As garden centers experienced record sales volumes in 2020, many decided to invest in their successes and expand amid the ongoing gardening boom. Whether adding more retail space or expanding their growing facilities, here’s how Mulhall’s Garden + Home and Gullo’s Garden Center are preparing for growth into 2021 and beyond.
BRED BY BAILEY INNOVATIONS | FIRST EDITIONS
Hydrangea paniculate ‘Bailpanone’ PP32,549
How long has it been on the market?
New to trade market in 2021, coming to retail in 2022
Consumer care requirements
Flowering on current-season growth, prune last year’s flowers and stems back 1/3 in late winter.
Compact and mounded
Grows to height/width
Grows to a height of 3-5’, width of 3-5’
Full sun to part shade
Use as feature for summer and fall displays or merchandise with other shrubs that pair well in the landscape.
Heat tolerant, florets emerge green and turn into pure white flowers, holds flower clusters on strong stems.
What started as a humble seed catalog, hand-pressed by founder John William “J.W.” Jung in 1907, is now a top retail contender in the Midwest seed and gardening market. Officially opened in 1955, Jung Garden Center operates a string of five bustling locations throughout statewide Wisconsin. Richard “Dick” Zondag, president, shares how the fourth-generation family-owned IGC is planning ahead for the future while taking a look at the roots that made the business the success it is today.
Garden Center magazine: What strategies are you using to stay competitive in your market?
Dick Zondag: We’re in the process of opening up a spring pop-up shop for next season. We have a very good reputation in the state of Wisconsin through our mail-order catalog, and we have five garden centers now. What we’re doing is finding a community that’s about 30 to 50 miles away from any of our existing garden centers and using those as the hub for this store. We spotted the Fox Valley area because that’s an actively growing area, which is what we’re looking for — a city that has a lot of growth. And we found a store that’s empty, so we’re hoping it’ll stay empty for another three months so we can get tied down.
What we’re trying to do is see if this concept works for us, because going in and buying a brick-and-mortar store in a very busy area is pretty expensive for a seasonal business like ours. We’re going to be using an extra assistant manager in that store now — who is currently being trained to be the manager in that store — and then use local gardeners and people that we can hire in that area for the labor force.
GC: What types of items will be available at the pop-up location?
DZ: We’re going to basically sell what we sell in the other stores minus bare root. We do bare root in all of our stores in the spring, but we’re not going to be doing that in that store because you’d have to have refrigeration and all that sort of stuff.
GC: How are mail-orders currently comparing to your online sales?
DZ: We’re very big in mail-orders. Jung Seed Company has eight different catalog titles, and we send out between 5 and 6 million catalogs a year. Sales are getting to be more and more online. It depends on the catalog title. Some of them are a little more upscale than others. And I would say probably 60% of our business comes from online, where Jung Seed is sort of a blue-collar catalog. I think that one is 40%.
GC: In 2020, you started providing video tutorials for customers. How has have social media strategies like this helped your business grow?
DZ: We’re doing as many videos as we can think of, such as planting bare root, starting seeds … we’re going to do one on planting garlic soon because our garlic is almost in. A lot of our business is seeds — five of the catalogs that we have, have seeds in them. We’re very big into the seed. Our seed wall probably takes up about 60 feet of wall space.
GC: How are you motivating the gardeners who found you during COVID-19 to come back?
DZ: When there’s an economic downturn, the seed business just goes nuts. The last two years have actually been our biggest years ever. Part of it is the service that we give. We have a lot of people doing customer service. We try to process the orders as fast as they come in and we try to provide informational pamphlets on almost everything that we sell. We guarantee all of the nursery stock and perennials will grow. We try to take care of our customers.
GC: Are there any new trends that you’ve been seeing this year, in terms of plant popularity or an interest in specific products other than seeds?
DZ: The edible stuff — berries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries — as well as an increase in fruit trees. We basically sold out of everything that was mail-order.
GC: Have you reached a new demographic with your video tutorials?
DZ: Oh yeah. Our mail-order customers are in the older demographics and of course, you’ve got to keep getting new people in all the time, but we are seeing a lot more interest in the younger group. We’re seeing people that have planted for the first time that have children and they use gardening as recreation to get their kids into the habit of seeing where their tomatoes and beans and radishes and things like that come from. We’re trying to get the younger demographics, the people that are on social media all the time, to become gardeners.
GC: What other strategies worked for you in 2020 and 2021?
