Selling IN the city

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Urban garden centers serve a growing niche market.

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June 1, 2011
Wendy Komancheck
Urban garden centers (UGCs), a fast-growing retail segment, are not only vital to urban redevelopment projects, they also provide a niche resource for their clientele.

UGCs tend to think in smaller terms regarding hard goods and other products, allowing them to accommodate customers who ride their bikes, walk and/or take the bus for shopping trips. There are demographic differences, too, among the UGCs spread across the country. Some cater to higher-end clientele; others specialize in outdoor furniture; while some concentrate on revitalizing their local communities. But there’s one thing they have in common—they know their clientele.


Greening up Philly & Pittsburgh
Curtis Alexander opened Urban Jungle in Philadelphia because he wanted to promote sustainable, “green” urban environments. He got started in the business through his expertise in window-box installation for friends. Then his business grew when he demonstrated the benefits of a drip irrigation system that keeps window boxes thriving.

“Before I knew it, I realized that there was a tremendous unmet need in the city landscaping services for small urban yards, and there were very few options to create a green environment other than the big-box stores,” Alexander said. “I would walk into a big-box garden center in the city and see riding lawn mowers, huge furniture sets and huge gas grills, which told me that the big-box stores didn’t have a clue as to what the urban gardener needed. This sparked a flame in me that there must be a better solution.”

Lynne Weber and Joan Kimmel own the Urban Gardener, Inc. in Pittsburgh, Pa. These women are committed to their customers and local community. They assist customers in finding the perfect plants, as well as provide a newsletter and gardening classes. They carry smaller quantities of the suburban garden center standards: trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, soils, mulches and amendments. They also provide home consultation services and perennial garden maintenance.

“Because most urban yards are smaller than suburban ones, we carry shrubs and trees that can do double duty, with multiple-season interest. We focus on shade gardens and carry an extensive selection of shade plants,” Weber said. “We buy all of our green goods and Christmas trees within a 150-mile radius to ensure their hardiness to our region.

“We only carry garden art and accessories that are not usually found in suburban, big-box garden centers. Almost all of the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that we carry are organic. And most importantly, we take whatever time is necessary with each customer to educate them on what is the ‘right plant for the right place.’ We are also different in that some of our customers walk, take the bus, or ride their bikes. We’ve even had customers walk home with 12-foot Christmas trees and a couple of strong friends!”


Selling in the Beltway
In Washington, D.C.,  Johnson’s Florist and Garden Centers got its start in 1933 when the Johnson family opened a grocery store in the area. Over the years, the grocery store evolved into a garden center/nursery and florist. They stopped selling groceries in the early 1950s. Today, they have three locations in the district’s metro area: Washington, D.C., Kensington, Md., and Olney, Md.

“When the business opened, the area was a ‘suburb’ with unpaved streets and farms surrounding it,” Jane Charters of Johnson’s said. “Rapid development occurred in the late 1940s and ’50s and was largely residential. The Kensington location was opened in the early 1980s, and the Olney location was purchased from another garden center in the late 1990s.”

All three stores are distinct in their clientele. Charters said the D.C. shop customer-base is affluent, very cosmopolitan, and a large number is international.

“We have strong sales to churches, private schools, embassies, and large corporations,” she said.

The Kensington store is located in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. in Montgomery County, Md. The Olney store is also located in Montgomery County,  but in an area that is still somewhat rural, with a mix of farms and developed neighborhoods.


Chicagoland retailing

Regas Chefas owns Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago. Chefas’s garden center has an interesting story behind its start: “I lived in the neighborhood most of my life, and my father owned a small empty lot where we sold Christmas trees and pumpkins. Growing up, I always liked planting Victory Gardens [during World War II] and loved flowers,” Chefas said.

Chefas said the most rewarding aspect of owning an urban garden center is, “being a catalyst to revitalizing the neighborhood and seeing the fruits of our labors as people’s yards improve and beautify the area. We enjoy seeing the plantings we have done mature.”

The desire to help customers successfully grow plants, despite harsh urban environment, unifies UGCs. Each of these businesses also wants to grow. However, they do have some challenges—namely expanding store space when there’s no room to expand. Chefas of Gethesemane Garden Center said this has been his biggest business obstacle.

“It is difficult to find affordable property in the city, and once you do have a location, expansion is difficult because property is not available, and it can be cost-prohibitive,” he said.

The outside entrance to Jayson's Home and Garden in Chicago.Jay Goltz owns Jayson Home and Garden in Chicago. He said limited space affects how much he can display in his store. Thus, he’s choosey on the type of products he stocks.

“Due to space constraints and customers needs, we carry very few chemicals and supplies. We focus on higher-end organic products for our chemical and fertilizer lines and offer a very limited selection. Unlike suburban garden centers, we don’t rely on this category for a chunk of sales dollars. We carry chemicals mostly for the convenience of our customers and for our own use,” Goltz said.

Goltz agreed that space has been his biggest business challenge to date. Yet his creativity kicks in to make the most of the space available. In this case, Goltz carefully selects the plant material he has on-hand for his clientele, due in part, to his lack of space.

“We use our vertical space as much as we can. I source a lot of our plants locally so we can get smaller, frequent plant shipments. By creating strong relationships with our suppliers, I can get plants fast if I need them.

“We are very particular about all of our products. We toss any plants that are not pristine and of exceptional quality. We only bring in flowers when they are blooming and hope to sell through them in a few days. I visit nurseries and greenhouses to source the best plants throughout the year. I am also always searching for new and interesting containers that will work on terraces and rooftops.”


A member of Garden Writers Association, Wendy Komancheck writes about the green industry from her home near Ephrata, Pa. E-mail wendykomancheck@gmail.com.