Christianne Laing, owner of Avid Gardener in Cambridge, Wisconsin, had been considering adding local foods to her inventory of plants, hanging baskets and small houseware items for several years.
Last fall, she took the leap, launching sales of locally produced Wisconsin cheeses, honey and coffee — plus sustainably and organically produced wines from around the world — on Black Friday.
“I think it’s brought in some new traffic,” says Laing, who opened Avid Gardener in 2014.
Laing got her start in gardening in the early 1990s, tending to the stylized gardens on a private, 4-acre estate in the suburbs of Milwaukee. Later, she moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where she worked as a nursery manager at several local nurseries.
In 2001, she and her husband, Jay, opened their own landscape business, Red Hawk Nursery, in Cambridge — a small community of around 1,400, roughly 25 miles east of Madison.
“Our first account was for a neighborhood that was going to be in a parade of homes and they needed all the model homes and common areas dressed up with annuals,” says Laing. “I think that first year we planted over 10,000 tulips.”
For around a decade, in addition to their landscape business, the couple also grew vegetables and flowers on their personal farm to sell at local farmers’ markets.
All of that experience helped Laing feel equipped and confident when deciding to split off and open her downtown Cambridge retail business, Avid Gardener; meanwhile, Jay continues to run the couple’s Red Hawk Nursery.
“That history has helped me in the retail store. I know how to grow stuff,” she says. “I know how to grow flowers and vegetables and [maintain] landscapes, so I can answer all sorts of questions from people that come in and want help.”
Individualized customer service
Laing’s penchant for one-on-one customer service extends to her new lineup of wines, cheeses and other local foodstuffs.
Many of the food items she stocks have unique origin stories. The wines she carries, for instance, are “all biodynamic, organic, or sustainably produced,” Laing said, including one popular variety of Spanish old-vine zin. Her cheeses are from smaller producers in Wisconsin.
Since her food inventory launched in November, Laing’s shelves at Avid Gardener have also stocked small-batch charcuterie meats, artisan honey and fresh roasted coffee beans — all produced in the Madison area, as well. “These are specialty items that [local grocery store] Piggy Wiggly doesn’t have here in town,” she says.
Laing includes signage about the artisan products so that customers can read about their origin and flavor profiles. But her most successful sales strategy is talking to customers directly.
“One of the biggest things I have going for me is the individual, personal interaction I’m able to give my customers,” says Laing, who runs Avid Gardener with help from just a few part-time employees.
“That holds true with any product in the store,” she says. “I’m able to talk about them [all], and I’ve found that even if people come in and are browsing, if I engage them in conversation, they usually end up buying something.”
Attention to detail
While many independent garden centers are generations old — enjoying the benefit of longtime name recognition and a built-in customer base — Avid Gardener is a relative newcomer to the industry, preparing to celebrate just its sixth year in business this spring.
In that short time, though, Laing has established a reputation for providing high-quality plants at competitive prices.
“I’m starting to get known for the quality of my plants,” she says noting that she grows as much as she can at her farm’s 18x24-foot greenhouse, while sourcing all the rest — annuals, herbs, and hanging baskets — from nearby Wisconsin growers.
Laing prefers to source within a 75-mile radius, in fact, so that she can personally go on site and pick her plants by hand.
“I’m pretty picky,” she admits. “If I wouldn’t buy it for myself, I won’t sell it to a customer. Oftentimes I take the extra time to go to the growers and literally hand pick all of the plants I want,” she says. “My experience has been, if I just say, ‘I want 25 of those and 50 of those’ [without hand pulling], I’m not getting the quality I want.”
Laing credits her high standards in sourcing for helping her stay competitive with other garden centers in the region.
“There is a fairly decent-sized garden center about 10 miles away and another around 20 miles away, and I’m able to stay competitive with their prices,” she says.
Smart business model
Laing’s business success can also be attributed to careful planning.
Before opening in 2014, she spent over a year meticulously developing a business plan — one that was encouraged by a local economic impact study, which suggested a small retail garden shop might thrive in the area.
“The numbers looked promising, and they gave me the confidence to say, ‘Yeah, I think I can pull this off,’” she says.
