Striving for success in the garden retail industry can often feel like a race to differentiate your business from the big box store on the other side of town, and in most cases, that comes down to the quality and variety of services you can provide that they can’t.
Knowing that, it’s no wonder why so many garden centers maintain florist departments, custom container stations and extensive giftware selections, to name a few offerings. However, divisions devoted to the design, installation and maintenance of home landscapes seem to be growing at IGCs across the U.S. as a reliable revenue stream.
For some garden centers, landscaping is a secondary department that has grown in profitability in recent years, while for others, it represents the greatest opportunity for sustainable growth.
Rice’s Landscapes Redefined in Canton, Ohio, was a combination landscaper/retailer up until late 2017, when Owner Bryan Rice decided to shut down retail operations to focus exclusively on landscaping services. Rice says the decision came mostly from a place of wanting to return his focus to the company’s core strengths.
His grandfather started the business in 1941 with “very humble beginnings,” plowing gardens and doing light landscaping. As customers began to routinely stop by to purchase leftover plants and landscaping product from Rice’s, a small retail business took shape over the years, and Rice’s even started growing its own green goods. Growing and selling plants was a stable business, but it was taking up facility space that Rice eventually decided would better serve his company’s core landscaping mission.
“The big driver for us was really the growth of our maintenance business,” Rice says. “We actually needed more space for that maintenance business. We started looking at what’s growing and what’s not growing and we also looked at the margins and consistency of [growth].”
Meanwhile, Meadows Farms Nurseries & Landscape, based in Chantilly, Va., operates 19 retail locations and a regional landscaping service. According to Vice President Bobby Lewis, landscaping wasn’t always a profitable part of the family business and has grown into an increasingly important department in recent years. Lewis says this is likely due to two factors; a growing “do-it-for-me” segment of the clientele and landscaping’s natural adaptability to adverse economic conditions.
“Everybody got hit hard [after the Great Recession], both [retail and landscape] departments did,” Lewis says. “But, I just think the landscape has rebounded really well and retail stayed flat. The thing about landscape is that it’s really easy to control your expenses. Instead of 80 crews, you send out 60. Instead of 30 designers, you have 15. I think with landscape, even with the sales drop, it was a lot easier to take care of a lot of those costs, whereas in retail you have a lot of fixed costs."
As for the clientele factor, Lewis says he’s seeing a broad trend away from DIY, with demand for professional landscape installation on the rise.
“I think people have more money than they have time, at least in this area for certain,” he says. “A lot of people are just making really good money but the thing they’re sacrificing more than anything is time. So, if they can get [landscaping] done for them, I think it’s the perfect situation for them."
In Ohio, Rice agrees that changing expectations in the market are creating opportunity for landscapers and retailers carrying that department.
“We see this movement, and it’s something we’ve been watching for a while, looking at the volume,” Rice says. "People’s buying habits, I really believe, have changed, and the demographics of folks coming in here.”
Retail and landscaping: the odd couple?
A variety of factors seem to be pushing garden center retail and landscaping services closer together throughout the industry, but for many businesses, it’s not a simple prospect of adding one department onto the other and excelling at both. There are many ways for a retailer to start offering landscaping services, or vice versa.
Like Rice’s, Avant Gardening & Landscaping in Madison, Wis., began as a landscape business in 1985 and, after many years of struggling to obtain the proper zoning permits, established a retail garden operation in 2016.
“I’ve always wanted to do retail because of the fact that we buy a lot of nursery stock,” says Owner Liza Lightfoot. “You have minimum orders, so you have plants left over, and over the years, we started to accumulate. It’s just a way to try to get some cash back into the business and sell our nursery stock.”
Whereas Rice’s shifted away from retail to concentrate on landscape projects, Avant continues to diversify by leveraging the strengths of both departments.
“It gives us an opportunity to do further marketing around the nursery. What’s nice about the nursery is that when people come in to buy plants, sometimes they want a large tree — and it’s too big to plant. They’ll hire us to do that or they say, ‘I just want these small plants now, but next year, I’m planning on doing a much bigger project,’ so it ties back into the landscape division. It’s a very nice knock-on effect.”
As a retailer first and foremost, Lewis feels the landscaping department of Meadows Farms is a key point of diversification that helps the IGC stand out from big-box competition, which do not offer services.
Rice’s retail operation began organically as a complement to its core offering of landscaping services — not unlike Avant’s situation. However, Rice feels the expansion got out of reach and needed to be simplified.
“That’s really how the garden center was started years ago,” Rice says. “Product was sitting here, and someone rolled in and said, ‘Hey, I need some grass seed or I need this,’ and we sold it. That was part of the model, and over the years, it got away from us. We got into gifts and all kinds of chemicals, and like anything, sometimes it works out well and sometimes you lose your way and go, ‘Man, why are we doing all this?' It’s too much.”
Though economic and industry-wide factors can affect garden centers around the country equally, the fact remains that no two companies are identical. Not every retailer can successfully launch a landscaping division in their market and not every landscaper can maintain a retail division on their property.
At the end of the day, Rice says, it comes down to what’s right for you and your business.
“We needed to right-size,” he says. “Like anything in this world, you need to change. Not just change for the sake of change, but … The world changes around you, and you just choose to change with it or not. It’s that simple.
“It just happened that our business is founded on landscaping and maintenance first, then the retail came second,” Rice adds. “So, for us to go back to our roots, it was something that we needed to do. But the market changes. There might be a shift at some point where all the sudden, retail comes back for us. In our world, the shift was really toward ‘do it for me.’”
For Lightfoot, diversification into retail was a calculated risk that has shaped for the better so far, though she’s curious to see where it takes her in the coming season.
“Landscaping is our core strength. The retail is really a sideline for us,” Lightfoot says. “A number of years ago, I worked with a consultant out of Chicago who helped me plan the business for resale. His suggestion was for us to add the retail division. He said it would make the business more sellable, and that there would be a good synergy between the landscape business and the retail, and that’s definitely proven to be the case. I thought that was good advice.”
If a garden center wants to diversify with a landscaping department, Lewis says that caution and research are important. Many businesses gamble and lose on a new service when they expand too quickly to sustain their growth.
“Don’t try to do too much too quickly. I think that’s where people get in big troubl,e whether it’s just trying to handle too much work too quickly, or too many different aspects; hardscaping, lighting, irrigation. I think the successful ones are going to proceed very cautiously and make sure they’re doing what they’re doing correctly and adding some [services] here and there.”