Meet the Garden Center Centennial Club

Meet the Garden Center Centennial Club

Features - Cover Feature

Garnered from nearly 600 years of combined experience, these garden centers share the business lessons that helped them survive the last century.

June 17, 2014

They survived the Great Depression. They stayed in business in the midst of two World Wars, floods, economic upswings, and terrible crashes. Some have transitioned from one generation to the next, while others have passed the baton from within the family to other leaders. All have undergone changes, some more drastic than others. But one thing is certain ­— these businesses have survived it all. Meet the Garden Center Centennial Club. While not all of them started out as garden centers, they all know what it’s like to run an independent business in the green industry during any assortment of conditions. They’ve learned what works, what doesn’t, and how much they still have to learn. With a combined 590 years of experience, we share some of the lessons that these long-standing, respected, successful garden centers have learned over the last 100+ years in the hopes that it will help your business thrive for the next 100 years.


Adapt to changing conditions

Just because you’ve always done it that way, doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it that way. Be prepared to evolve with the times.

As can be expected in businesses that have been around as long as the members of the Garden Center Centennial Club, it’s necessary to change with the times to remain relevant. As the needs of the surrounding community evolve, the business needs to evolve with it, whether that means expanding or reducing services and product offerings or trying a new technique with staff.

When co-owner Michael Bracken came into the business, Nicholson-Hardie Nursery & Garden Center had a landscaping division that brought in about 7 or 8 percent of total sales at its peak. “[But] it was about 95 percent of my total headache,” says Bracken. “We’re really good at retailing, but we’re really bad at landscaping.” They discontinued their landscaping services and focused their efforts on retail from then on out.

At Russell’s Garden Center in Massachusetts, a business that originally focused heavily on the wholesale cut flower industry, the energy crisis in the late ’60s and importation of cut flowers from overseas caused them to phase out the wholesale end of the business, says president Elizabeth Russell-Skehan. Since then, they’ve focused mostly on retail, which has worked better for their operation.

Back in the 1960s, Skillins Greenhouses in Maine was running a full landscaping division that was gradually losing strength and causing considerable headache. “It was not proving to be as profitable and really as healthy a pursuit for their lifestyle as the retail store,” owner Mike Skillin says of that era. “[The leadership at the time] really started to de-emphasize both the landscaping and the caretaking aspects of the business, which is how the [current garden center model] developed. Now, Skillins offers landscape design to its customers, but leaves the installation up to local landscapers they work with.

Besides modifying services offered and departments, staffing needs may also change. That’s why Jon Denney, co-owner of Portland Nursery in Oregon, decided to try keeping employees on during the winter for the first time a few years back. “I figured that by being ready in the spring with everything in stock, priced, and with cashiers that know how to take care of a customer, that we would make up for all the payroll of carrying a number of people through the winter,” Denney says. In his case, it was worth it.


Know your customers

The customers’ needs and wants should guide your business direction.

The best retail business will not be relevant with customers if they don’t offer the products and services that their demographics want and need. Skillin’s advice is to “really take a look at your business, focus on what’s turning and selling well, and keep doing it. If you try something new, don’t overextend yourself, let the customers guide you.”

It was advice echoed by other interviewees. “We’re constantly tuning in to our customers’ needs,” says Bracken. “If we see a category start to move, we start shifting and moving into that category. Even as a $50,000 a year garden center, if you don’t know who you are trying to reach, and don’t know your customer, than you’re not going to be able to play the game.“

In 2009, when many businesses were trying to save money in a tough economy by cutting back on advertising, Portland Nursery amped up theirs and changed the focus to play to consumers who were gardening themselves and wanted to have “staycations” instead of hiring help. That boosted revenues by 9 percent that year. “[Instead of our regular tagline], we used ‘Portland Nursery, helping make your backyard your favorite destination,’” Denney says. “We piggy-backed on the staycation thing and in reality our sales might have been up because people weren’t buying boats or taking vacations, they were staying home and working in their yards.”

