Onward and upward

Features - 2019 State of the Industry Report | Market Update

Garden centers are optimistic about the future of the market and embracing change to move their businesses forward.

September 11, 2019

As the market changes and technology advances, IGC owners everywhere are trying new things, launching new initiatives and finding innovative ways to bring in new customers. Read on to see how garden centers are embracing change, growing their businesses and handling new challenges in the following stories:

Keeping up with the Keulmanns

Old Country Gardens has a positive outlook on the garden industry now and onward.

For 49 years, Old Country Gardens has served the affluent community of New Castle, Delaware. And as one of the only garden centers in the area, it continues to stay afloat with the help of its market.

“There’s a lot of wealth so we have a high clientele,” says Stephen Keulmann, manager and son of the founding owners. “But the main reason we’ve grown quite a bit is because of the lack of competition. Over the years, they’ve dwindled and gone out of business, and now we’re just about the only garden center left in Delaware.”

Keulmann believes other garden centers closed when owners approached retirement and had no one to continue the business. At 63 years old, with three uninterested children, he aims to maintain the garden center by selling the business. However, until that time, Keulmann will continue selling popular items like succulents, perennials, annuals, houseplants and pottery.

He sees growth opportunities with landscape, design and maintenance. As for the garden center, he wants to add more native plants to his selection.

While his garden center does well, Keulmann continues to face common labor challenges. With only 33 employees — 12 of whom are full-time — it’s difficult to find qualified help to cover his 2,500 square foot store, especially during peak season.

Another challenge he faces is Old

Country Gardens’ image. Considering its prosperous environment, Keulmann says his customers “perceive higher prices with quality.” So much, that he’s had to raise prices to maintain its image.

“About two years ago, the herbs and vegetables at Home Depot and Lowe’s were 50 cents higher than us. Here, we have that image that we’re expensive … but they were going there and paying more,” Keulmann says. “I had to raise my prices. I really didn’t want to, but I had to raise a dollar just to be 50 cents more than Home Depot,” he says. “...There’s a lot of millionaires around here, they don’t care about money. It’s all about the ambiance.”

While some fear a possible recession, Keulmann believes otherwise. He even has a positive outlook if one arises. “The recession sometimes doesn’t hurt garden centers because more people stay home,” he says. “When they stay home, they do more home things and gardening will be a big one.”

All in all, Keulmann says he’s hopeful for the garden industry and says the key is providing quality product, good service and keeping up with demand.

“That’s what we’ve done all these years,” he says. “And we still maintain that and our customers.”

— Sierra Allen

As one of the only garden centers in Delaware, Old Country Gardens offers a surplus of succulents, perennials, annuals and houseplants.
For five generations, Moscarillo’s Garden Shoppe has supplied Connecticut with quality plants, pottery and annuals.

Traditional values with a new outlook

As a staple in its community, Moscarillo’s Garden Shoppe combats challenges by implementing new customer-based conveniences.

Since 1933, Moscarillo’s Garden Shoppe in Connecticut — located in Torrington and West Hartford — has provided its community and surrounding towns with plants, flowers and landscaping. With 86 years in the industry, Moscarillo’s has adjusted to market trends, labor difficulties and recessions, and plan to continue doing so.

RJ Domack, a fifth generation Moscarillo and manager of the West Hartford location, says that compared to last year, the market in their area is flat with an older customer base. However, West Hartford has a vibrant downtown with walkable restaurants and nightlife, he’s starting to see a lot of people in their 30s move in and is hopeful for their business.

Domack has noticed a trend in house plants, along with the popularity of pottery and grab and go containers. However, due to the climate in Connecticut, annuals are still the biggest profit for the garden center. “It’s a long winter in Connecticut,” Domack says.

Another profitable department is the landscaping service, which he plans to grow since it’s already doing 20% of the business just five years in. Along with landscaping, he also plans to continue his floral service, which consists of a floral team of members from the Connecticut Floral Association and Society of American Florists. The team helps with events from company conferences, bar and bat mitzvahs, to galas and weddings. They’ve even received positive reviews from The Knot, a popular wedding planning application and website.