DZ: With social media, we had a lot of incentives to try and get people to come into the stores, which worked out fairly well. We have a very wide selection of potted nursery stock and perennials. And we have people on staff that can help customers determine which plants are best suited for the environments that they’re going to be planted in so that they don’t plant a sun-loving plant in shade, or a shade-loving plant in full sunlight. We try to get people that know what they’re talking about as far as plants are concerned.
Q&A with Greenland Garden Centre
Greenland Garden Centre, a sprawling IGC located in Sherwood Park, Alberta, has seen tremendous gains since revving up its social media presence, especially in 2020 and 2021. Founded in 1960 and family-owned, Greenland offers its customers not only a wide array of plants, décor items and hard goods, but even a fashion department and a completely in-house restaurant. After COVID-19 hit, co-owner Deborah Sirman, who runs the business with her family members, shares how the team figured out a way to connect with customers while expanding its social media footprint.
Garden Center magazine: How are you meeting the needs of new gardeners who found you during COVID-19?
Deborah Sirman: We host a radio show called “The Garden Show” every Sunday morning, and it’s a way for us to be known as the premier place to go for expertise in gardening. Also, our website is constantly updated with everything that is pertinent to the Alberta climate only.
Our biggest asset is in-person sales. We are always available to answer the phone. We don’t even have an automated phone service. Every time we answer the phone, I look at it as an opportunity to bring people into our store. We’ve put more effort into maintaining people who can direct calls, and maintaining a better phone system with portable phones and things like that so that we can help those people. We really invest a lot in personal experiences, and I think that’s why we’re doing so well — because we’re paying attention to people.
GC: You have nearly 11,500 followers on Instagram and 45,000 subscribers on YouTube. How did you achieve this sort of growth?
DS: For YouTube, the key is having a professional videographer at your fingertips, which has been our biggest benefit. COVID is what started it, and I honestly don’t know how we did this all during that time. We created so many videos: how-to videos, the basics of gardening, garden tours, fashion shows, etc. We realized how many people were loving it, and we’d get so many followers from videos like that.
GC: Did you have an in-house videographer or did you hire a freelancer?
DS: It’s my son [Tyler Sirman]. He’s a professional freelance videographer/photographer, but he grew up in the business. He has the equipment, so he was able to come in and do it. He turned us on to YouTube last year when I was just at my wit’s end thinking, ‘What if we have to close?’ And when we were closed, I was thinking, ‘How are we going to get people in?’ And he said, “OK, this is what we’re doing.”
And then we saw the value in that right away. His photography business wasn’t busy then, so he was able to work with us on almost a full-time basis on working on whatever videos we could make. It helped to have a professional videographer/photographer who can turn around a video within two to three days for me.
We’ve made videos in previous years, but not to the extent that we introduced them in 2019, 2020 and now in 2021. He’s just continued it.
GC: How did you keep your restaurant, Branches Fresh Food Experience, afloat during this time?
DS: The restaurant was actually built within our garden center, and it’s 10% of our business right now. Branches was probably one of the hardest ones to deal with during COVID. I mean, we would be buying $4,000 worth of groceries on a Monday and then the government would tell us we were closed on Friday. We got creative and sold all the groceries to the staff, so we got our money back, but we also created online ordering and did take-out.
Since it’s part of Greenland, it’s like another department, so it doesn’t pay rent here. For a while, we couldn’t even do takeout. We were able to keep afloat since we didn’t have to pay rent, but sales were about half of what they were the year before. Then we were able to do takeout and online ordering.
We kept our key staff when we were closed, but once we were able to open, we had to put the acrylic between each table and that sort of thing. Whatever the government told us to do, we did it. But as soon as we opened, people wanted to sit with us so badly. It seats 100 people and has an indoor and outdoor patio.
GC: How is Branches doing now?
DS: It’s not a huge restaurant, but it’s very, very busy. Right now, we’ll do 300 to 400 seatings a day. It’s a great menu. We work really hard on making sure we have a really good menu. We started with wood-fired pizzas, but we’ve branched into other things, too, like Mexican dishes. As owners, we’re foodies, so it’s worked really well that we work with our chefs and doing it, it’s worked into well over a million dollars in sales in a year. It brings customers into Greenland, so it’s a win-win.
GC: That sounds like a lot of cross-traffic going on there! Have you been able to reach any new demographics?
DS: Oh yeah. And we found that when it was closed, our fashion and our home décor departments kind of flattened out because it’s all women who come in for lunch. None of them worked in our area, but it’s mostly women who come in. And it’s not older women that we’re seeing — they’re younger now. We see a lot of young moms and stuff like that. But right after lunch, you can always see those areas filling up. We did notice the difference when the restaurant was closed. Branches helps us a lot because it creates revenue for the store.
