Joining the local movement can prove beneficial to all aspects of your garden center
Long ago and far away in England, I worked in a local nursery that was very traditional and, wait for it — very local. We grew bedding, perennials and houseplants as well as greenhouse and outdoor crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage, which we sold twice a week on the “local” retail (farmers) market in the local town where we lived. We also grew bare-root trees, shrubs, roses and so on, which we sold to retail for the locals. We forced bulbs for Easter and poinsettias for Christmas. On slow days we took the truck for local stable manure (by hand forking from pile to truck!) to improve our local soil; we also planted trees and shrubs in the local landscape. The nursery was the go-to center for everything from tasty tomatoes to beautifying local streets. We interacted with the local inhabitants in the nursery, at the market, in their homes or at their landscaped parks. The owner was “Mr. Horticulture” to the 100,000 local inhabitants, and had two generations lined up to follow him.
The relatively rare non-local products like out-of-season tomatoes from Spain or new potatoes from Egypt(!) had us all crowding around the truck, as did the beautiful container-grown conifers that our boss hadn’t yet mastered. Our tools, machinery and supplies were made in England, though that Russian peat moss was strange stuff (Mastodon bones anyone?).
We, the nursery workforce, shared the customers’ weather, soil, successes and failures. We spent our wages in their shops and pubs, went to school with them or played football (round-ball version) against them. It was all community!
So I can see the irony in urging garden centers today to orient their messages to being local, community based businesses. Weren’t we always local?
Having driven manufacturing offshore by consistently supporting cheaper imported goods, American (and British) consumers now want to be seen supporting local businesses and jobs. There seems a huge irony in the fact that, in order to fight off the negative effects of globalization, when entire industries went offshore, American companies are now trying their best to appear “local,” even using it as a comforting tag line as in the current “Imported from Detroit” car ad.
Well, what could be more local than hanging baskets grown 300 feet from their car? What could be more community supportive than a shade tree propagated, lined out and grown in a field within a few miles of the end-users’ garden?
Tell it like it is – your products. First let’s tell the community some facts about your business, like how much of your costs of goods (call it supplies or product) is spent locally or at least regionally. I know that much of the décor, patio and holiday inventory comes from overseas, but if your sales are 60 percent more green goods grown in the USA, that makes you about 90 percent more local than many stores in malls and shopping centers. Remind shoppers and consumers that your plants are grown locally or sourced regionally from growers that understand the local climate, soil and water. The big box stores buy big volumes and often have to buy from larger out-of-state growers; you can say you are investing in your state or even your county. In an election year you might as well play the “jobs” card like everyone else!
Add up your last 20 years’ overheads (such as rent, supplies, repairs, equipment, taxes and fees) to proclaim facts like: “We have pumped $5 million into the Smalltown community since 1992.”
Try to source American products and then shout about it. I was surprised to find that the garden hose I bought last week was American-made though there was not a flag or icon in sight on the packaging or POP, the “Made in USA” was as small as “Made in China” was on other items.
Tell it like it is – your people. State the case that you are employing “X” people and supporting “Y” families, all of whom live and spend their wages in the community, creating more employment. Don’t be shy about the taxes you pay and the taxes you collect for the state and local government. Be proud of the growth in your company with PR lines like, “Since 1982 XYZ Nursery has pumped $30 million into the local economy” or “Created 100 local jobs since 1998.” Remember that two out of three new businesses fail with the first three years, so if you are a 30-year veteran, it means you know what you are doing – again be proud.
Family companies were not “cool” for many years as corporate America showed the power of capital and growth, but now look how things have changed even to the extent that we see “A Family Company” as a tag line on ads for national product names worth billions. Even Walmart talks about its humble beginnings in Arkansas. Most garden centers have always been family companies – be proud.
