At the moment, “improvement” is the watchword for Baker Garden & Gift, which has served the gardeners of the Fargo, N.D., area since 1959 and looks to step up its presence in the market — both in terms of physical buildings and the company’s website.
Baker Garden & Gift’s main retail location is supplemented by a secondary property — added to the business in 1993 – used for growing plant material and as a home office for the company’s landscape service. President Eric Baker says that while his growing operation is limited in volume, the Fargo area has come to rely on Baker Garden & Gift for edibles and other smaller-scale plant material.
“As far as smaller stuff, we have about an acre of greenhouse production we supply ourselves with. We certainly buy-in a decent amount of stuff, too,” Baker says. “Fargo’s not necessarily rural, but compared to other cities, there are a lot of scratch gardeners, so we do a decent job on vegetables and making sure we have good material. I guess we’re a go-to for that. We sell a fair amount of fruit trees, and we’re still kind of farming-oriented, even though our city’s [more than] a quarter of a million people.”
Despite its commanding position in its market, Baker Garden & Gift wasn’t immune to the unseasonably cold weather that impacted many garden centers throughout the U.S. this spring.
A season of speedbumps
Spring 2018 brought Baker Garden & Gift a challenging pattern of weather. The long North Dakota winter made customers cautious and kept them out of their gardens, though Baker says this tends to happen in the Fargo area.
“Interesting enough, we’re so far north that people have a good memory,” he says. “There are going to be those impatient people that are like, ‘alright, I’m going to buy it and hold onto [plants until the weather improves].’ This year was just sluggish and temps were just below average, which forces people to hold out, as they should this far north.
“What I’ve been telling people is that our normal, super-busy six-week period turned into an extremely busy three-week period,” Baker adds. “Luckily, we had a fairly dry spring, so we had zero weekends where we got rained out. That kind of saved us. I’d say the cold slowed us down, but the dry part of the season actually enabled us to do as much as we did the year before, if not better.”
I’m looking forward to seeing how other garden centers continue to elevate their platforms. For certain entities, the people who are innovative and changing, there’s certainly room for [learning] from younger generations going forward, and it’s not in every industry that you can say that. I’m looking forward to the future.” – ERIC BAKER, PRESIDENT, BAKER GARDEN & GIFT
Baker gives some credit for the strong year to Baker Garden & Gift’s calendar of well-attended events and seminars for providing off-season revenue that mitigated the compacted spring.
“One thing that’s probably going to push us over the top again this year is [that] we did quite a few seminars this last January, February and March,” he says. “I think, with the increased sales, doing these events, that supplemental income helped us push through the late spring season, cash flow-wise.”
Taking the leap
Baker knows that a good sales year should be capitalized on. Long-term plans are in motion to upgrade the company’s 19-acre secondary site; including improvements to growing facilities, a new landscaping headquarters and, potentially, a second retail storefront. Last year, a new modern building was constructed to house the company’s landscape department, and Baker is in the process of shopping for complementary new greenhouse structures.
“I’m just in the process of updating some of our greenhouses at our grow facility — I’ll just call it our farm,” Baker says. “So, this might be a five-year plan for us, but eventually [the farm will] become retail for me. I’m pretty certain it’s just a matter of time before that happens. I’m trying to be strategic about buying the right house that’ll look nice in the retail environment.”
Baker has ambitions for his company that necessitate a physical expansion, though diligence and restraint are crucial when renovating facilities and opening new locations.
“Our push is going to be expansion. We’re in a smaller market, so I have to expand somewhat slowly,” Baker says. “Once that infrastructure gets put into place, I might dabble in potentially wholesaling and a few other things.”
This push for expansion also extends to Baker Garden & Gift’s online presence. Baker says he’s working with a local developer to refresh the company’s website to offer a more modern experience.
“The existing [site] we have is pretty plain jane and was developed about five years ago,” he says. “I’m good friends with Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis, and I kind of took their website as inspiration. Our website is going to have a kind of similar feel and shape to theirs.”
Whether launching a new location, improving greenhouses or revitalizing a website, Baker is dedicated to harnessing forward momentum and is excited to see what his and other businesses in the garden retail industry can accomplish.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how other garden centers continue to elevate their platforms,” he says. “For certain entities, the people who are innovative and changing, there’s certainly room for [learning] from younger generations going forward, and it’s not in every industry that you can say that. I’m looking forward to the future.”
With humble origins as a small landscaping business, Begick Nursery and Garden Centers understands the meaning of service. By providing everything from house-grown nursery stock to landscape installation and a fully-loaded retail facility, the Michigan IGC has claimed a prominent position in its market and continues to innovate on its product mix. We talked with General Manager Ray Schwall about Begick’s year so far and how it’s facing the future.
Garden Center: How does Begick Nursery and Garden Center set itself apart from its competition?