Editor’s note: Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
When you run an independent garden center, it’s easy to slip into the thinking that all you are selling are plants, products and services. Sure, customers getting their hands on the stuff they need for their landscape or gardening hobby is, of course, a primary purpose of your existence. But when it comes down to your marketing and customer communications, what you are really selling is your story. What story are you telling right now with your marketing ... and do you think your customers really want to be a part of that story?
It’s the story of your brand we’re talking about here: a story that is made up of lots of other stories about people — you and the people who work for you. This is especially true if you are a family-owned business with a long history to prop you up. But even as a new business with no family ties, you’ll need to figure out how to write or tell good stories if you want to make meaningful customer connections. Good stories need good personalities.
Stories can be historical in nature, such as the specifics of your family’s business history — how and when they started the business and all the family members along the way who have kept it thriving. These are perfectly acceptable stories, but I’ll caution you that history for history’s sake is rarely interesting or compelling, and such stories don’t often have personality. It’s great that you and your family have been in business for 50+ years, but what does that really tell me about who you are, the personality of your people and operation, and what my experience will be like as a customer? Not much. Last I checked, I don’t see many customers getting emotionally invested in a brand just because it’s family-owned or has been in operation for a bazillion years. There’s certainly value to your business’ history, and it can make a great skeleton of a story. But you’re going to need to flesh out that skeleton with the personalities of the people and relationships that make up your business so customers can get to know your character.
I’m currently taking a short story creative writing course through UCLA Extension, where I’m also a horticulture instructor. We spend considerable time talking about character development. How do you enable your reader to get a sense of who your character is — their personality — and the context for their behavior when you only have a small amount of space and time? Just as you want to get to know the characters in your favorite stories and novels, your customer wants to get to know you. At least the “you” you create to communicate with them as a business. Several important writing tools that garden center marketing needs to include are tone, point of view and relationships.
Watch your tone
Tone is an important communication and character development tool in the written story. When we speak to one another in person, it’s easy to communicate most of the information we want another person to know or feel by how we speak — not just the words we use. In writing and marketing, it can be trickier to convey the right tone. Tone must be created by the story’s narrator with a clear point of view and specific word choices.
Too often the tone used in our industry is one of disinterest or disconnect. We just assume our customers know what they need to know to be a great customer for us. Even worse, we often slip into tones of condescension and impatience when they show that they don’t know what we expect them to know. We may not have malicious intentions, but we’re so focused on our plants, products and procedures that we can easily forget we need to build human relationships to be successful.
Your marketing tone should be authentic and resonate with your ideal target customers. If “fun” is your tone, then tell a fun story. If “sophistication” is your game, then your tone will of course be more polished. No matter your chosen tone, displaying actual human emotions such as empathy and compassion — or simply revealing those feelings and characteristics more openly in marketing and customer communications — can create a sturdy foundation for a wonderful brand story.
Who’s telling the story?
If you’re trying to bring a more authentic personality to your garden center, your choice of narrator is a powerful place to start. Who is currently doing your talking for you? Sometimes all you need to do to infuse your story with the right personality is to let someone else tell it from their point of view.
By that, I mean involving your employees to do some of the talking for you. Classes, videos, blogs and podcast interviews given from the employee point of view can imbue your brand story with a sense of personality and personal touch that resonates with your customers.
I love watching garden center videos that feature staff’s day-to-day activities and their favorite plants and products. By getting to know the staff, I get a much better sense of who the business “is” and how they operate (and whether I want to shop with them). Your plant selection may be stellar, but if your staff is anti-social or uninterested in my customer experience, I won’t bother shopping with you.
Now, if your staff videos show me a group of people who are free to be their authentic selves, share an enthusiastic passion for plants and express a genuine interest in customer success, then I’m in because that’s a fun story.
Can you relate?
Using relationships as context is a valuable tool for building characters in writing, as well as your brand. How do your business and your employees relate to one another and your customers? Showing your customers a bit of personality-rich, behind-the-scenes action, and sharing how employees work with one another is a powerful way to authentically communicate. The story of how your staff enjoys working for you and with one another will tell them a lot about what it’s like to spend money with you.
Who doesn’t want to be part of an exceptional story? Telling a great brand story for your garden center will always come down to people and relationships. Choosing the right narrator and tone will put the polish on your story’s personality … and payoff.
Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com