What was it like growing up in the family business?
This place has always been special to us. We grew up coming up here with my dad [Jim Wannemaker, pictured here] when we were little, we all worked here in high school, we would even do odd projects, helping out with Christmas Trees and doing whatever we could because it was such a special place to us.
Our grandfather was around, our family was around. It was fun to come up here as kids, so it was really special to us to be able to have this opportunity to do this because it has been such a huge part of our lives.
As a third-generation owner of Wannemaker’s, what are some of the responsibilities you carry?
We don’t have truly official titles. [Myself], my brother and sister and I all are kind of co-owners with our dad, and we do whatever we need to do to make this place run. There’s four siblings that are involved — I run and oversee our greenhouse and our gift department. My sister oversees our patio department and she is also our bookkeeper. My brother oversees our seasonal areas, so all of our fertilizers, chemicals, tools — he also oversees our grill and vanity department. (We still carry bath vanities from when we used to be a hardware store). And then he oversees our delivery and warehouse.
So we all are really fortunate to kind of have our own little niches that we oversee, and then there’s larger decisions that we make together such as our marketing.
And then my youngest sister, who has only been out of college for about two years now, she does a lot of our office data entry and a lot of our marketing. So she oversees our website, our newsletter.
Did you ever take time away from the business to gain outside experience?
As far as me and my older brother and sister — we all [had] more corporate jobs. I was in public accounting for two and a half years; my older sister was also public accounting (she did IT auditing where I did financial statement auditing), and then my brother was actually out on Wall Street in New York.
So we did totally different things and then the opportunity came up when my dad and uncle were trying to decide where the business was going to go. We all sat down as a family one day and agreed that this was something we really, really wanted to do. The rest is history.
Back in the ’90s, your grandfather made quite a shift in the business. How has that changed Wannemaker’s identity within the community?
When my grandfather started [the business], he started it as a hardware store. There weren’t really the big boxes around back then. We were kind of it in the community. Once the Home Depots and the Lowe’s came about, it was just too hard for him to compete with those larger stores.
When he bought this property, there was an existing nursery here; so it was a hardware store with a nursery, and the garden center always was a really strong part of it. So when he felt that he couldn’t compete as well with the big box stores, it slowly shifted to gardening.
When I was here in high school, we still did have some hardware, but it had gotten smaller and smaller over the years.
Now I think we’re more of a store that offers an experience to our customers. They can come in and get ideas for their garden, for their home. We have great staff — our staff is amazing: they can answer so many great questions.
I think people come here not [as], “Hey, I’m looking for something,” it’s, “I’m coming here to see what they have,” and wander around, and it’s more of a destination than to run in and grab a light bulb — which has been special because we see so many repeat customers. We have become friends with a lot of our customers, we’ve seen families and parents of kids we went to high school with that come in and shop here now.
So we’re just a huge part of the community, and it’s really special to see so many life-long customers — people who knew my grandfather that come in — and my dad has really appreciated seeing younger generations coming in who are friends of us who are buying homes out here now and moving out from the city.
What elements make Wannemaker’s different from other independent garden centers?
Our patio furniture is one of the huge drives to our store in the area. We’re lucky that there isn’t anyone else in the area that we feel carries quite the selection and quality that we have.
We get a lot of comments about our cushion selection. The front wall of our main store is all patio cushions; so you’ll see replacement covers, cushions, from the floor to the ceiling. People come here looking — whether they have an existing set or they’re looking for a new set — to kind of spruce it up with something new without having to buy a whole new set.
We’re trying to up our merchandizing, and really show people what they can do with their homes, utilizing not only the live green goods that we have, but also incorporating [them] with statuary and fountains and patio furniture, and giving people that whole picture of what they’re able to do at their own homes.
How are you finding yourself competing with the big box stores in your area now?
We have a Home Depot not far at all from us that has a huge garden center so it does create its struggles. We will get customers occasionally mention comments about pricing — and there are some more specialty items that customers can’t find there so they are coming here, and maybe some of the other items that they are able to get at Home Depot, for a convenience factor, they’ll get from us.
I think we have a very loyal customer base. We’ve started a loyalty program in the last two years to reward our customers who do shop with us not only just in the springtime but in our Christmas season as well. I think our staff is a huge asset to us in that people can come here and know that they’re going to get the right answer, we’re going to spend time with them, we’ll research things, we can order things — I think there’s just a different level of customer service that they get from us.
You have a rotating tagline on your website and advertising that has your last name in it, such as Wannemakehistory?, Wannebuildinquality?, Wannefindvariety? It’s catchy! How did you come up with it?
Unfortunately, we can’t take full credit for it. The marketing firm that we worked with actually came up with that. But we have a lot of fun coming up with ones that work into it. So when we have a new sale or something, our staff around here jokes and comes up with some, too. I’m actually on a billboard down the street right now with my face on it, but it says Wannemakeagardengrow? So it’s funny, but people see it and they recognize it.
Our marketing firm was huge on [promoting] us as a family business. They wanted our faces to be kind of the face of the store to say, “Hey, we’re family run, we’re here every day, this is our business that we’re proud of and we’re here for you.” So they use our faces in a lot of our ads, which is a little strange sometimes but it’s been a lot of fun to see the reaction to it.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.