Despite the long-term success and upkeeps, Domack is wondering when the next recession will arrive. “We’re due for another one,” he says. With hopes of minimizing the hit, he says they’re trying to shift their market and sell online to florists. Along with that, they’re in the works of having soils and mulches available for delivery and drive-through pick up.

“I got the idea from a customer who called me and says, “I have two kids in the car. I just want to pull up and load in.” I told him a year later, “That’s up there because of you,” Domack says with a chuckle.

Much like other retail stores, Domack is trying to keep up with internet buying, which is why he implemented delivery and drive-through pick up.

“I’m trying to make it easier for people to buy,” Domack says. “Everyone instantly pulls out their phone and looks up where something is. [The challenge] is staying relevant because you’re competing against Amazon where on one app, they can buy every single thing they sell.”


— Sierra Allen


Expansion and investment

Holly Days Nursery is seizing the opportunity to grow its garden center.

A strong economy, great location and growing housing market are helping Holly Days Nursery stay successful. So successful, in fact, that the Ambler, Pennsylvania, store is planning a significant expansion, quadrupling its footprint.

The garden center sits across the street from a golf course that was recently sold to a development company. “That can certainly only help us in the long run,” says Paul Faulkner, vice president of nursery operations.

At the same time, the intersection up the street from them is turning into a shopping district, which will also help. “We just happened to be sitting on 7 acres right here in the middle of that. So that’s also a big driving part of that expansion.

Faulkner says the wholesale and landscape design/build portions of the business are strong, but the garden center has the most potential for expansion.

Over the next year or two, the company will be making a significant investment. “It’s one that we are very confident will pay huge dividends for us,” Faulkner says.

Perennials, annual color and outdoor living are all selling well and Holly Days has seen a lot of growth there. Container nursery items are also strong and a re-investment in birding is performing well for them. They’re also well known for their ponds, tropicals and large palm trees. But outdoor living, in particular, will be expanding with more high-end offerings, casual outdoor dining.

“The pottery has been doing well and with the proper space and the proper display capabilities, we think that’s going to be an area that really takes off for us,” Faulkner says.

As they expand, staffing will continue to be their No. 1 problem. But Faulkner isn’t sitting by the sidelines on that problem. He’s working with his congressman to see what they can do to help ease labor pains in their landscape division with the H-2B program.

As for the recession on the horizon, Faulkner says the garden center will be careful about their capital purchases and a lot of those decisions will be made on the fly. “You can’t cut your inventory expecting that there might be a recession. Let’s say things work out with China and things improve instead of declining. If you cut your inventory, you don’t have anything to sell. So a lot of it is being careful along the way.”

— Kate Spirgen

Location has been a boon for Holly Days Nursery in Ambler, Pennsylvania. The 7-acre garden center is seeing exciting developments nearby plus a new shopping center up the street coming soon.
Paul Faulkner, vice president of Holly Days, says the garden center division of the business has the most potential to grow.

Profitable projects

Strong shrub sales and a booming landscape division helped Autumn Hill Nursery have a successful 2019.

Eric Hill, co-owner of Autumn Hill Nursery & Landscape with his wife Kari, says there has been an uptick in sales in 2019.

“People seem to be taking on projects again rather than just decorating,” he says. That’s good news for the Georgia IGC, because Eric considers their business more of a “project” nursery. Annuals only make up about 25% of Autumn Hill’s plant sales. In 2019, the company noted increased sales of trees and shrubs — which are its most profitable crop. And its landscaping division, which is the most profitable part of the business, has been busy installing all those plants.

Autumn Hill’s location, outside of Atlanta, has been booming. A strong economy and housing market have led to lots of new construction, which in turn has led to lots of work. However, Hill knows it can be fleeting.

“For us, it seems like it’s almost all or nothing,” Hill says. “So many of the businesses here are actual services. It all ties together. If the building industry drops off, it just follows everything all the way down to the local mechanics and the local paint shops. We are feeling like we’re going to be in good shape with all the new growth around us — until the next housing bubble bursts.”

