Building a destination that people want to spend time at is the mission of American Plant, a 95-year old garden center in its third generation of family ownership. Marketing Manager Gina DeMatteis explains how a focus on organic gardening, community-centric events and strong giftware offerings allows American Plant to capture its metropolitan clientele and keep them coming back.
Garden Center: What do you want customers to get from a visit to American Plant?
Gina DeMatteis: We say that a trip to American Plant should be an experience, not just an errand you have to run. Our locations offer a piece of tranquility and excitement all wrapped up in one visit. We really have everything you need for your home, indoors and out. You can get your garden supplies, your annuals, your perennials, trees and shrubs. Our lifestyle boutique is a great gift destination, and then we have greenhouses that have top-of-the-line orchids and houseplants, and we do custom arrangements. So, the only thing we don’t do is fresh flowers, like floral design.
GC: What can you tell me about American Plant’s other offerings?
GD: We do have a design center at one location, where [our] landscaping [department] has an office. It’s a house on the property where the designers created an outdoor living space, so it’s a showcase for customers when they come to meet with the designers. There’s a formal patio with a fireplace, a casual in-ground firepit, a succulent garden, and a little bonsai area, so it’s a nice example of what our landscape designers can do for the customer.
GC: I understand that American Plant is also known for being a fully organic store. How did that come about?
GD: We took the lead [on the organic movement] in 2000. We went organic because the boys who are the generation running [the business] now — the three brothers — their mom was diagnosed with lymphoma. So, we pulled all of the toxic chemicals off the shelves and went organic, which was pretty controversial back then. But, we stuck to it and of course now ... people are really appreciating that. Our signature topsoil and pine soil is organic. We’re very conscious about the environment.
We’ve thought about the needs for urban people who have balconies — our garden supplies have these great containers for growing herbs that involve easy watering and filtering, and we have little greenhouses to grow herbs [indoors]. We’re trying to cover everybody’s lifestyle needs, whether you live in a big house or in a studio apartment.” – GINA DEMATTEIS, MARKETING MANAGER, AMERICAN PLANT
GC: Another thing American Plant is known for is the home-brewed compost tea, which is advertised on your website. Could you extrapolate on that?
GD: We brew it on weekends, it restores and increases the populations of beneficial microorganisms. It improves the nutritional quality of plants, the soil structure, water infiltration, oxygen diffusion and water retention. It retains nitrogen and trace minerals through chelation. It makes nutrients bio-available at the times and rates that the plants require. It produces hormones that help plants grow and stay healthy. So, it’s really just feeding your soil to make it the best energy that the plants can absorb. You have to use it within four to six hours of brewing it, so it’s fresh and strong. You can put it on your grass, too. There are millions of live, beneficial organisms in it that help your grass and the environment and soil. We’ll brew a certain amount and then bottle it. It’s perishable, like any natural herbal product. The potency won’t last long. You need to use it within a certain amount of hours. It says ‘[use within] four to six hours of brewing,’ and to apply it as soon as you get home.
GC: I know events for holidays and other special occasions are popular at American Plant. What would you say are the biggest ones?
GD: We do a lot of seasonal things for the community. Our staff creates a haunted house at each location. So, we have a lot of creative people on board who want to create these things and really excite our customers, which is fun. We’ll do a movie night for the kids — they bring their sleeping bags and we make popcorn and cider. But, we’re right in town, so you can just pop over at night, buy your pumpkins, watch a movie and go through the haunted house — you don’t have to drive an hour away. We do the same thing over the holidays; it’s free to come and talk to Santa Claus, get your picture taken with him. We try to create that warmth with people. We give a lot of donations to the auctions and the local high schools, because a lot of our seasonal staff are students.
[At Christmas], we [sell] the six-foot Frasier Fir that’s absolutely beautiful, and we do it at a really competitive price. People just love it because you can stop, do the Santa visit, get your tree, buy your gifts, you can have custom arrangements made. We have a wreath counter in both stores [during] the holidays, where you can pick your base wreath and then we’ll make custom bows for you and add to it. You can add little ornaments, and we have all the accouterments for the wreathes, so we’re kind of famous for that around the holidays. We just started doing new events in the past year and a half. We’ve been doing after-hours events, like [making] succulent arrangements, terrariums and fall containers. We did an herb event, and the annuals manager we have at one location’s brother is a chef. He came and did a little talk on how you can muddle herbs in your cooking and drinks, and he actually made a sampling that customers could try. We got a great response from the events so we’re continuing to do that.
