#51 ON THE TOP 100 LIST

Countryside Flower Shop Nursery and Garden Center will celebrate its 60th year in business in 2020 and Marcy Cronin has been there for 27 of those years. The Crystal Lake, Illinois, IGC typically has about 100 employees during the busiest time of year and reported sales of $6.25 million for 2018, placing them at No. 51 on our list.

We asked Marketing Director Marcy Cronin about the secrets to this IGC’s success.

Q.What sets Countryside apart from other garden centers in the area?

A. Our product selection. We grow the majority of our annuals, our poinsettias, our mums, our vegetable plants. Laurie Harms — she’s our grower and manages the greenhouse and then her staff. Pam runs the perennial operation; Michael does the roses. Everything’s grown here. What we don’t grow, we make sure we get from all the other suppliers like Bailey and Monrovia. We make sure the material that’s coming here is quality. Our buying team, Patty Braglia, Kerri Arthur and the owner, Richard Harms, provide a nice mix of items here for people to choose from and new products for sale.

Our staff is what carries us through everything. Other than the young kids that come in from high school for a part-time job and stay with us until they find their career, I don’t think there are any of us that have been here for less than 10 years. And I think our customers recognize that because they stop you in the grocery store and say, ‘Hey, my tree’s doing this, what’s up with that?’ We know the product, we know the company, we know what services we have to offer.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF COUNTRYSIDE
In winter months, Countryside times educational seminars with indoor plant sales so attendees can get out of the cold and enjoy the greenhouses.
Picking out an ornament with family from the holiday shop may be the positive memory that brings a customer back as an adult.
In addition to its retail garden center operations and flower shop, Countryside also offers landscape design, installation and maintenance services.

Q. How do you develop a marketing plan to keep customers visiting year-round?

A. When I started doing the marketing here, people would say, “Oh, well, spring’s busy. We make most of our money out of the year in those few weeks then it slows down.” Well, from a marketing standpoint, you think, “Oh no, let’s get the people in here.” Throughout the season we do educational seminars from how to prune in spring to how to start a garden from seed to how to put together holiday planters. In January we have a gentleman that does backyard birding and talks about the different seed and the feeders to use. And then we follow that one up with a gentleman that comes in with owls and hawks, and he has the actual birds of prey here with him. The customers are face to face with these huge owls and it’s just so exciting.

Q.What do you look for when planning a garden center event?

A. Some of them are just tried and true, like the pruning one. We have almost 100 people here to learn how to prune their trees and shrubs the right way in spring. Not only does KC (Illinois Certified Nursery Professional Karen Campney) usually cover the pruning aspect of it, but she also explains the fertilizing schedule. She makes videos and we put them out there for people to look back at if they need to. So our YouTube channel gets some action that way.

We try to always have something going on at least once a month for people to come in and either learn or participate, to get something out of it that shows we’re not just here to sell them something. We’re here to help them be successful in the garden, help them enjoy being outside, getting their hands dirty and helping the little ones get interested and get involved. We do lots of field trips in the springtime. The whole month of April is just filled with kids coming in here, whether they’re middle school kids learning about photosynthesis and how the plants work and where their food comes from, to little preschoolers coming in and rubbing herbs and smelling the difference. They go home and tell (their parents), “Oh my gosh, that’s the best place ever.”

Q.How do you create a customer experience that leads to customers for life?

A. Thank goodness we have the flower shop. We get customers who say, “I was here for my prom flowers, now I’m getting married!” Then they come back and have us do their landscape when they get their house. They remember coming here with their families when they were younger. At some point, they had a good experience when they came here. So when they reach that time in their life where they think, “It would be nice to have a plant,” they’ll come back.

The big thing now is the succulents, because they feel like they can kind of neglect it and it’s still okay. They’re successful and they feel good about it. They might only have an apartment or are still at school, but once they get that house and then it’s like, “Oh, we can do plants.” We will help them with whatever they need when they are ready because you can’t sell a car to someone who doesn’t need it. But if they have a great experience at some point in their life, when that trigger goes again, they’re going to think, “I’ve got to go back there. That’s where you go to get that. That’s where you go to do this.” We just have to make sure they know it’s a positive place to go.

Q.How do you specifically market to the younger generations?

A. I have a couple of employees in that 20-year-old range and they’re all over social media. As much as I try, it’s just not my forte. But they love it. I gave them full reign. I give them the marketing plans — this is what we’re going to be doing; this is what we’re highlighting — and I say, just go for it. They are phenomenal and I couldn’t be happier because they’re hitting people that are not people that I’m used to marketing to. They’re hitting that younger generation. It doesn’t have to do with the plant necessarily or how to take care of it, but they’re letting other people know all the fun stuff that we have here or the things that are going on, or videos of staff and what’s happening. And it just brings in more people. That generation gap that is missing is hearing it from people their own age, getting to them in the way that they receive information. I’ll stick with the old stuff that we do, all the old media ways and let them take the reins on that. And I think other managers do that with their staff as well.

Q.What steps can you take to empower your employees?

A. We have one girl who has been working here since spring who was very quiet. Now, the other day she was walking around with a basket with a couple little plants in it. So I ask, ‘What are you working on?’ She had put together her first English garden baskets: poinsettia, house plants, a nice mix of plants together in a basket with a bow and everything. She made it look really super cute. And she knocked them out fast. She just was banging through them and they were selling like hotcakes. She couldn’t have been more excited. Yeah, it sold, because you did a really great job. She’s not a quiet person in the background anymore. She found her niche and took ownership of it. Have faith in your staff. Tighten the rein when you need to and let them loose to do their thing. Then, watch them shine and it benefits everybody.

Q.Countryside employees have admirable longevity. What are some keys to finding a winning hire?

A. The most important thing is that they’re friendly. They can have a conversation with people and aren’t afraid to learn. If they have a good personality, we can teach them how to sell. We can teach them what chemicals to use; how to do things organically. We can teach them those things. But you can’t teach someone how to be nice, how to be sociable, how to ask somebody, ‘Hey, can I help you with something?’