lot of people think it’s a waste of money, and it’s not,” Bird said. “When you walk into a funeral home and you see no flowers, that’s sort of depressing.”
Stephen Shanks, owner of Anna Marie’s Florists, said he sees a similar set of factors affecting his business. Shanks said he doesn’t know why Johnson City has seen a decrease in floral shops but thinks it might be because new entrepreneurs haven’t bothered to fill the holes left in the local market.
“The florists that I know that went out of business. Several of them were just ready to retire,” Shanks said
Engel said the flower business used to be extremely localized, with people buying arrangements in the store rather than purchasing them online.
“Today when so many people order it online, the whole nature of the business has changed,” Engel said.
Updated computer systems and relationships with businesses that have a large national distribution network have helped expand Engel’s client base, enabling Broyles to reach markets beyond the scope of Jonesborough and Johnson City.
While many small floral shops have succumbed to the setbacks posed by turbulent economic times and a slump in interest among customers, some florists still believe floral shops can derive charm from a personalized atmosphere.
“We try to give (customers) their money’s worth and nice quality and pretty work,” Bird said. “I don’t sent out anything that I’m not proud of because it’s got my name on it, too.”
As a testament to the lingering popularity of small floral shops, Roddy’s Flowers will celebrate its 30th anniversary Sunday with a Christmas open house from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bird expects more than 500 people will be in attendance to see the available items.
“I think sometimes people forget that there is a florist downtown still,” Bird said.