Ray Wiegand’s Nursery: Closing the gardening gap

Features - Cover Feature: Top 100 IGCs

Competing with big-box stores can be trying, so Ray Wiegand’s Nursery gets a leg up by focusing on employee and customer education.

September 23, 2015

When Wendy Wiegand was a little girl, she would help out at her family’s garden center, Ray Wiegand’s Nursery in Macomb, Mich. Her duties included weeding, planting and digging perennials, and eventually she worked in retail sales. She took a break to attend Michigan State University, and after she graduated, she told her family she was ready to get back to work.

The Wiegands told her no. She needed outside experience at other garden centers before she could return, they said. So Wendy headed off to two other garden centers for a total of nine months, and when she returned, she started as a sales person and had to work her way back up the ladder.

“Nothing is given to you. You have to prove you want it and you need to earn it,” Wiegand says.

She also learned that just because one garden center does things one way, “it doesn’t mean this is the only way that it can be done, and it doesn’t mean that it’s the best way,” she says.

Those lessons have stayed with her through the years. The now 74-year-old garden center has held on to its customer base and continues to thrive, despite the rise of the big-box retailer, because of the company’s willingness to adapt and learn new practices.

Wendy is now the event coordinator and buyer for the IGC, and operates under the motto that Wiegand’s must be welcoming to all its customers. Aside from offering free entry into their butterfly house and hosting numerous events — from fairy garden seminars, to ladies nights, to fall extravaganzas for schoolchildren that raise money for local charities —Wiegand’s has made the effort to accommodate their new customer base. The new shoppers are mostly Millennials who need a lot of advice and guidance.

“You literally need to start at ground zero with them and ask a lot of questions,” Wiegand says. Most of her younger customers don’t know which cardinal direction their homes face, or what kind of soil is in their yards. But a competent, friendly and patient sales staff has helped Ray Wiegand’s establish itself within this new market.

“It is 100 percent our staff members … You can have nice material. But if the customer base doesn’t know what they’re looking at, they’re not going to buy it,” she says. “You have to have people who can communicate that to the customer that they know what they’re talking about, that have a level of education.”

When it comes to hiring a staff, Wiegand says she doesn’t mind if they don’t have an extensive horticultural background before they come on board.

“A lot of times, we’re hiring people who know nothing about plant material. But they have a good personality and a good smile,” she says. “And you can teach a receptive, happy person anything you want them to know.”

And now that the owner, Marv, who is Wendy’s father, is getting ready to step down (she jokes that he will likely never “retire”), the Wiegand family is in the transition of phasing in the new owner and thinking of new ways to take care of their customers and 250-plus employees.

A couple years ago, the Wiegands had all of their employees write down what they felt their job duties were, and every owner also had to do the same.

“As we’ve been aging — I say ‘we’ because we’re all aging,” she laughs. “We’ve started to say, ‘OK, I need to sit down and go through everything that I do.’” Because hats can change on any given day, she says, and it’s helpful to understand all aspects of the business to prepare for the future.

In the meantime, Ray Wiegand’s remains focused on delivering high-quality service along with high-quality products to its ever-evolving customer base.