Petitti Garden Centers: Putting retail first

Petitti Garden Centers: Putting retail first

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AJ Petitti, president of Petitti Garden Centers, talks about what he likes best about his job and what garden centers need to do to survive the next 20 years.

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September 30, 2015

What is your favorite part of your job?

I still love helping customers with loading cars, and I like being a part of the community. I like giving back, and a lot of what we do gives us the opportunity to be able to give back to our communities. I think it’s really important.
 

Is there a specific community project that you’ve worked on lately that stands out?

There’s a really cool one we do called “Flower Bombing,” and it’s phenomenal. We’ll go to somebody’s house [after someone nominates them], and we’ll plant up their whole yard. We just did one for a lady who was taking care of her elderly mother and her son, who has Down syndrome. Her sister wrote the submission that [a Flower Bombing] would mean a lot and really pick up her day. So we went and we planted a bunch of flowers, got rid of a bunch of weeds and cleaned up the yard a bit and put planters all around. It was just a cool thing. It’s kind of like a flash mob but with flowers. We made T-shirts for everybody. We’re lucky that [local TV affiliate] Fox 8 partnered up with us on it.

We also just raised $100,000 in conjunction with Scotts Miracle-Gro. We were able to raise $50,000 through our stores, and Scotts matched the $50,000 for the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. That was our “Lend a Hand” campaign this spring. We’ve done that for two years in a row.
 

Your dad and uncle started Petitti Garden Centers. Did you ever consider doing anything else?

Probably for a minute coming out of college I thought about doing something else. I went to Miami [University of Ohio,] and I took a retail class. You had to write down your goals and what you wanted to do. My goal for the class was to revolutionize the garden center industry. And so I think it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do and be part of. I don’t know if I’ve done that or not yet, but I’m doing OK.
 

How has the business changed since you started working?

If you are a garden center today, you need to be a retailer first and a garden center second. I think if you’re still operating the same way you were in the ’80s or ’90s, the world has passed you by. Your customers are looking at Walmart and Target and Nordstrom, and how they market the experience they want. If you’re not providing that experience, you need to be working on it or learning how to provide that experience. When I grew up, we were running around, everything was stone and gravel and mud, and it was kind of like the Wild West. You were landscapers who sold plants, and it was fun. Now you have to be using POS systems. You have to watch your numbers. You have to be a good, solid retailer.
 

What has been your biggest challenge recently?

The recession really impacted our industry, especially on the nursery side, but within the past two to three years, we’ve just started to see a rebound. We learned a lot, I think we did a lot of really good, strong things. Because it really forces you to examine and evaluate and learn. But without a doubt, that was the most challenging thing I’ve gone through in my professional life.
 

How did you get through it?

We just got a lot more disciplined. We got very black and white with establishing metrics and getting to know our numbers better. And I thought we knew them pretty well before. But when the floor is falling from under your feet, you learn how to juggle pretty quickly. It was a good learning experience that I never want to do again.

What do you attribute your success to?

Our team, period. We’ve got awesome people working for us. Without a good team, you’ve got nothing.

Anything else you would like to mention?

The industry has been really questioning what’s going to happen with Millennials, and whether they are going to garden. Something I’ve really believed in, and I think it’s starting to come true, is it’s not Millennials or Gen-Xers or whatever, it’s what stage of life you’re in. When you’re 22, you’re not going to a garden center. We get you when you have one-and-a-half kids, after you’re married, between your first and second child. We’ve got a huge opportunity as an industry, and really our future is banking on this. We need to become very good, very quickly, at customer service and engaging, identifying and educating these new gardeners. In order for the industry to be healthy moving forward, we have to welcome and teach the next generation of gardeners.


 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.