Guests who visit the retail store at Linton’s Enchanted Gardens are greeted by an unusual welcome committee, comprised of four talking macaws trained to speak both English and Spanish. Chatting with the exotic birds is just one of several opportunities to interact with animals at the IGC, which bills itself as Indiana’s largest home and garden center.
“I’m a big animal lover,” says Mark Linton, president and founder of the nursery/garden center that has a free petting zoo on site. “I realized that it tied in very well with our home and garden center business because typically, people who have an appreciation for plants also love animals.”
Linton’s petting zoo opened 30 years ago and since then, generations of customers have visited the growing collection of four-legged and feathered friends. The garden center, which is located just off the 80/90 interstate in Elkhart, also attracts a lot of out-of-state guests and bus tour groups who stop by Linton’s to stroll through the display gardens, Linton’s Enchanted Express Train, shooting gallery, swan paddle boats, pedal go-karts and other attractions that cover the 9-acre property.
“The goal is to get as many people in here as possible so they can experience what we have,” Linton says. “The free petting zoo is a very big draw.”
Bringing animals on site can add instant appeal and additional traffic to your IGC — but it also adds new costs, constant care and other considerations. What goes into an onsite animal attraction and what can your business get out of it? Here are some things to keep in mind.
Animals have become a year-round draw at Homestead Gardens since founder Don Riddle Jr., introduced llamas back in the late ‘90s. Over the past several years, the IGC has expanded its animal attraction into a dedicated destination called the Homestead Barnyard — home to chickens, ducks, alpacas, goats and a pot-bellied pig.
“Since Homestead is between Washington, D.C., and Annapolis, we have a lot of suburban kids who haven’t really seen farm animals before,” says Clint Albin, marketing consultant for Homestead. “With the way housing and living situations have evolved, this is a great opportunity for people to see what happens in the barnyard.”
Animals have widespread appeal — especially when people get opportunities to interact with creatures they don’t see every day.
“We have a wide variety of animals that aren’t so common and that helps make them a draw,” Linton says. Through the years, Linton’s petting zoo has expanded to include two miniature Baby Doll sheep, dwarf pygmy goats, large Nubian goats with long floppy ears and a big, fluffy angora rabbit as well as a miniature rabbit, miniature pot-bellied pigs, a miniature horse and a miniature donkey. Two emus also joined Linton’s animal family a couple of years ago. Additionally, Linton’s aviary showcases a variety of exotic birds, including a rare blue palm turkey and an albino peacock.
The rarer they are, the more traffic they draw – which is why Linton wants to add kangaroos next. He’d also like to add a miniature cow, but they’re just too expensive. Linton’s will never have more than one miniature horse at a time, he says, because they demand such specialized care and costly maintenance — requiring more money “than all the other four-legged animals combined.”
Initially, Linton’s garden center staff pitched in to take care of the animals, but as the attraction grew, Linton hired a veterinary technician as his petting zoo manager. She oversees a team of three other part-time employees who feed Linton’s animals twice a day and maintain their facilities.
“The success of our petting zoo is because of our petting zoo manager,” Linton says. “She truly cares for the animals as if they were her own. You need to find a really good person who has a passion for the animals.”
Since livestock require specialized care, hiring specially trained staff is critical. The manager of the Homestead Barnyard at Homestead Gardens, for example, has a degree in animal husbandry, which is the branch of agriculture that deals with raising farm animals.
“A lot of care has to be taken when you’re selecting individuals to manage (animals), because we are caretakers of the health of these animals,” Albin says. “You need someone who’s not only going to care for them, but also their facilities — making sure that high standards are maintained for the hygiene and cleanliness of the pens. Having a clean, tidy barnyard is good for the consumers and for making sure that the animals are safe and healthy.”
Part of the experience of Linton’s petting zoo is the opportunity to feed the animals. The garden center sells food for guests to give the livestock, including an “animal snack pack” assortment for $4.99, a smaller bag of food for 99 cents and vending machines near the animals that release a handful of feed for a few quarters.
Other garden centers build this cost into the admission fee. The petting zoo at Ward’s Garden Center in Garden City, Kansas, charges $3 for ages 3 and up and the fee includes a guided tour with treats to feed the animals.
“The [main] expense is to feed these animals, so we offset that with the $3 charge,” says owner Mike Ward. “The tickets pay for the food.”
Although guests can observe animals in the Homestead Barnyard anytime during business hours, no touching or feeding is allowed. Where Ward’s and Homestead really see revenue from animals is through party rentals, field trips and other paid events that let people get up-close and personal. People can book a Barnyard Party at Homestead, reserving two-hour blocks of time with add-on activities that let kids meet and pet the animals, encounter raptors (like an eagle, hawk or owl), paint a rock, or plant a seed for additional fees.
Linton’s, however, doesn’t generate revenue directly from its animals. The exhibits are free, but “the placement of the petting zoo is very strategic,” Linton says. “In order to get to the free part, you have to walk all the way through the garden center. We hope that our guests fall in love with our plants on their way to the free petting zoo.”
Like Linton’s, Homestead Gardens is set up so that people have to walk through the store to access the Barnyard. The animals outside are an extension of the retail Farm & Pet department in the store, creating a strong connection across the business.“We’re also a destination for consumers to buy pet food and other supplies,” Albin says,” so the commerce side of the business has a correlation to the Barnyard.”
Homestead’s Farm & Pet department offers animal feed for everything from hamsters and wild birds to dogs, cats and even horses and cattle, along with leashes, collars and animal-inspired artwork. The department manager oversees the strategy for animal-related consumer goods, while helping the barnyard manager care for animals outside.
Homestead also offers free Chicken Ownership 101 classes that teach consumers how to manage a backyard flock and sells everything from coops and feeders to cracked corn.
“America’s attraction to animals, and pets in particular, continues to be a strong trend,” Homestead President and CEO Brian Riddle told Garden Center last year. “We’re seeing sustained growth in pet food and supplies, even through some challenging weather patterns. There’s nothing but opportunity for us to build relationships with our customers and their four-legged friends.”
Although Linton’s doesn’t have a retail department related to animals, it emphasizes the animal connection by encouraging customers to bring their pets shopping.
It’s not uncommon to see leashed dogs accompanying shoppers or guests with parrots perched on their shoulders. A Dog Days of Summer event in July even offers discounts to people who bring their dogs in costumes.
Having animals on site brings additional expenses and staffing requirements, but those investments can boost your business by providing additional revenue opportunities and events, tie-ins to pet-related retail departments and, if nothing else, a charming attraction that draws more traffic to your store.
“It’s difficult to put an ROI on it. There’s definitely an expense and it does take a commitment from the top to make sure there’s an ongoing strategy for it,” Albin says. “The ROI comes in the fact that you see a young family with kids who all have a smile on their face. It’s introducing us to another generation of consumers who are coming to see the animal attractions.”
Albin sees opportunities for IGCs of all sizes to benefit from animals. A smaller urban garden center might only be able to accommodate a few hamsters or exotic birds — or the classic office cat — but that’s enough to establish a connection and start a conversation with consumers of all ages.
As IGCs look for creative ways to differentiate themselves from large home and garden chains, Linton says animal attractions offer an experience that sets them apart.
“I highly recommend it because it separates us from the big box stores,” he says. “Anything that we can do to create a fun family experience, that’s what it’s all about.”