The biggest challenge Autumn Hill faces is marketing their business. Social media hasn’t really worked for them, with the exception of using Facebook to drive attendance to their workshops and events.

“It doesn’t work for us for selling, so we just throw out pretty pictures, funny pictures, things like that to at least put our name in front of people,” Hill says.

In addition, the more traditional ways of marketing — magazines, newspapers — don’t work anymore, either, he says. To combat this situation, Autumn Hill is spending 80% of its marketing budget on its existing customers and website. They believe there is still untapped potential in those loyal customers, so they’ve focused on increasing their average sale and giving them a reason to visit the store more frequently throughout the year.

The feedback Hill receives is that people come to his garden center to get inspired. He knows people don’t shop at Autumn Hill for convenience or price. The crew at the IGC try to build relationships with their customers by giving them a place where they can geek out about gardening or learn something new at a workshop. Hill has made it a fun place for the whole family with donkeys and goats to pet, fish to feed and chickens and two cats meandering the grounds.

“It’s a little easier dragging your kids here than The Home Depot,” he says.

— Matt McClellan

Autumn Hill Nursery & Landscape formed a garden club, the Grateful Deadheaders, to give their most passionate customers a place to share their ideas and creativity in a social setting.

An unusual take to garden center attractions

Wilson’s Lifestyle Center offers a unique approach to consumer experience.

For Steve Wilson and his brother Colin, staying ahead of market trends is no issue. What started as a seasonal 60,000 square foot greenhouse has now grown into a year-round, 165,000 square foot garden center, which is accompanied by a five-story greenhouse. In 2001, they founded Wilson’s Greenhouse in Saskatchewan, Canada, but have grown into what is now considered a destination garden center. As co-owners of Wilson’s Lifestyle Center, they offer shoppers an experience filled with entertainment and eatery, along with garden supplies and more.

Inspired by their travels to the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Europe, the Wilson brothers built a European garden center with a special touch —attractions. Shoppers can visit the Garden Centre, purchase home décor, get their dog groomed at the Hollywoof salon, buy horse track supplies at the Greenhawk Equestrian Sport store and enjoy the Stocked Centre where ziplining and indoor go-karting is available, along with a bouncy house and arcade.

Steve compared the center to Dave and Buster’s — a family-friendly sports bar and arcade in the U.S. “We have a family entertainment center that’s part of the retail experience, so we take it to the next level,” he says.

With the help of Google Analytics, Steve concluded that the amount of time people spend at their center has gone from 30 minutes to two and a half hours. “People get hungry and thirsty, their kids don’t want to leave, and we have options here so they don’t,” he says. “It works out really well.” However, even with attractions, the Wilson brothers face common challenges with labor and competition. While labor issues have lessened since they’ve been year-round, Steve recalls a time where he had trouble finding qualified staff who returned the following season. Now, he’s able to offer a continuous job with good benefits, but still face small training and staff issues. Along with that, their garden center is competing with popular big-box stores.

“The biggest challenge in the garden center portion is competition from Costco and Home Depots,” Steve says. “Costco has been our biggest challenge. We grow our own plants at a large volume and actually sell them at a similar price as Costco, but people just assume that Costco is going to be cheaper and don’t realize that ours are a lot better.” Despite the competition however, the garden center remains their biggest source of profit because they grow their own plants.

Along with big-box chains, much like other retail stores, the Wilson brothers are competing with Amazon, which is another reason for their unique center.

“When you go to Amazon, you can’t go ziplining and you don’t have the entertainment, so we’re kind of ahead of everybody because no one has really done that,” Steve says. “The key is getting [people] here so they can see what you have to offer.”

— Sierra Allen

Wilson’s Lifestyle Center offers adventure and entertainment, along with garden supplies, home decor, pet grooming and more.

A high speed year

For Plants of Texas, 2019 was a year of endurance and education.

Despite a complete rebuild after a tornado wrecked its retail center, Plants of Texas had a strong year. Brenda Swagerty, retail garden manager and grower at Plants of Texas, says the Lindale, Texas, retail center was 100% demolished during an F1 tornado that hit April 18. The garden center lost about $30,000 in retail product, which doesn’t include displays and structures.