Garden center employees, their retirees and the owner live in the local community. They shop in local stores, their kids go to school with customers’ kids, so supporting that little league team or that sick child’s appeal isn’t just good PR like it might be for a bigger national company, it is what neighbors do for neighbors. So when it comes to which annuals can thrive in your local soil, which irrigation products can cope with your hard water or when you can safely plant out impatiens, local assurance from neighbors is what local garden centers are all about.
Use Your Assets. The current economy has caused some soul-searching by garden center owners, no doubt, and an improved use of assets or facilities is emerging as a smart thing to do. As I said to a client last year, “You have heated buildings, dry covered outdoor space, blacktop parking for 100 cars, your own turn-lane off the highway and perfectly good bathrooms for 24/7, 365 days a year use. Why not become a community center after regular hours?” In that city with limited public facilities, the choice of location for a meeting of a business group, association or family reunion was the back room of a greasy spoon or the church basement. Why not a warm fragrant greenhouse full of tropicals and fountains?
One of our clients (in climate Zone 5) has had great success with craft sales in their greenhouse in winter, renting a table to households or local artists and getting them to publicize the event in a warm greenhouse in the middle of winter. That builds traffic, creates awareness and the chance to promote the spring events later, while helping pay for the heat being used anyway to grow the spring color.
Other stores have used the same technique for garage sales, local wine and food, re-habilitated hawks - even a local charity-organized rock concert in a gorgeous nursery on a warm summer night complete with rocking swans on the pond! Beats the local motel’s meeting room.
Cause and effect. We all know that supporting charity causes can be a good thing for business, especially with health issues the customer can relate to such as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer appeal which identified gardening as a good link years ago with pink petunias. But in the last few years, corporate America has taken up and dominated many of the national campaigns that small businesses have turned back to supporting the local community. This gives a great opportunity to show your support for that child who needs special expensive surgery, a family home lost in a tornado or a local school that needs teaching materials. Your customers, your employees and the whole community will know that child, house or school and will be more motivated to contribute or get involved.
A great example of this is the work done by the owners of Logan Trading Company (more frequently known as “Logan’s”) in Raleigh, N.C. This local icon, set in the old downtown Raleigh train station is a beautiful full-service garden center, operated very successfully for over 40 years by the family of Robert and Julie Logan. They chose to support the excellent “Plant a Row For the Hungry” campaign initiated some years ago by the Garden Writers of America. But with limited space and almost no native soil on the property, Logan’s cleverly involved their customers to do the growing with a spring launch campaign of seminars and free seed to get people going (and just think of all those tie-ins.) For the next few months, Logan’s is the go-to place for advice and support for the customers, sometimes creating extra visits to the garden center and lots of support. Now here is the clever move: as the produce becomes ready, Logan’s is one of the community drop-off places for consumers to take their tomatoes, squash etc. for their partner, the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, to pick it up and distribute to the needy.
So, Logan’s creates attention and community respect through adopting the program initially, holds customer loyalty by being the “guru” during the growing process and adds at least a few extra store visits as and when customers bring in their produce for weeks, maybe months in the season — brilliant!
Last year’s goal of 10,000 pounds of food was “squashed” with a total that almost doubled that. When I was there last summer there was a constant trickle of smiling customers coming in the store proudly bearing their heirloom tomatoes, squash or peppers. What’s not to like?
It didn’t take long for the stir created to reach the politicians, so the Mayor of Raleigh soon got involved. In 2011, the NC Governor had a photo op planting a Row For the Hungry on the grounds of the Mansion for the first time since the Civil War! All the time the Logan’s name was in the story, and what a story that is. Hats off to the Logan family and team.
Local is the new green. In the promotion to “Buy American,” someone with a much bigger impact than me needs to remind consumers and politicians that, with the exception of a relatively small percentage of plant material from Canada or Central America, every living green thing this industry sells comes from this country. I doubt that many retail channels can claim that!
Little did I think in my nursery grunt years that I would be urging owners to urge their customers to think locally, but as the world becomes sub-divided into 900 million Facebook pages, we need to remind ourselves of just what a huge, enviable opportunity the locally owned garden center could develop if it wants to.