With three locations within 15 miles of each other, Agway of Cape Cod is in a unique market with a diverse customer base that wants different price points. In addition to seasonal residents who have a second or third seasonal home on the Cape, Agway of Cape Cod also services a very dedicated market in the more blue-collar community, says Jessica Thomas, vice-president and co-owner.
“Agway is a sort of a nostalgic brand of farm and feed, which is a very, very small portion of our business but people still associate it with that,” Thomas says. (While the Agway brand supplies some of the stores’ products, they are independently owned and operated.) “So it’s nice to have that big mix and it’s a challenge to service both of those demographics successfully because there’s a price sensitivity there, and also a high level of customer service expectation from the other demographic.”
The affluent Cape Cod location was a blessing when COVID hit, says Marketing Director Andrea Baerenwald, with a booming housing market over the past year and a half. “It’s been challenging but also very rewarding in terms of creating new customers and building our loyalty there,” she says.
But Agway seems to have found a good balance with its customers. In Cape Cod Life magazine’s Best of Cape Cod competition, the Orleans location won gold in the garden center category this year and silver for two years prior. The Dennis garden center location also took home silver in 2020.
The Orleans, Dennis and Chatham stores have a good lock on the pet supply and garden material business in their area. Offering a mix of 35% to 50% lawn and garden goods, depending on the store, a good chunk of their business (18%-20% overall) is bagged soils and mulches, Baerenwald says. “It’s a huge business for us,” she says. “Because a lot of homeowners here have much smaller plots, it’s a lot easier for them to deal with bagged goods. We don’t have a whole lot of people buying big bulk.”
Pet supplies make up about another third of the company’s overall business, which fluctuates throughout the year. It’s been ever-changing, especially as Agway of Cape Cod has dipped its toes into new markets like outdoor furniture, which has been a fast-growing sector for the company.
The staffing struggle
In recent years, Agway’s staff has jumped from about 100 to 130-plus today. But hiring has been tough. Cape Cod is an isolated area with high housing prices so there isn’t much of a young workforce to recruit.
“It’s a challenge to attract the people who want to start and grow a career,” Thomas says. While there’s a group of employees who all grew together and developed their careers at Agway together, starting from the bottom up, things have changed over the years, she says.
“We’re all very fortunate to be able to establish a life here on the Cape but the opportunities have changed over the years,” Thomas says. But the company is trying to address that issue by attracting young people and showing them Agway is a quality place they can grow in their careers.
The hiring process has evolved over the years since Agway has grown. They look for a variety of qualities like responsibility, initiative and customer service skills. But reliability is key to any hire, especially in these busy times. “Basically, if you show up, we put a huge weight on that. And that’s been a growing challenge over the years,” Thomas says. “I’m just trying to get people that consistently come to work.”
Working together between marketing, management and human resources, Agway crafts its job postings based on the qualities and characteristics that best suit the position. If they’re looking for a warehouse coordinator, they’ll look for someone organized or if they’re looking for someone semi-retired, they’ll advertise for people who love working with plants. “Ultimately, they’re going to be happier in that position rather than just having one blanket posting, bringing them in and saying, ‘OK, you’re hired. We’re going to put you here or we’re going to put you there.’ We try to hire people that fit the bill for what they’re looking for.”
A large percentage of the company’s staff is either retired or semi-retired, working a couple of days a week. They may be master gardeners with a passion for plants and want an employee discount, or they might be folks who have scaled back from a corporate career and want to work outdoors. Many are ‘snowbirds’ who fly down to Florida for the winter months, so the timing works perfectly with a garden center’s busiest season.
The family foundation
Jessica Thomas’ father opened the first Agway of Cape Cod location in Orleans in 1993, but even before that, her grandfather was running an Agway store in central Massachusetts. Her grandfather ran it in the ‘60s and her father ran it after him before selling it in the early ‘90s. They moved to the Cape in search of new opportunities and started over with just eight employees and a small store.
“It was family,” Thomas says. “My mom was highly involved; my brother was getting off the bus every day from middle school and working in the bag yard. That’s where it started and that’s how it continued.”
Thomas and her brother Joshua Wile now head up the business, and the family dynamic wasn’t always comfortable or easy for other employees to deal with, Thomas says, but over the years, the pair have learned and adapted. They want their employees to know that coming to work is not just a job for them.
“We’re able to come every day and improve and be creative and find new ways of doing things,” Thomas says. “To be a good employer, to be a good place to work — that’s so important to us. We’re so fortunate to be able to live here and have careers here. Working with pets and plants, and helping people thrive is really rewarding for us and it’s been really nice to develop a lot of other people that can relate to that.”
And that’s the company culture they instill at Agway of Cape Cod. Throughout the difficulties of COVID-19, the company worked hard to constantly adapt and communicate with staff. “Making people feel safe has been our No. 1 priority over the last year and a half,” Thomas says.
The management team wanted staff to know that the company was there for them and that they weren’t just coming to work to get paid — they’re a critical part of the infrastructure. So Thomas and the team did a series of bonuses and video messages to try to keep up morale.
And even before COVID, Agway would throw a company Christmas party, employee contests and sales goal celebrations to build team connections. Overall, Thomas says she got genuine positive feedback that employees appreciated the efforts.
“As stressful as it was to feel like, ‘Are we doing enough? Are we making the right decisions along the way?’ We had their backs and they knew that we had their backs. And I think that was what was really important,” she says.