Weston Nurseries: Honing in on the consumer

Weston Nurseries: Honing in on the consumer

Features - Cover Feature: Top 100 IGCs

Weston Nurseries made a bold move and eliminated segments of the business to focus more on retail. And it’s working.

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October 12, 2015

Weston Nurseries opened in 1923 on 80 acres in Weston, Mass., where Peter J. Mezitt and his family began growing and selling trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials. The nursery grew over time, moving to a 300-acre site in Hopkinton, where it continued to expand its plant selection and expertise. A garden center opened in 1959 to serve retail and wholesale customers, and landscaping services launched shortly thereafter, as the growing operations continued to spread. By the time Peter W. Mezitt joined the company in 1996 — bringing the family business into the fourth generation — Weston Nurseries grew on 600 acres, with 30 acres of container production, 20 acres of retail space and 250 acres of surrounding woodland.

Over the years, Weston Nurseries built a strong reputation as a grow/sell operation with a multimillion-dollar landscaping division. But the three separate segments split the company’s focus and competed for resources.

“We felt we could not be the best-of-class in three business channels,” says President Peter Mezitt. “We had challenges supporting the necessary investments that all three channels needed in order to operate at their peak. It became obvious that we had to change the business.”

The family assessed the profitability of its expansive growing operation, and realized it wasn’t making profits there. One third-generation owner (Wayne Mezitt) bought out the other 50 percent owner (his brother Roger) to turn the company into a buy/sell operation. To fund that buyout, the nursery sold much of its land in 2007 and streamlined resources into the garden center.

“By eliminating one channel, we believe we can achieve much higher customer satisfaction and better profits in the remaining channels,” Peter Mezitt says. “Our cost of goods has increased because we buy finished material versus growing it from seed, but our plant material is better quality now because we buy from the experts: the best rhody growers, the best boxwood growers, etc.”

Weston Nurseries consolidated into a 10-acre commercial sales yard with a five-acre retail sales yard, and in 2011, opened a second location in Chelmsford, Mass. Today, sales are split 50/50 between retail and commercial customers, with green goods making up about 80 percent of product sales, and hard goods the other 20.
 

Scaling down the landscape division

This past winter, Weston Nurseries further streamlined its operations by exiting the landscape business. Several factors prompted this move — most significantly: other landscape contractors.

“When we send our landscapers out on the road, we’re competing against our commercial customers who do landscaping,” Mezitt says. “It was the least profitable part of our business, it required the most in terms of annual capital spending on equipment, and it was the most intensive in terms of customer hand-holding.”

Meanwhile, Mezitt saw an opportunity to expand Weston’s commercial operation by adding products like bulk stone. But stone manufacturers wouldn’t let the company become a dealer while running a competing landscape division. So, with the goal of growing its commercial sales business, Weston stopped landscaping.

“The decision resulted in a tremendous cut in revenue, but despite the dip in sales, our first-half profits are on par with last year,” says Mezitt, noting that commercial sales have been growing. “Our first half profits are on-par with last year, despite the dip in revenue. This tells me we made a good decision to exit landscaping.”

Weston Nurseries still offers some installation services, but on a much smaller scale. Because the garden center sells large trees and shrubs, it offers pricing options for people to pick up their purchases, have them delivered, or have Weston plant them. These are typically one-day planting jobs, so Weston runs two or three crews out of the garden center, with an administration position to support the operation. The crews focus solely on planting — not hardscape installation, irrigation, or maintenance.
 

Positioned for sales success

These changes have allowed Weston Nurseries to focus on the sales side of the business, making changes to optimize the shopping experience for both retail consumers and commercial customers. The Hopkinton location unveiled a new layout this year, where the commercial sales operation is now physically separated from the retail sales area.

“We put a fence between the two and separately stocked the two areas to meet the needs of each customer type,” Mezitt says. “These changes were critical because sharing the outside selling area with retail and commercial customer interaction did not work well for either.”

For example, retail customers had to ride a golf cart out to see the trees. Meanwhile, commercial landscaping customers often picked over the perennial area closest to the retail garden center, making it difficult to merchandise properly.

Now, themed plant displays throughout the retail space make it easier for shoppers to find plants suited for specific issues. These areas are well signed and stocked with materials selected for certain site conditions, such as deer resistant plants, plants that appreciate hot, sunny, dry spots, wetland plants, shade-loving plants, seasonal varieties and native plants.

“The layout and operational practices of the commercial side now better serve the landscape companies that shop there; and the layout and merchandising on the retail side better service homeowners,” Mezitt says. “What we see today is a much more customer-service oriented operation in both parts of the business. Our retail sales staff literally walk and drive golf carts one or two fewer miles per day and can now interact with more customers.”