“We found a 30-gallon Nellie R. Stevens holly about 500 yards from us — still in the bucket,” she says. “We’re kind of proud of that.”

Even with the difficulties that are part of rebuilding, Swagerty says it was an encouraging year. Sales were still up 17%. The weather has been a major factor in the year’s challenges.

“The rain, starting in Fall 2018 and continuing well through April and May here, we thought would absolutely destroy us, and then being destroyed by a tornado was quite interesting, but we ended up coming up on the green side of the book,” Swagerty says.

Certain plants are driving the numbers.

“Everyone’s seen the succulent market has gone ballistic,” she says.

Perennials have also been strong for the last three years running, increasing each year by a considerable amount. Tree sales were down in 2019 for Plants of Texas, which was a surprise because so many trees needed to be replaced due to drought, storms and the influx of tornadoes.

One aspect of its business that Plants of Texas focused on in 2019 was drawing in the Millennial crowd and incorporating it with the older generations. Towards that goal, the business is building a larger facility – about triple the size – that includes a retail patio. This area is designed to inspire their customers, with gardens, retail-driven merchandising areas, vignettes and waterfalls.

“Things that are fun but not overwhelm[ing] people, things that we think people can do and create and will thrive in both a sun and shade locations,” Swagerty says. “We’re going to have a desert area, we’re going to have an overly-wet area. We’re going to have your basic solutions for people that they can see in the ground.”

The building will be offset at an odd angle, so there will be areas that have pockets of too much sun or not enough sun. Plants of Texas plans to use these sections to teach its customers how that environment can affect your plants.

As a small IGC, Plants of Texas has found that education is a key differentiator between it and its competitors. Swagerty leads monthly classes on topics ranging from creating container pots that can be enjoyed year-round, to how to prune an azalea vs. a rose bush, or a popular ‘what’s digging in my yard?’ class that helps homeowners use the holes in the ground to identify whether they might have a gopher or an armadillo.

Swagerty’s had several classes on the crape myrtle bark scale, a pest that’s quite troublesome in her region. She’s also made the information from her talks available through blog posts on the garden center’s website. It all comes down to customer service.

“I truly believe that so much of it depends on training your customers to be customers,” she says. “[Offering help with] things that most homeowners just don’t understand. And once it’s explained to them, they have the answers they need to move forward.”

— Matt McClellan

Serious success

Vice President Graham Hill

A new digital presence and resurrected workshops are helping Platt Hill Nursery grow.

In the western suburbs of Chicago, Platt Hill Nursery is seeing growth they haven’t seen in years. A new digital presence and educational programs are driving more traffic to the store, says Vice President Graham Hill.

The company recently launched some new marketing initiatives and brought in some bigger product lines. And it doesn’t hurt that a couple of competing garden centers nearby closed their doors.

Platt Hill Nursery, with locations in Bloomingdale and Carpentersville, Illinois, was heavily reliant on direct mail with little to no digital presence. They got started with a new and improved website, making sure it’s mobile-friendly. Then they started Google ad word campaigns and Facebook ads to generate traffic to their website and the store.

And it’s working as revenues continue to grow. The company’s Facebook traffic is up 35% across the spring, and up 40% in the past few months.

Platt recently relaunched some of their workshops, seminars and activities programs that are outperforming their goals. Besides the traditional education, the IGC is hosting workshops where customers come in to make planters, terrariums and “anything related to plants,” Hill says.

When they relaunched they set a goal of 400 people per location. As of late August, they were already at 650 per location. “So we still have a long way to go but it did look like the initial steps were very helpful,” Hill says. “We tried to make it so that it’s easily replicated year over year. Our classes and programs were poorly documented and so a lot went into the rework.”

Hill says anything related to services is continuing to grow for them Their planting crews have been busy all year and they’re booked solid through September while their landscaping crew has a six-week backlog.

Ready-to-go planters saw huge growth this year, perhaps due to better in-store positioning. Hill says customers have also been asking for larger plant material, possibly due to the bad winter. “Our big stuff is selling very, very quickly so expanding that was a good call this year.”

— Kate Spirgen