GC: How has this year been so far? Were there any challenges this spring?
GD: It was a late spring. We thought [the weather] was going to be [a problem], but people got so anxious that when they came in, they came in full-force. They came in again and again. Our parking lots were just jamming in both locations as soon as we got that little taste of spring/summer. Right now, it’s been a little bit of a quiet time, but that’s just because August is the big vacation month. It’s also a good time for us to breathe and start getting ready for fall. Right now, we’re starting to recreate the lifestyle boutique toward fall, and get ready for the pumpkins, and the haunted houses are already in production. We need that little bit of downtime and really, this is the only time of year that we get it. People were still coming in late summer, getting hanging baskets and things because, I think, they were so anxious to create their gardens and embellish their front porches with color and containers. Then we had that rain spell where, if you had annuals planted in your containers, they just got drenched. That actually worked in our benefit, because everyone came back to replenish after the rains, so we’ve been stocked all summer.
GC: Any final thoughts on what you think helps American Plant stand out in the industry?
GD: We’ve thought about the needs for urban people who have balconies — our garden supplies have these great containers for growing herbs that involve easy watering and filtering, and we have little greenhouses to grow herbs [indoors]. We’re trying to cover everybody’s lifestyle needs, whether you live in a big house or in a studio apartment.
In a region known for premier tourism and cutting-edge retail, Molbak’s Garden + Home goes beyond holding its own. With more than six decades rooted in Washington’s wine country, just a 30-minute drive from downtown Seattle, the Woodinville, Wash., independent garden center is redefining the garden, home and gift experience.
Vast selection, inspirational displays and exceptional staff
By virtue of size alone, Molbak’s garners preferred destination status. The 17-acre property’s live goods area covers 56,000-plus square feet. Add the 8,010-square-foot Garden Store and Home + Gift’s nearly 17,000 square feet, and chances are they have what you need. But Molbak’s is known for more than size and selection.
When customers walk in either of the store’s main entrances, Store Manager for Hard Goods Susan Burchak expects two reactions to Molbak’s elaborate displays: surprise and delight.
“We do our best to bring in a great selection of products and visually get it out there,” Burchak explains. “Our displays knock it out of the park. They’re absolutely beautiful and give a lot of inspiration and ideas to people.”
This year, the Garden entrance transformed into a “garden theater” with an ever-changing selection of peak plants, from spring edibles to prime perennials, while the Home + Gift entrance celebrates the excitement of each new season with lifestyle selections.
The full impact of Molbak’s comes courtesy of a staff that’s passionate about the products, but also about working at the IGC.
“[Our knowledgeable staff members] care about Molbak’s and care about the customers,” Burchak says. “We want to connect people to their gardens and homes through what we sell. I feel good every day about the people that I work with, and I think that comes across [at the store].”
Trends in indoor plants and containers fueling growth
Live Goods staff reports that indoor plants, particularly succulents, are still rising strongly. In hard goods, not surprisingly, the houseplant craze feeds increased container sales.
“Our indoor containers are so popular,” Burchak says. “It goes with that trend of indoor. People are really wanting to bring those elements inside and decorate with them. Indoor containers have just been growing along with indoor plants.” Macramé hangers have staged a comeback along with other accessories.
Burchak sees a transgenerational trend toward smaller living spaces behind increased indoor-related sales. “We see people living more in smaller spaces. I think that’s definitely why this increased,” she says. “But I think that people are really excited to refresh their indoors, and what’s popular now is comfortable, easy things.”
Other strong areas include accents and pollinator plants. “Our accents have been a really big thing for us this spring, for people really wanting to add that special touch to their garden,” Burchak says. Popular items include spinning garden wheels, giant faces and rustic farm animal décor.
Burchak has also noticed continued interest in pollinator plants. “Customers have really been talking about the eco-systems, and people have been hearing that in the world in general, so pollinators are doing really well,” Burchak says.