Try surveying customers, Denney suggests. “Don’t try to predict that you know what the customers are thinking.”

When it all comes down to it, “you have to change all the time,” says Russell-Skehan. “We can go out and have great ideas and try them, and but ultimately in order to stay in business we’re led by what the customer likes and buys.”


Remember what matters the most

It’s not always about the profits.

When it comes down to it, a retail business needs to be profitable and have a solid bottom line to survive. However, sometimes the charitable and other not as lucrative activities can be just as valuable in creating a strong, well-rounded, respected business.

When it comes to charitable endeavors, Denney suggests having one person who handles all donations and events to keep track of what’s going in and out of the store. And Denney knows a thing or two about contributing to the community — in addition to their regular donations and smaller projects, Portland Nursery raised $55,000 for a local middle school at an annual charity auction recently, and neared six figures at their last charity dinner and auction for Impact Northwest, a regional provider of social and educational services. The school hosted the event elsewhere one year, and raised only about a quarter of that. Portland Nursery’s main investment for these two events is labor and providing the venue. In return they are able to build stronger relationships with community members and strengthen the community itself, and potential customers are made aware of the store. At this year’s charity dinner, Denney bought a lunch with one of the city commissioners at the auction, and believes meeting with him will help them with their zoning.

Down in Texas, Bracken continues to sell bulk seed at Nicholson-Hardie, although it’s not the most profitable department. The store still has and uses the original bulk seed bins from the early 1900s and seed scales from the 1930s. “It’s definitely not something we keep because it’s a money-making thing,” Bracken says. “We keep it because it’s part of our identity, and it’s the one place that we can pull everybody back to, and say, ‘This is where we started.’”

Meanwhile in Massachusetts, Russell’s Garden Center’s summer and winter farmers markets are a mainstay in the community. But it’s not impacting their bottom line much — so why host them? Russell-Skehan says besides being a lot of fun, it brings the community together, and ends up being a social event, with many customers coming in every week. From a business morale standpoint, “it motivates us to fix up the store every week to get ready as the new product is coming in, and it’s a huge motivation for the employees,” especially during the drab winter months, Russell-Skehan says. “We all like having fresh food here, and it’s very congruous with our garden center. It’s good will, and it’s fun.”


Know your market

Marketing can be a strange animal — find out what gets the best return on investment for your business. It might not be what you expect.

You wouldn't expect a helium balloon to be a stronger marketing tool than TV and radio advertising, but this turned out to be the case at Portland Nursery. They host an annual apple tasting festival, and about 15 years ago, hired a local radio personality to survey people in the apple tasting line to find out how people heard about the festival, and a few other things. This is how they found out that their balloon “marketing” was how three out of four people found out about the festival. Even more importantly, they discovered that a third of the people in line had never visited the store, and half of them had never been to an apple tasting. “If you’re talking about the numbers of people that we get through there, that’s just an incredible boost of foot traffic,” says Denney.

Another time that they used a survey to improve their marketing was as they revamped their TV advertising. Denney says that they found out that their advertising on channels 2, 6, 8 and 12 wasn’t getting to their target demographic. The survey results came back and it turned out that everyone was watching channel 10. “That was a light bulb moment for us that we should be advertising on channel 10,” he says. “We are now the poster child for Oregon Public Broadcasting and their longest running underwriter.” After starting that advertising campaign, and blacktopping the parking lot, he says that sales doubled.


Be our guest

When the garden center feels like home to customers guests, they’ll stick around.

A customer who feels welcome will spend more time in a store. As Skillin puts it, “it gets back to embracing the customer. Greeting the customer, helping the customer, and making them feel welcome here — that’s so important — through conversation, through display, and education.”

At Sheridan Nurseries in Canada, customers are helped to feel at home with a simple name change. “We call all of our customers guests. We started that well over 15 years ago,” Stensson says. “You clean your stores for your guests. You invite your guests to come over. You greet your guests when they come over. You entertain your guests while they’re there, and when your guests leave, you leave them with such a great experience that you hope they want to come back.”

