Nothing stands still for long in this business and adaptation is key. With a history stretching back 57 years, Meadows Farms Nurseries & Landscape is no stranger to the shifting tides of garden retail.
When Meadows Farms was founded by Bill “Farmer” Meadows in 1960, landscaping was more of a pet project for him than a business model. At the time, Farmer made his living and grew the Meadows Farms brand primarily on nursery stock and produce.
Decades later, the landscape department is growing in relevance and profitability, even overshadowing Meadows Farms’ retail operations in some areas. Bobby Lewis, Farmer’s nephew and vice president of Meadows Farms, says this wasn’t normally the case for quite some time.
“It used to be that the retail department totally carried the landscape department,” Lewis says. “Landscape lost money every year. In fact, I can remember Farmer’s wife Betty saying ‘Farmer, that’s your baby. You’re just keeping it because you like doing landscaping.’ I think landscaping has somewhat supported the retail for the last several years.”
Changing factors in the greater Virginia market, specifically the clients themselves, are likely contributors to this increasing demand for landscaping services, Lewis says.
“I think a lot more people don’t want to go out there and work their butts off landscaping their yard,” he says. “They want it to look good, but they want somebody to do it for them, especially the young adults. They have the money but they don’t have the time or the desire to do it themselves.”
Joining strengths in a new market
Along with its 19 retail garden centers, Meadows Farms operates one central landscaping facility that can send out up to 70 installation crews per day. Demand for landscaping services isn’t the only factor undergoing an evolution, Lewis says. The realities of expansion aren’t the same as they used to be, either.
The most recently added Meadows Farms location came in 2011, when an existing retailer in Richmond, Va., was purchased and re-branded as The Great Big Greenhouse & Meadows Farms Nurseries & Landscape, which was featured as a stop on the 2017 Garden Centers of America Summer Tour. You can read more about the tour in our August issue.
Lewis says this method of expansion, as opposed to building a new store from the ground up, is much more desirable. In the past, economic conditions weren’t as prohibitive towards land purchase and new construction.
“It’s become almost impossible to do that these days,” Lewis says. “It’s just too expensive. We really feel like you’re so much better off getting a place that’s already existing and permitted as a nursery. It limits you a little bit in what you can do, because you have to stay within what’s allowed, but it’s just a lot cheaper. [Some counties] make it very difficult to start a business, especially a nursery.”
In many cases, absorbing an existing store into an established brand can be complicated by clashing management styles and company cultures. At the Great Big Greenhouse however, Lewis says the integration process was a smooth one, aided by compatible strengths and philosophies.
“I feel like we [complemented] what they did product-line-wise; they were very strong in foliage, gifts and floral arrangements and stuff like that,” Lewis says. “They sold outdoor plants, but I don’t think they were as strong as we were, so we were able to use our buying power and experience in that — which is our strongest point at Meadows Farms — and I think we were able to improve the product lines they were probably the weakest on.”
After so many years involved with garden retail operations, Meadows Farms management know when a different approach is called for. When planning to break into the Richmond, Va., market, they knew a well-known brand name would serve them well. Keeping The Great Big Greenhouse’s name intact granted inroads to a loyal customer base, Lewis says.
“Normally, we’d come in and we’d make it a big deal that there was a Meadows Farms [store] coming,” he says. “Richmond is a pretty good ways from D.C. Around here, our name is pretty prominent, but down there, it wasn’t. “We realized that the Great Big Greenhouse had been doing a great job, they had a great name, people loved them. We didn’t try to force Meadows Farms on them … we just built on the strong points. Loyal customers seemed to like that.”
Another big change to the Meadows Farms brand in recent years has been the introduction of a modern POS system to the company’s retail locations. Lewis says that after three years with the system, his stores are fully acquainted and using the POS technology to full effect.
“Three years ago, we got our first ever full-blown inventory control POS system, and I think it took us two years to even get used to it. I think in this third year, we’ve really started to use it better, appreciate it, understand it and capitalize on the tool that it is. It’s allowed us to do a better job marketing, a better job buying.”
So many shifts in company operations can be taxing enough on a single-location company, let alone one with 19 stores. Lewis says Meadows Farms believes in riding out the spring, then coming together as a company to implement improvements from the top down.
“One of the things we’ve always believed in is you don’t change in-season. You ride through, you make the best decisions you can going in, and you live with it. Once you can, you evaluate and say ‘we need to change this for next year.’ You make that change, you tell your employees and everyone does that very consistently.”