In-store tours turn overwhelmed into entertained and informed
With a store this size, reactions such as, “Gosh, it’s so large,” or “I didn’t know you had this” aren’t unexpected. But the Molbak’s team turned this potential disadvantage into opportunity with store tours that started earlier this year.
“During our busy seasons, we do store tours for people,” Burchak says. “We do them a couple times during the day on the weekends, and we’ll expand that going into the holidays.”
Well-received by customers and staff, the 45-minute tours take people through the store — no behind-the-scenes peeks included — highlighting the product range and sharing bits of Molbak’s history. “We also find that people coming in with out-of-town guests or family that don’t live close by really enjoy that special touch,” Burchak says.
Associates talk with customers about the tours, and overhead announcements signal their start. Associates conducting the tours also carry signs so other shoppers know what’s happening and feel free to join in. Groups typically comprise about 10 people.
[Our knowledgeable staff members] care about Molbak’s and care about the customers. We want to connect people to their gardens and homes through what we sell. I feel good every day about the people that I work with, and I think that comes across [at the store].” – SUSAN BURCHAK, STORE MANAGER FOR HARD GOODS, MOLBAK’S GARDEN + HOME
Staying in step with customer expectations and preferences
Staying competitive and cutting-edge in the fast-growing, fast-changing Pacific Northwest demands reaching a new generation of gardeners and continuing to reach and inspire an existing generation.
“Keeping up-to-date for our customers, and making sure we find all the newest things can be a challenge, especially in plants,” Burchak says. “But our buyers do a really great job of sourcing out new and different things every season.”
She also sees social media as a key component in staying in step with change. “You have to keep up-to-date on social media, because that’s one way [customers] like to connect.” She points to the prevalence of airiums, terrariums, and succulents on Pinterest and other social platforms. “Keep up socially on what’s going on out there,” she says.
The IGC responds to emerging trends with lifestyle and educational options, from the on-site garden café and wine bar to educational seminars on topics such as food preservation techniques, including trendy fermentation and dehydration.
New display concepts meld nursery, home and gift into one
Trying to categorize Molbak’s as either “garden” or “home” ignores their innovative melding of the two. A new concept store within the store, just opened in mid-August, exemplifies their success.
Called “The Wedge,” the new area stands out visually from other departments. “It’s a little different display concept than we’ve used in the past,” Burchak explains. “It is devoted to featuring the best Molbak’s has to offer in one location.”
The Wedge offers indoor décor, indoor containers, succulents, low-light plants, candles, gifts and more. “We’ve done a lot of color schemes in there. It’s pretty simple. It’s very modern, and it seems to be attracting all generations.
“I’m really excited to see what our customers gravitate to in there and get their feedback for likes and dislikes,” she adds. “I think it’s going to be a lot more likes.”
With this latest example of how Molbak’s pushes the envelope, Burchak notes that inspiration is all around — if you just step out far enough and look.
“It’s important not just to look at other nurseries. We try to look at other businesses in general,” she says. “It might be an industry that has nothing to do with gardens. We look and see what they’re doing that maybe we could take and bring here.”
Taking care of your customers can get you far in business, but a specific plan for expansion is also important. Russ Bedner, owner and CEO of Bedner’s Farm & Greenhouse, explains how he plants to capitalize on his company’s strengths to become an even greater asset to his community.
Garden Center: On top of retailing, I understand you also grow, deliver and install much of your own plant material. Can you tell me more about that and your other departments?
Russ Bedner: We have the nursery end of things, which would include perennials, trees and shrubs. We also have a landscape division now, which started about four years ago, and that stemmed from the nursery division — people [were] coming in and wanting some larger trees and [saying], “Well we can’t take it home, can you deliver it?” And then we would deliver it and then we started getting questions [such as], “well, can you plant it for us too?” And then it was like, “Well, can you come and design some flower beds for us?” So it kind of evolved to now, where we’re a full-service landscaper. We do boulder walls, waterfalls, patios and outdoor living spaces. Annual-wise, we sell bedding flats and bedding plants. We have a hard good section to include chemicals and fertilizers, retail soil and decorative pieces for your garden, pottery and some other decorative pieces, [including] fairy garden stuff. One of our main things that we’re known for is our hanging basket combinations and our different sizes and styles of baskets that we carry. Another thing is our custom containers and container gardens. We come up with some very unusual mixes that people can’t find anywhere else, and we have a nice selection of six-inch and gallon material that is unusual that people tend to tend to come to us for. People know that they can come to us and find some unique things that they don’t see anywhere else.