Nicholson-Hardie’s “feel good environment” keeps people comes back, especially during tough times, says Bracken. “The day after 9/11, the store was packed, and I’m like, ‘What is going on here? Why aren’t these people in mourning?,’” he says. “And I realized that they were just there because it made them feel good. What we do really well is make people feel at home and really comfortable. I think it provides them a sense of peace.”


Adjust to fit

The size of your business should reflect your individual circumstances.

As can be assumed with businesses that have been around as long as our Centennial Club, there have been a lot of expanding and contracting in size as the companies experiment with what works best for them. Maine is known for not being as economically viable as other states, says Skillin. For that reason, they’ve had to make the tough decision to reduce their size in order to survive. “We’re more efficient, but it’s a lot harder work, that’s for sure,” he says. “I’m not pessimistic, but I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

When asked if they were considering opening a new store, Bracken says it’s not in the cards at the moment. Each of the two stores complements the other, which makes things more difficult. “The model we have right now it profitable. We have expanded and contracted a few times,” he says. “Every time we’ve done that, we’ve never really been able to follow through with [a model of just one of the stores] to another place. What has happened every time we’ve expanded is it’s been a blend of our two stores, as opposed to modeling one store or the other,” which doesn't work as well.


Find your silver lining

Big box stores offer challenges, but also opportunities.

While most will agree that big box stores will take away some business from local independent garden centers, their presence isn’t all negative. Karl Stensson of Sheridan Nurseries in Ontario, Canada has noticed at least one positive effect from their presence.

A local chain store started selling fertilizers one year, which logically should’ve meant decreased sales for Sheridan’s fertilizer department. But that wasn’t the case. “Our fertilizer sales went up 25 percent the first year that they carried fertilizer because they had a million dollars to spend advertising the fact that the consumer should use fertilizer,” Stensson says. “They brought fertilizer to the forefront and people bought it from us as well as the box stores.”


Bring your past to the present

Sharing your history with customers is another way to connect.

As each of these garden centers has been around for more than a century, there’s a lot of history to share, and many ways to do so. No matter how you do it, customers will enjoy hearing the story behind the business.

Sheridan Nurseries just celebrated 100 years in business in 2013, and has formed an integral part of the community since the beginning. They took full advantage of the birthday to connect with customers, many of whom grew up with the nursery. They created a traveling history display, wrote a book about the business and how it has developed and been involved in the community, and created a special section on their website with a video and historical photos. To show their appreciation for the customers who had kept them in business that long, they held an open house at the farm so they could get to know that part of the business. “We had 1500 guests there,” Stensson remembers. “We just put an ad in the paper and said, ‘Come out and enjoy the farm.’”

But you don’t have to have an elaborate display or celebration to remind customers of where you came from. Skillins Greenhouses and Nicholson-Hardie both have small areas that feature historical photos for customers to peruse. Skillins also has “Since 1885” on the sleeve of employees’ shirts, and mentions their longevity in emails to customers.


Find your path to cultivating profits

Growing your own plant material or not is not a simple decision.

To grow your own or not to grow your own, that is the question. And the answer isn’t easy — it requires some research, trials and flexibility to determine what works for your business. While some garden centers, like Perino’s Garden Center in Louisiana (see our April/May 2014 issue) and Petitti Garden Centers in Ohio, have found success in growing a significant portion of their plant material, that’s not the case across the board.

Russell’s Garden Center is located in a Massachusetts flood plain, which limits their ability to grow perennials. And anything that they do grow has to be grown on tables so it won’t get damaged in case of flooding. But they still find value in growing a lot of their own annuals, veggies, herbs and mums. At Skillins, they also grow some of their own annuals and vegetables, but leave a lot of the rest up to growers.

But up in Canada, Sheridan Nurseries takes a different approach. They’ve been transitioning to getting out of field growing and into container growing for their trees and shrubs. Surprisingly, they don’t grow any of their own annuals. “I have really great growers,” Stensson says. “I’m getting the best of the best and I’m not putting all of eggs in one basket. I sell about $7 million a year in annuals, and to this day we haven’t had any ambition to grow our own annuals.”