Now, thanks to her prominent location on the small town’s Main Street, Laing is able to draw in a lot of downtown foot traffic. Once she gets folks into the shop, they tend to linger.
“Because I am open all year round, I need to focus on items outside of just plants and only gardening,” she says. “I try to change the inventory up. One of my proudest things is, men come in here and they like it. They say, ‘Oh, this is a cool shop.’ You know, guys aren’t big shoppers. The wives come in, but I have enough stuff that I [also] hold the men’s attention.”
In addition to foods, Laing also stocks small, useful houseware and decorative items such as candles, soaps and lotions.
“Most of what I try to bring into the shop is functional and serves a purpose,” she says. “I do a lot of houseplants and terrarium products, which are popular right now. I carry rugs, hats and rubber boots. I stock items that are useful rather than tchotchkes to sit on your shelf.”
An added bonus to her Avid Gardener business model: it often sends business to the couple’s Red Hawk Nursery — and vice versa.
“They kind of feed each other,” she says. “People come in [to Avid Gardener] looking for landscape work, and I can feed that to Jay sometimes. Then we can take plants from this store and use it for his clients’ containers. So they’re pretty intertwined.”
Back before COVID-19 hit, in the midst of long, cold Wisconsin winters Laing came up with some clever approaches to drum up business before the kickoff of the busy spring planting season.
As part of a Valentine’s Day date-night promotion in February, for example, Avid Gardener partnered with a local craft studio to allow couples to decorate a wooden cutting board — with their family name or other design — and then work with Laing to learn how to assemble a charcuterie plate.
Laing admits that adding the food portion of her business was initially daunting, since she had to take out a loan to invest in inventory and purchase a refrigerator unit.
“It was almost like opening another store within a store,” she says.
Still, the effort has been worth it in helping her establish a new revenue stream and broader customer base.
“You end up building relationships with people who come in, which leads to real friendships,” she says.
Located in Selma, North Carolina, is DeWayne’s Country Garden, a full-service outlet center that offers concrete fountains, statuary and garden accessories, mums, live Christmas trees, women’s fashions, men’s attire, sweets and more.
While the center is home to many different offerings, it didn’t start that way. In 1991, the center began as a pumpkin and produce stand, which sat on a small patch of lawn. As the stand gained more business, founder DeWayne Lee was forced to move from the front lawn to a larger location. Four short years later, business grew “from pumpkins to pandora” and DeWayne purchased six acres one mile down the road from the original produce stand location.
Now, DeWayne and his high school sweetheart Tina Lee co-own the 42,000 square foot outlet center, which provides Selma and its neighboring communities with home and garden trinkets and treasures.
One popular household item that shoppers love are the porch boards by My Word!, a trademark of Pleasant Street Designs. While DeWayne’s has ordered products from My Word! since 2014, the porch boards are a fairly new item. What attracted Debra Raynor, DeWayne’s sister and store buyer, was their uniqueness and salability.
“For starters, I think people like the porch boards because of the price point of $29.99,” Raynor says. “It’s a good looking product, it’s weather proof and it’s also made in the U.S.A which is good because a lot of people are interested in products that are made in the U.S.A.”
Like many home and garden stores, DeWayne’s was forced to adapt to the orders following COVID-19. While they did not completely shut down, business slowed, and they lost a half a million dollars. Prior to that, however, the center received their initial order of porch boards in February and as soon as the store resumed operations fully, the porch boards were a success.
Lee thinks that’s because of the porch board’s home décor factor, especially during the pandemic.
“With everybody being at home and working from home, home has kind of been our symbol of family,” she says. “You take pride in your house now because that’s where you’re at all the time. And when you decorate the entrance to your home for others in society, that’s a welcoming thing to do. The porch boards help with that.”
As a buyer, Raynor says the most important aspect she looks for is shipping, especially during the mailing uncertainties of COVID-19. But My Word! fills orders quickly and ships in one week.
The porch boards measure 8 inches x 46.5 inches in size and come in a variety of colors and designs. Raynor says she’s especially looking forward to the Christmas designs because she knows they’ll be a success. She and Lee both recommend the porch boards to other garden centers.
“Just because of the success we’ve had so far, I encourage all centers to get them because I think they would be successful,” Lee says. “I don’t think they’re only popular in the South. You can put them on many types of porches like apartments and townhomes. People are always looking to enhance their entrances.”