Ray Schwall: I think the one real basic thing is that we’re a full-fledged garden center, and there really aren’t a lot of those around here. There are greenhouses that sell bedding plants and things like that, and then there’s the box stores that sell what they sell, but we’re an all-around garden center. We sell anything that’s got to do with your garden, your home, your yard, your patio, your outdoor living, and [products for] maintaining it. Power equipment and everything, we have it all. [Customers] can really come to rely on us for just about anything they need to take care of in their yard.
GC: How has 2018 treated you so far? Was weather a challenge at all this spring?
RS: Spring 2018 started out terrible, actually. April was very cold — just a wicked month. And that kind of put us behind the eight ball a little bit. But May [and June were] fantastic. We caught right back up, so that was nice. For one and a half days in April, we weren’t even open because the weather was so bad. We’re hot and dry right now, but we’ve been starting to get a few timely rains, so that’s definitely helped. But the month of July was very dry for us.
Plant material in general has had a good year, too. Perennials are still very good for us. Our annual business is still growing for us a little bit. We’re doing a lot of container gardening, too.
We sell anything that’s got to do with your garden, your home, your yard, your patio, your outdoor living and all of that. We sell it all, and [products for] maintaining it. Power equipment and everything, we have it all.”– RAY SCHWALL, GENERAL MANAGER, BEGICK NURSERY AND GARDEN CENTER
GC: Are there any big projects, improvements or new departments you’re looking forward to in the near future?
RS: A large greenhouse addition that hopefully will come to fruition in a couple of years. What has really transformed us a lot in the last few years and has done well is the outdoor living category and selling patio furniture. We’ve become an exclusive Weber Grill dealer, and that just did fantastic for us this year. The furniture did very well for us this year, so that’s one category that has really exploded for us.
GC: Are there any other elements of the business that have done particularly well lately?
RS: In late winter, we start seminars on Saturday mornings. We do about two seminars per day. We start at the end of February and they go through to the end of April. Towards the end is when we always have our container gardening seminar and that’s, by far, always the very best-attended, so you can see the interest. [People] want to know what’s new, what’s different in containers, what new flowers are out there. It’s just amazing how, year after year, it’s standing room only for that seminar. We’ve been doing seminars for a good ten years on Saturdays, and it was kind of interesting because the first few [events] started out a little quiet — you’ve got to build the momentum. But this year, we saw activity on every Saturday, except for the one when we had the storm. People were interested, you could see that they were hungry and wanted to get out and work in their yard.
Like many successful independent garden centers, Martin’s Home & Garden started as a seasonal roadside stand. Founders John and Helen Martin began selling homegrown bedding plants and summer produce to residents of Murfreesboro, Tenn., in 1982.
Eleven years later, they went year-round with a new location and a complete garden center selection. Ten more years brought a move to a more central location, with their son Lester now managing the business, and Martin’s grew from 1 acre to 5.
Fast forward to Jan. 1, 2009, and Lester bought out his parents and became the sole owner of Martin’s Home & Garden at the age of 28. From 2003 until now, sales have nearly tripled. Martin’s employs 26 full-time, year-round employees at the single Murfreesboro location. Seasonal hires increase the total to 60 in April and May.
Set apart by a green heart and soul
When shoppers head to Martin’s Home & Garden from surrounding counties or make the 35-mile trek from downtown Nashville, they often have green goods in mind. “Our greenhouse department — annual bedding plants, vegetables, houseplants and tropicals — that’s the heart and soul of our business. That’s what we started on. That’s what we’re known for,” Martin says.
With selection and quality that he humbly states are second to none in the region, the greenhouse department generates one-third of the IGC’s revenue. The shrub/tree and perennial/herb departments earn praise for well-rounded, top-quality selections, but the greenhouse sets Martin’s apart.
The best customer service in town
The foundation Martin’s parents laid still guides his business. “Since day one, my parents were very strongly set in their concept that if you take care of the customers, you’re going to be okay. We’ve tried to maintain that long-term mindset for 36 years. Putting our customers as top priority has been the key,” he says.
That founding philosophy was crucial to early success. “There were several plant retailers that were much bigger than we were, but we did everything we could to make sure customers were happy and successful,” he says. “And guess what? They came back the next year.” Now customers arrive expecting the area’s best service, and staff make sure they get it.
“There were several plant retailers that were much bigger than we were, but we did everything we could to make sure customers were happy and successful. And guess what? They came back the next year.”— LESTER MARTIN, OWNER, MARTIN’S HOME & GARDEN
Martin cites two major accomplishments for boosting revenues. A 2011 retail greenhouse expansion increased the indoor sales area by 5,000 square feet. “That was a big thing in helping to increase the revenue flow, especially in early spring and going into the cooler season,” he says.
The second advance was a POS system in 2014. “That was our first point-of-sale system for the store,” Martin explains. “Going from the old-style, hand-run cash registers to a full-scale point-of-sale and inventory tracking system was a major change for us.” The gains in customer engagement and inventory management have been significant.