GC: Could you tell me more about how your custom container department works?
RB: We have some really unique pieces that people bring in that they’ve gotten in other parts of the country or even overseas. They’ll bring them in to us, and we will plant them for them and call them when they’re finished. They will either drop them off with us over winter, and since we actually grow on-site and we start planting things basically at the beginning of February, they can drop them off, and we can plant them up early or we can do them actually in season, in May, whenever [customers] come out to start their shopping. We have a form that we have all made out for them; if they want certain colors that they are looking for, or certain sunlight conditions or any certain plants that they want specifically in there. They can actually pick out the plants that they want in there if they want to, or it goes all the way to the other extreme and [they say] “Well, just give me some purples and pinks in there, and it’s for sun.” We have a lot of comments like “You guys do such an awesome job, I’ll let you just figure it out yourself.” So we have a few people on staff, one of whom is my mother, and she comes up with combinations and puts everything together. We have my mom and two other people on staff that take care of planting those things up. We get some huge planters — sometimes they’re too large for customers, and we’ll actually go out and pick them up for them and bring them back. Once they’re finished, we’ll deliver them back to them. So, we have that as an option, as well.
GC: I also noticed that you host an annual fall fest. How long have you been doing that?
RB: It is newer. I’d say it’s around six years old. It started off fairly small, and it’s been growing ever since. It consists of a corn maze, and you can pick your own pumpkin. It’s a hay ride out into the fields and [guests] hop off, and there’s a bunch of different, smaller activities for the kids to do. There’s what we call a pumpkin launch, where there are big slingshots where people can shoot pumpkins into the ponds, and we have like all kinds of targets in the pond and around the pond they can try to hit. There’s a little barrel train that we take the smaller kids for a ride around the fields on, and then we have a two-acre corn maze that people can go through. We have a couple of different little mini mazes that the smaller kids can play in, as well.
GC: Do you have any big plans for the future, as far as renovations or additions?
RB: I started making wine about four years ago and, probably within the next month or so, I’m going to start to sell it. So, one of the big plans for that is to open it up and have it as its own separate building, like a winery and an event center. People could come and rent the space if they wanted to hold a shower or a corporate event or something of that nature. Another thing that we’re looking to get into is a deli, so having some on-site food.
We actually have a food truck now, which we started two years. We’re getting our feet wet with it, seeing how that works. So, we’re taking baby steps in that respect, but we want to have a real place to eat. So [customers] will meet up with [friends], hang out, spend a few hours here and buy flowers together and stuff like that. Another thing that we’re going to have in the mix for the upcoming year is that we’re going to become more focused on [becoming] a community place to come and learn things. So we’re going to be holding more events and more educational seminars.
Our customer service is our main thing, I would say. We strive for far and beyond what most other retailers do.” – RUSS BEDNER, OWNER AND CEO, BEDNER’S FARM & GREENHOUSE
We’re looking into doing maybe some girl scout and boy scout [sessions] so they can actually come and gain some badges — more school field trips and corporate events that can utilize our farm to escape from the city. We want to have a structure that may be a part of the winery — we haven’t quite figured it out yet. We’ve got some good ideas, but, [the goal is] having that facility that we hold some classes and events in. Our mission is to become more community-oriented and to educate — we want to be like a service for the community.
GC: Any final thoughts on what sets Bedner’s apart?
RB: Our customer service is our main thing, I would say. We strive for far and beyond what most other retailers do. We strive for that customer service, and that’s what we’ve built. That’s what my dad started with. People came to him just for his customer service and [his way] of finding what they needed when they wanted it and taking care of them. I still have customers that come to the store and they say, “Hey, I bought a Christmas tree off of your grandfather.” I’ve never even met my grandfather. He died before I was born. So that’s how long and loyal our customers have been with us.