When downy mildew wreaked havoc on impatiens six years ago, it didn’t make a difference what type of impatiens retailers offered. Downy mildew was relentless, and it got so bad at English Gardens that the IGC had to refund its customers when the plants started failing, says Frank Janosz, co-owner and vice president of purchasing.
“We didn’t sell impatiens up until this coming year. I didn’t want to have my customers be exposed to a garden failure, and to me, it all starts with the product that I make available to them,” Janosz says.
In the spring of 2019, PanAmerican Seed introduced the disease-resistant Beacon Impatiens, and Janosz jumped at the chance to try them out. After testing sample seed packets with staff and local growers, the seeds yielded fantastic results for the Michigan-based IGC.
“I was going to make Beacon Impatiens kind of like our poster child for impatiens, because out of all the impatiens that were out there, Ball and PanAm were the only ones that could make the statement that their variety was indeed downy mildew-resistant. Nobody else could really make that claim,” Janosz says.
Janosz put them into production and had a grower plant them in “super packs,” which contain the equivalent of six 3- to 4-inch plants in one package. For the Beacon Impatiens, Janosz placed them in 6-inch super packs, and says the PanAmerican Seed team was instrumental in their marketability of the impatiens. He says PanAm’s team was especially helpful when it came time to promote the new product. He also trained his staff on the new variety as well.
“We have a calendar that we put out every year and I asked Ball if they would like to support the calendar, which they wanted to, and we put Beacon Impatiens on the front cover. We also did a shopping bag with Beacon Impatiens on it and proceeded to tell the customers the story,” Janosz says.
English Gardens also sent emails about the new variety in March — around the same the coronavirus hit.
“Even though COVID came along and disrupted things a little bit, in the meantime, we were reaching out to customers and told them that sooner or later we will get back open and we will have this brand new, fantastic variety called ‘Beacon Impatiens,’” Janosz says.
English Gardens put full confidence behind the product, and Janosz says his results have aligned with the company’s claims, and it is indeed downy mildew resistant — something that boosted profitability.
“When we honored all those claims six years ago, it was a significant dollar amount that came back. And the margin dollars of profitability on impatiens for that year were negative because they just didn’t hold up. So now it’s simply out that they do hold up and the customers are not bringing them back. They’re still raving about them,” Janosz says.
He says he plans to sell more in 2021 as customer demand was incredibly high in 2020. He looks forward to the addition of new colors to the lineup, which is a thorough process that some takes time to unveil.
“They want to make sure that all the different colors that they offer would also stand the test of time with downy mildew,” Janosz says. “I’m excited about that. I think it’s a great program. It certainly can add profitability to garden centers around the country.”
More than 40% of Americans make it a regular habit to feed birds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Is your IGC serving these potential customers?
Edward’s Garden Center, in Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, has had a birding department for about five years and this was the best year so far, according to manager Debi Jaskowiec.
“Everything was up this summer,” she says. “We sold a lot more hummingbird feeders this year — not so many birdhouses. We were selling more than we had in the past year or two. But the hummingbird feeders were just flying out the door. We couldn’t keep them in stock.”
In its birding department, Edward’s Garden Center sells wooden and metal birdhouses, butterfly feeders and bumblebee feeders, along with the hummingbird feeders. Jaskowiec says the bumblebee feeders were another big seller.
Jon Morris, owner of Grasshoppers Garden Center in New Boston, New Hampshire, says his region’s bear population makes birding a difficult proposition for many of his customers.
“Birding is big around here, but more going out into the woods and going hiking to look at the birds,” he says with a laugh. “I wish we didn’t have the bear problem here because I do think it would be a good part of our business if it wasn’t for that.”
People in his region of New Hampshire take their feeders down in the spring and put them back up in the fall when the bears begin to hibernate. No one wants to attract hungry bears to their backyard, and the bears do much more damage than squirrels or other creatures that are known for tampering with feeders.
Hummingbird feeders are still popular at Grasshoppers because they can stay on the deck all summer. But once those backyard birders are looking to put their standard feeders back up, the garden center is closed.
“A lot of people do it in the wintertime,” Morris says. “But they don’t necessarily think about coming to the garden center in the wintertime. Our customer flow is April through Thanksgiving, then the winter is super quiet for us.”