Sometimes growing your own just doesn’t make sense, as is the case at Portland Nursery. After running a growing facility for eight or ten years, they determined it wasn’t worth the investment. “We’ll do the kinds of things that you need to do to make a product ready for marketing, but as far as the actual growing we did that for a while and then just came to the conclusion it was just better for us to just purchase our products in as we needed them,” Denney says.


Know your store

At its essence, a garden center is still a retail business.

Regardless of your exact product mix, when it comes down to it, a garden center is a retail operation, and must function as such. “We treat everything like a business,” says Stensson. “It all started around plants, and we love plants, but sometimes the plant hunger in people will get the better of them. You don’t want to lose your horticultural sight, but sometimes that horticultural sight will lose you money [if you’re not careful].” Stensson says his stores don’t necessarily need every plant variety out there, or every plant that Home Depot has; instead, they need a good mix of great plants that will also be profitable.

At Russell’s, plants are very important, but in their market, they see value in mixing it up to keep the business profitable. “We’re not afraid to be diverse,” Russell-Skehan says. “[In the store] we give a lot of information in our organics and fertilizers room, for example, and then you go [to the next room] and see specialty toys and gifts.”

“We’ve never considered ourselves garden center retailers,” says Bracken. “I think that may have a lot to do with my and [co-owner and brother] Josh’s backgrounds. We’re retailers. We just happen to sell plants. We have a lot of master certified professionals on our staff to address any horticultural concerns. But we are definitely retail-driven, as opposed to nursery-driven.”


Keep it fresh

New ideas, products and concepts aren’t always right around the corner.

Along the same lines of hiring a diverse mix of employees to bring in fresh ideas, when it comes to finding new products and ways to reinvent your store, retailers and employees themselves need to venture out beyond their borders, says Stensson.

Stensson and his team attend as many trade and product shows and tours as possible in search of the latest and greatest. “We as Canadians go to the U.S. shows, the furniture shows, the gift shows in Dallas and Atlanta and then we go further up the hill to Europe to see what’s going on there,” he says. “That’s how we’ve always built our business and kept our offering really new and different and fresh.”

But is it really worth the investment? After all, it can involve a significant financial investment to attend non-local shows and tours. Stensson thinks so, as those who do not branch out beyond their borders will be the same business ten years from now as they are currently. “As they’ve said for many years, ‘The only constant in retail is change.’ And I believe that you have to invest in these sort of things in order to change,” he explains. “You’re not going to find [these products and ideas] next door. If you find it next door, you are just competing with the guy next door on the same thing and then you end up competing on price as opposed to ‘I’ve got something unique that this guy doesn’t have.’ Then you can command a premium price.”


Create a community

Without solid relationships, your business will not be as successful.

From Maine to Oregon, relationships make all of the difference, both for morale and for the bottom line. Both Mike Skillin and Jon Denney count the strong relationships they’ve formed with the community and their customers as one of their biggest successes. “We’re constantly trying to cultivate [stronger] relationships with customers,” Skillin says. “Learning their names, remembering what they may have bought in the past, listening to their stories, things like that. We’re a people place, a place where people can come and get away from some of that drudgery of the world, taste spring, look at some of the wild colors of summer, the warmth of the fall, and Christmas.”

Denney’s advice to a new garden center, based on his own experiences with the benefits of taking the time to develop relationships isn’t surprising “Concentrate on your relationships with your customers, with your staff, with your suppliers, and with your community.”


Find your inspiration

Loving what you do makes everything worth it in the end.

As anyone who works in the industry can attest to, there’s something unique and fulfilling about working with plants and people. As Mike Skillin puts it, “I still get thrilled about seeing the first geraniums of the spring, poinsettias at Christmas, things of that nature. But more importantly, I get excited about seeing how our customers are excited by them. It’s just a very inspirational business to be in.”


App exclusive
Download our magazine from the apple app store to read more business lessons and to view a photo gallery.