Gray’s Garden Centers celebrates 80 years in business

Features - Company Profile

The Oregon-based garden center finds success by embracing community ties.

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June 8, 2020

Gray’s Garden Centers hires an intentional mix of both young and older employees to help customers of any age discover what plants and services are best suited to fit their needs.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF GRAY'S GARDEN CENTERS

Having celebrated its 80th anniversary in April, Gray’s Garden Centers — with locations in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon — remains true to its roots as a full-service, community-focused garden center, while staying abreast of the latest in-demand services and trends.

It’s a recipe for success that has served the business well, from its earliest days as Gray’s Feed, launched by brothers Bob and Carlton Gray in April 1940, through its transition in name and focus to Gray’s Garden Centers in the 1970s and eventual ownership outside of the family, beginning in the early 1990s.

Current owner Scott Bocci — who had previously owned the business from 1998 through 2007 — repurchased Gray’s and reopened it after the company underwent bankruptcy in 2013.

Since then, business has been strong.

“Really for us, one of the keys is that we are a full-service garden center,” says General Manager Stuart Leaton, who has worked at Gray’s for 17 years. “We don’t necessarily have to specialize in one aspect or another. We have everything from annuals and perennials, to trees and shrubs, plus hard goods, pottery and a floral department.”

Community-focused

During typical seasons, the garden center hosts live music frequently throughout the year, along with a series of other events.

“We find, actually, that music on the weekends is a great way to keep people feeling relaxed and at home when they come in to shop,” Leaton says. “They tend to look around more. They’re not nearly as quick to come in and out.”

Gray’s annual Easter Egg hunt is another big driver of foot-traffic to its stores — with roughly 300 children participating across both locations each year.

Beyond these marquee events, the garden center often partners with local civic groups and nonprofits, including the Eugene Symphony Guild and local garden clubs, to host ticketed events on their grounds as well as garden tours and workshops off site. The garden center also teams with schools and nonprofit groups to host fundraising sales of both spring hanging baskets and winter wreaths, poinsettias and greenery.

“We do most of those fundraisers via coupon sales, so the groups actually distribute a coupon that then brings customers into the store [to pick up their products],” Leaton says.

“I think one of the things that makes Gray’s unique is that, as an independent garden center, we have two locations — one in each town — that are both very community-minded,” he says.

Team approach

Leadership at Gray’s views the garden centers as one large team, rather than two separate businesses.

Staff at both locations attend an in-person, company-wide meeting at the beginning of each month at the Eugene store to discuss policies, product information, sale information, inventory management, maintenance and other issues. Staff at both locations also do a 10-minute conference call with one another to start each workday.

“One of the keys when you have two stores is realizing you’re all one company,” Leaton says.

Inventory for both locations — 90% of which is sourced from Oregon-based growers — is tracked through a single POS system. Vendors typically deliver to the Eugene location, and staff trucks needed inventory to the Springfield store.

“That way, we can be sure we’re offering a consistent product and consistent price across both locations,” Leaton says.

Service-oriented

With around 20 employees at its Eugene location and six in Springfield, Gray’s staff represents a mix of ages from several core, long-term employees to younger, newer workers. The intentional staff diversity leverages Gray’s ability to offer customers just the type of service they’re looking for. Staff at Gray’s also work hard to gauge the level of service each customer is after — some want to pick their plants and go, while others want more tutorials and advice.

Gray’s also offers unexpected services, including Reed & Cross Floral, a full-service floral design and delivery department within its Eugene location. The floral department also offers live flowering and non-flowering plants as well as European-style dish gardens.

For DIYers, the garden center also offers its own line of branded soils, composts and fertilizers. “It’s a very focused thing,” Leaton says. “Obviously, you can’t brand every single thing in your store, but it is a big draw for people and helps build brand loyalty.”

Expertise

Gray’s has found its customer newsletter to be a key marketing tool, allowing staff a ready platform to share gardening and plant knowledge.

Staff there also routinely lead classes, including popular make-and-take workshops and seasonally appropriate talks on a variety of topics.

“I like to make classes more like a Q&A session,” Leaton says. “Both during the classes and after, I try to make sure that everyone is able to get their questions answered — just to acknowledge their interest in coming.”

In the coming year, Leaton hopes to continue the garden center’s focus on maintaining and building its customer base by staying abreast of current trends and customer needs.

“Currently in our area, we’re doing a lot of house plants. Containers and deck-plantings have also been a long-running, popular trend for us,” he says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Kentucky and frequent contributor to Garden Center magazine.