“We’re also pretty fortunate to be able to say we really didn’t take much of a hit during those recession years and recovery years. 2010 was one of our really, really great years,” Martin says.
Strategy had a part to play as well as luck.
“The biggest key was focusing on affordable ticket items. When times got tough, people stayed at home and had staycations. We couldn’t sell a $3,000 fountain,” Martin says. “But with our primary product lines, we were able to offer a way for people to enjoy their landscape and garden and not be in over their head.”
Priorities for the future
Long-term strategy is under wraps, but Martin has numerous plans in action. His biggest challenge right now is figuring out how to handle traffic overflow during spring’s peak weeks. “We need about 50 percent more room for our parking lot,” he says.
With the area’s soaring housing market, plans include expanding shrubs and trees by 50 percent in the next 12 to 18 months. Perennials and herbs are doubling for spring 2019. Houseplants are another key expansion area.
“We want to really get those green goods departments up to where we feel they can be,” he says. “The hope is to increase revenue over the next two years by $250,000 to $300,000 because of those departments.”
“My whole philosophy is what I got passed down from my parents: Take care of the customers and have top-quality product. If you don’t focus on plants and try to have the best, it’s going to be tough,” Martin says. “Focus on the green side of things. Make sure you’ve got that down pat and offer top-quality plants — then add the things that go with it.”
Established in 1984, Country Boy’s Home & Garden Center has two locations in South Carolina and is now well-known for its selection of annuals, but it began as “simply a farm market, offering local fresh produce,” as noted on its website’s About Us page.
“Originally, we were food growers in the Spartanburg area, and we lost three crops in a row,” says Allen Walcher, who owns the garden center with his wife, Lucy. After losing their inventory, he says he and Lucy had to consider other options.
Over the years, Country Boy’s integrated plants, herbs and décor until they discontinued produce sales in 1995, sticking to annuals, vegetables, herbs, perennials, hanging baskets and décor. After switching their focus to plants, Walcher says their sales doubled.
“We found out in a hurry that we couldn’t be everything to everybody,” he says.
Giving customers optionsCountry Boy’s carries a wide range of varieties of every plant in their store, including vegetables and herbs.
When customers visit the store, “They’re looking for quality, and they’re looking for color,” Walcher says. “If you go to a box store, you’re going to see two varieties.”
Customers will find many varieties of each annual, up to 60 varieties of vegetables and 135 herbs, he says, and customers can mix and match plants throughout the entire store for flat rates depending on the pot size.
“We tried to keep everything standardized so that we only have eight prices in the store. In other words, 4-inch materials, all the same price; four-and-a-half inches, all the same; six-and-a-half, all the same; 10 inches, all the same; 14 inches, all the same,” he says. “And we allow mix-and-match all the way through the store.”
Country Boy’s also offers a quantity discounts when customers mix and match. “It moves your volume,” Walcher explains. “When you offer a quantity discount, you increase your volume by as much as 20 percent.”
He says plants account for the majority of the business, at about 60 percent of sales, and accent plants like ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vine and creeping Jenny are among the best-sellers.
Walcher says accent plants are the most popular in the store because of the increase in customers using containers instead of growing plants in-ground.
“The majority of it is going to two pots on their front porch, and then they’re filling in their pots with different things on their patio,” he says.
Christmas in July, December, and every other month
At County Boy’s Home & Garden, Christmas is a year-round celebration, and Walcher says making it a permanent instead of a seasonal department at both locations sets them apart from other retailers and drives revenue during slow months, keeping sales balanced throughout the year.
“The majority of garden centers run 65 to 70 [percent of their sales] in the spring,” he says. “Then 30 to 35 percent in the second half of the year.”
“We want people to feel at home when they come here and to feel like they’re part of our family.” – Allen Walcher, co-owner, Country Boy’s Home & Garden Center
Walcher says Country Boy’s is close to sales being 50/50 through the year. “Last year, I think it was 54/46, which is unusual for a garden center, especially when you’re using soft goods. We sell no shrubbery, no trees.”
The Christmas Shop is prominently promoted on the company’s website and features holiday ornaments, wreaths, artificial trees and décor.
Walcher says a challenge the garden center faces is keeping up with consumer trends. He says it’s easier to keep track of hard goods preferences because everything has a SKU in their computer system, but he has to pay close attention to the plants.
“You [need to] have your hands on it. You’ve got to be out there with it and be looking at it daily,” he says. “You need to know what you have on hand, what is sold and what the direction the customer is going.”
When a garden center knows what customers are looking for they can merchandise accordingly, he adds.
“We think our displays and our quality of our product sells. We don’t put pressure on anybody to buy something,” Walcher says. “We want people to feel at home when they come here and to feel like they’re part of our family.”