Although operating four retail locations and marking more than 70 years in business is a major achievement, garden center owners know better than to rest on their laurels and get complacent.
Paul Reiner, president of Oakland Nurseries, understands this well. Originally founded in 1940, his business comprises four stores located throughout the greater Columbus, Ohio area. He also oversees Acorn Farms, a sister company that grows wholesale nursery stock. Two of the Oakland Nurseries retail locations, in the Columbus suburbs of Dublin and New Albany, also host gift shops that are run as parallel, separate businesses. The gift shops appeal to female shoppers in particular.
“They’re intertwined with Oakland Nursery, but they’re run separately. One is called Oakland Home and the other one is called Inside and Out,” Reiner says. “It’s another way, in my opinion, to draw customers on a more year-round basis.”
Juggling so many angles of a business isn’t easy, but Reiner says the variety of services and resources is necessary for creating the most value for his customers.
“It is challenging but I think you have to take it as a challenge, too,” he says. “It’s not a part-time job. It’s a seven-day-a-week job in season, 24/7. You have to really be involved in it. The market changes all the time and you have to be competitive. There are challenges from the [big box stores] but you have to present value to the public. If you’re not presenting value to the public, you’re going to lose.”
Going big, year round
By leveraging the broad depth of nursery stock at his disposal, Reiner is able to offer what he believes is the largest selection in his region. Customers have come to rely on Oakland Nurseries for its variety of trees, shrubs and woody ornamentals, ranging from one-gallon plants to six-inch trees.
Reiner says the market responded well throughout most of the 2016 season, adding that sales are up over last year — for which he gives partial credit to recent physical and structural improvements at the New Albany store. He expects sales to continue performing into the fall. Oakland keeps active through the end of the year with robust Christmas tree sales and community events.
“I think the fall is a completely different dimension for us,” Reiner says. “What we do is we don’t sit still and try to sell off old nursery stock. We bring in a lot of fresh nursery stock, and we have a very extended fall season. We are also probably one of the largest Christmas tree sellers, in several states. Besides the four stores, we run seven out-lots [that sell] Christmas trees. So, we’ve extended extremely well.
Reiner says Oakland also runs a variety of events through the fall, including a “national pumpkin weigh-off” at the company’s Dublin store, among many others.
“We have our fall festival, where we have pig races in Columbus,” Reiner says. “We have pie-eating and chili contests, and then in November, we have an extremely large ladies’ night out. That function has really grown over the years.”
As a company with a long history in the region, a strength of Oakland Nurseries is the array of seasonal events that keep customers coming back and build brand loyalty within the community.
“We try to engage the community quite often in a lot of these functions, especially in the fall, where I think you have to run special functions and specialties to attract enough volume,” Reiner says.
Some of the most iconic and well-attended of these functions are the yearly Christmas displays built at Oakland stores, complete with free chili, “Santa House” installations and visits from Saint Nick himself. Reiner says these events are closely tied to the history of the business and create long-term relationships with patrons.
“This goes way back, it isn’t just something that we’ve done the last several years; I’ve been doing it a long time,” Reiner says. “It intertwines yourself with the community, especially at Christmas.”
Reiner says he sometimes meets customers buying Christmas trees who were once children that attended Oakland Nursery holiday events and became loyal customers.
“They just like the Christmas atmosphere,” he says.
One thing at a time
Looking ahead to the 2017 season, Reiner says priorities for Oakland Nurseries will be more focused on improving current assets and less on building new garden centers, gift shops and other structures. New construction is costly and can be a big gamble in most markets, but getting comfortable is still out of the question.
“We [will] probably just develop the stores that we have, maybe cross-merchandise somewhat more,” Reiner says. “As far as building something; not this year. Every year, we’ve had building going on, but I don’t want to take the whole world on. But we’re not sitting still, that’s for sure.”