In the January issue of Garden Center, we spoke with independent garden center owners and operators from all over the country about their predictions and expectations for the 2012 spring selling season. We found that they were trying to be optimistic, while not forgetting the consequences that weather and a slow economy had on some of their businesses in 2011.
This month, we got back in touch with some of those IGC owners and operators to find out what actually happened this spring. In most of the nation, favorable weather meant increased sales, especially when compared to previous years. However, we also saw garden centers adapting their strategies to be successful even if the weather was less than ideal.
Starting off strong
When we spoke with Sandi McDonald, owner of Hillermann Nursery & Florist in Washington, Mo., late last year, she expressed her hesitation about the future of the independent garden center industry, noting that it seemed “pretty weak” at that point. Now, however, McDonald is feeling a little more optimistic, especially when thinking back on the spring 2012 season. “Sales were phenomenal, as I’m sure they were for most people across the country,” she recalls. “We were up in all departments, but the biggest increase was in green goods, plants in general, and trees and shrubs.”
McDonald’s sentiment was echoed by the other garden center owners and operators. Across the board, sales were up as early as March, in some parts of the country. “We were selling some annuals in March, which was kind of crazy,” comments manager Lynne Phillips of Natural Art Garden Center, Toms Brook, Va.
Kathy Gagne, owner of The Mixed Border Nursery & Gardens, Hollis, N.H., remembers being “cautiously optimistic” when she last spoke with Garden Center. When we spoke to her this July, she was pleased with the results of the spring season, noting that they were much better than they had anticipated. “People were definitely interested in gardening, and buying more,” she says. “Our per-dollar receipt was up, at least for the springtime. Certainly for us, we were ahead of last year and trying to make some good headway on prior years that we had better sales.”
Adapting to survive
Adjusting to market preferences and trends is a key factor in the success of any retail operation, as Merrideth Jiles knows all too well. After facing a devastating drought, the general manager of The Great Outdoors, located in Austin, Texas, knew that the garden center had to make some changes in order to continue to be profitable. In this case, it meant reducing the quantity of certain plants that they always had kept in stock, mainly the lush, tropical plants that the garden center was known for, due to their cold-sensitive nature and high water consumption.
“The number one thing that we did in 2012 was change our buying philosophy,” he says. “We pretty much eliminated [lush, tropical plants] from our product offering. I can’t say it’s 100 percent gone, but it’s a fraction of what it used to be.” In place of the tropical plants, Jiles is stocking more native, drought-resistant plants.
Pre-booking vs. buying as needed
When it came to the amount of pre-booking these garden centers did, the results were mixed. Katy Thompson, green goods buyer at Sloat Garden Center in San Francisco, Calif., did less pre-booking this year than in the past. The only pre-booking she needed to do was for her dormant rose and certain branded plant lines.
“The better stuff sells out and they’re not growing as much anymore, but I have the luxury of being able to buy what I need off weekly availability,” Thompson says. “I’m surrounded by a lot of small, local growers, so I don’t have to plan my spring and take these huge truckloads at the beginning of the season.”
McDonald also pre-booked cautiously, and found that she needed to re-order certain products more often. She reported that the supply was available, and there wasn’t a problem getting what they needed.
On the flip side, Phillips had difficulties obtaining what the garden center needed this spring, despite pre-booking even more than in 2011. The garden center is located in an area where there aren’t many suppliers, which can make the re-ordering process difficult.
“What was interesting for me was that some staples that we are normally able to pick up the phone [and order] if I run out, I just could not find this spring,” she says. “I actually brought in a whole lot more of some things we consider staples [when I could find them] just so that we would have them.” When Phillips found a grower that was selling Cryptomeria ‘Globosa nana,’ she bought 30, instead of the normal 10 plants, and has since sold all of them.
Early and constant communication with sales reps and growers was vital for Jiles. He pre-booked about 30 percent less, by his calculations, but ended up re-ordering many products. Last year, he predicted that there would be plant shortages, especially native plants, and saw his predictions become reality this spring.
“I really tried to stay in touch with growers, ask how we’re doing on this, and they would tell me when stock was getting low,” Jiles says. “I would get more than I probably needed to make sure that we were going to have it. Particularly the drought-tolerant plant growers were unprepared for the volume that people wanted.”
Go easy on the trends
Thompson warns against going overboard with certain trends next season, even if your garden center saw high sales of certain products in 2012. She predicts that the edibles trend will continue to be strong in 2013, but within reason, and garden centers should prepare accordingly by stocking reasonably. Citrus trees are another product that has sold well in past years, especially from 2008-2010, says Thompson. However, past success with a product does not necessarily mean continued profits in certain situations. She remarks, “I’m not even going to book them this year, because my clientele in this area is only so big, and I know that whoever wanted to plant a deciduous fruit tree has done it.”
Planning for fall
Above average heat, dry conditions and the subsequent water restrictions are expected to last through October in some parts of the country, a stark contrast to last year’s rainy season. As a result, many garden centers are cutting back hours, changing their marketing strategies and taking time to think through their next steps. Thompson says that they will be promoting California natives heavily, pushing indoor plants and telling customers about the benefits of indoor gardening, and houseplants for cleaning the air, or creating nicer spaces.”
Meanwhile, McDonald is cutting out all landscape plants, despite having landscaping jobs lined up. “We’re working on irrigation, maintenance, insulation, patio and retaining wall work and some lighting, but we are not doing any landscaping at this time because of the drought,” she says. “We’ve postponed truck deliveries coming in at the end of June, and cut our fall orders at this time until we see what happens.”
This fall, Gagne will focus on getting the word out to customers about the new products that are coming into the garden center, rather than offering discounts to entice them back into the store. “I think the important thing is getting the message out that we’re here, and these are the new things we have coming in,” she remarks.
In order to keep customers coming in this fall, Jiles said they hired a new marketing person, and are trying to increase the number of events held on weeknights. “We’re doing a happy hour every Wednesday night where we’ve got things on sale, and we always have a theme like book club or swap shop, to try to drive more business in,” explains Jiles. “We’re going to have a farmers market in the fall to keep the traffic coming in.”
What does the future hold?
Following two drastically different selling seasons, what will 2013 offer IGCs? Garden center owners are adjusting their inventory and strategies to best prepare for the upcoming season, but as always, anything can happen. At least this year, the atmosphere is more hopeful.