That may change this year, because for the first time, Grasshoppers will be open five days a week through the winter. The IGC started carrying local food like produce, meats and cheeses last year, and that business exploded during the pandemic. Customers have been coming in droves and it shows no sign of slowing down, so Morris plans to stay open all winter, and pull the birding products back out to display in the gift shop. He’s optimistic that it will reach his area’s birding customers and grow that segment of his business.
Herbein’s Garden Center in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, expanded its birding center this year. Sales associate Gidge McFarland says it was the result of an opportunity she saw in the market. Some other stores in the IGC’s region that stocked bird supplies closed and their customers needed a new place to buy bird seed. Herbein’s also used its expansion as a chance to switch up its product mix.
“We had other products in the space that weren’t selling; they were just standing still,” she says.
However, birdbaths were a big seller for her this year.
Holly Dentico-Onkala is birding merchandise manager at English Gardens in Dearborn, Michigan (No. 13 on Garden Center’s 2019 Top 100 List). That means she’s the buyer in charge of deciding which birding products to stock and how to promote them.
“We have found that our customers who are passionate about bird feeding like having new toys to play with, so we try to give them the essentials as well as fun finds you won’t see in big box stores,” she says.
Still, English Gardens won’t stock decorative feeders or houses that aren’t functional as well.
Along with the expansion, Herbein’s Garden Center added a section to its website devoted to birding (herbeins.com/birding) that includes a rundown of product offerings and some information for consumers. The educational material available includes several ways to increase traffic to your birdfeeder and a list of native plants for a bird and butterfly garden, grouped by type and organized by sun/shade tolerance. Sales associates use this information as a selling point for the plants on the list.
“If someone has a question, we try to answer it as best we can,” McFarland says.
Herbein’s also carries a book from the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, “Birds of the Lehigh Valley,” that customers really seem to like.
“It’s got really beautiful color photographs,” she says. “So if you want to pick up birding in your backyard, you can come here and we’ll set you up.”
Education is mixed with fun on Edward’s Garden Center’s social media feeds. During one of their “Tuesday Tips” Facebook posts, Jaskowiec says an employee showed how to make a small birdfeeder out of an apple.
“We did it because of the pandemic and the kids were home for the summer,” she says. “She made an X with the wooden skewers you use for kebobs, tied it with brown twine, carved out the apple and put peanut butter and bird food in it, then you hang it in a tree. It was really nice.”
English Gardens features their feed and feeders in emails, the in-store flyer and seminars. They also have some videos featuring plants, feed and feeders, and the IGC’s blog hosts posts on topics like “5 products to get kids interested in birding.”
Different types of foods attract different birds. For instance, Nyjer seed is the preferred food of finches. It’s oily and dense, which means it will dry out if left too long.
Another thing to look for when picking a food is quality ingredients. Herbein sells mixes from Lyric Wild Bird Food, Cole’s and their own basic blend. Higher-end mixes are packed with ingredients like shelled nuts, pistachios and dried fruit. With bargain brands, the customer is often paying for filler birds won’t eat.
Also, different types of food require different styles of feeders.
“I try to stock items in different price points so I can make it affordable for people who don’t want to spend the money,” McFarland says. “I also try to educate them that some of the more expensive feeders have a lifetime warranty so you can get parts or get it fixed or replaced by the manufacturer.”
IGCs should make sure the feeders and food they stock match up, and also are a good match with the birds of that region. If you need help, the National Audubon Society (Audubon.org) is the definitive resource. Between its website, books and app, the venerable non-profit provides all of the resources you’ll need.
Edward’s Garden Center doesn’t sell 50-pound bags of seed. The Pennsylvania IGC sticks to the smaller, 4- to 5-pound bags from Better Bird. The fruit and nut and sunflower seed mixes are popular, as well as Nyjer for the goldfinch fans.
Edward’s also sells suet bells, which Jaskowiec says are going over very well. They are ceramic bells that hang from a cord, with suet in a netting that hangs from them.
Grasshoppers Garden Center takes a pragmatic approach to bird food.
“We’ve had customers ask for specific bird foods, so we carry what they’re going to buy,” Morris says.