Like many independent garden centers, Merrifield Garden Center was built on a foundation of friendship and family. It is uniquely forging its way forward-focusing on fun, food and even customers’ love for Fido.
A dream of neighbors Bob Warhurst and Buddy Williams, along with their spouses Billie Jean and Doris, Merrifield Garden Center became a reality in the spring of 1971. They opened their first location just outside the Capital Beltway and the growing population of the Washington, D.C, metro area.
To say that Merrifield is a family affair is a slight understatement. You’ll find more than 30 members and three generations from both sides of the founding families working in the business. They also have more than two dozen employees who’ve been with them 25 years or more. Owner Bob Warhurst says, “We think our unique family dynamics translates into better customer service.”
Merrifield remains relevant in several ways. For more than 20 years they’ve been reaching consumers each week through their live television show, Merrifield’s Gardening Advisor. It airs on Saturday morning from 8 to 9 and is hosted by Bob’s daughter Debbie Warhurst Capp. The program is an opportunity to educate consumers on gardening and helps define Merrifield as the go-to garden center expert as well as provide a chance to market their products and services.
Bob’s son, manager Kevin Warhurst, says that while the show is a lot of work, they continue to receive positive feedback, and they know it brings people into their stores. Merrifield offers free seminars on Saturday mornings at 10 from September through December and late January through April. Kevin says they consistently have customers who say they were prompted to attend the seminar or shop for products that were featured on that morning’s show.
Merrifield is also stimulating store traffic by appealing to customers’ need to feed themselves and the love of their four-legged friends. Their Gainesville store boasts a 2,500 square foot dog park, the only one located in Prince of William County, which is open during regular store hours. Customers can bring in man’s best friend for a romp in the park and then take them inside the store (on a leash of course) where they’ll help their owners choose from an array of dog treats, toys and more. They also host a canine Halloween costume contest each year and award prizes for Most Unique, Funniest, Scariest, Best Kisser, Cutest and Grand Prize categories.
Like many IGCs, food has become a way to attract and keep shoppers at their store. Merrifield boasts cafés at both their Merrifield (open seasonally) and Gainesville locations (open year round). They offer freshly prepared meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can even enjoy a beer or glass of wine with your meal! Kevin says this way customers won’t cut their shopping time short to go elsewhere to eat. He says they also get office workers who will stop in for lunch just to get away and be in a different environment. Consumers can view recipes for some of their most popular dishes on the company website so they can make the dishes at home. But who are we kidding? It will never taste as good as eating and enjoying it in the Merrifield atmosphere surrounded by beautiful flowers and foliage.
Q: What has been the most effective marketing tool for you, especially for younger generations?
A: Merrifield does so many different types of marketing that Kevin finds it hard to say which individual effort is the most effective. Their TV show has worked very well. It airs each Saturday and their gardening experts discuss different gardening, landscaping and decorating topics.
Kevin says that their free gardening classes are a great way to bring people into the stores to learn more about all kinds of gardening topics, too. Social media channels, such as Facebook and Pinterest, have also helped Merrifield market their business to all of their customers, but especially younger ones who may be new to gardening.
Q: What do you do to gain repeat customers?
A: More than anything, Merrifield tries to gain repeat customers by taking great care of them each and every time they come in to shop. This way they hope customers will want to come back again and again. They run weekly specials at different times throughout the year, along with other sales and promotions.
They hold a lot of special events at all three of their stores. Whether it’s free gardening classes, Ladies Night Out or a visit to Santa Claus, Kevin says they try to have fun and interesting events that customers will enjoy. He explained they give away a lot of free tickets to professional sporting events, concerts and other special events and that customers really seem to enjoy this.
Q: How do you get feedback from customers and employees?
A: Customers usually give feedback in the store or through phone calls, emails and social media channels, such as Facebook. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, Kevin says they get back to each customer promptly and then try and followup on their comment or suggestion, whether it’s praising an employee or fixing a problem. Employees typically give their feedback directly to their manager or supervisor and then the family and management discuss those comments as they arise.
Q: What training or continuing education opportunities do you offer your employees?
A: Merrifield trains all of its employees for the jobs that they will be doing and puts a particular emphasis on customer service. Technology has made training so much easier, but Kevin thinks the follow-through is still the hardest thing to stay on top of. They encourage staff to learn as much about plants through the wide variety of horticultural and professional classes that are available, especially through the local nursery and landscape associations.