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It’s not uncommon in the garden center industry to hear about a business that started as a small produce stand. But the progression from roadside retailer to industry-leading IGC usually takes decades — not just one generation.
DeWayne’s, located in Selma, North Carolina, didn’t stick to that plan.
When 20-year-old DeWayne Lee started DeWayne’s Pumpkin Patch in 1991, with $500 borrowed from his mother, he didn’t waste time. Today, he and his wife and co-owner, Tina, run a 40,000-square-foot IGC known for everything from quality plants to luxury women’s accessories — and pumpkins, when fall rolls around.
With one glance around DeWayne’s, it’s clear why its “Distinctively Different” tagline fits. Expectations about IGC offerings don’t apply. While plant- and garden-related items abound, customers at DeWayne’s enjoy a destination retail center, where traditional garden goods are one entrée on a broad plate.
Green goods and garden center merchandise account for about one-fourth of the company’s business. Much of the balance comes from custom-created, non-garden shop-in-shops. These include a 4,500-square-foot women’s boutique, a 1,500-square-foot men’s shoppe and more. Centralized cashiers stand just as ready to ring up Louis Vuitton handbags, houseplants or garden décor.
From Labor Day weekend until mid-January, the IGC’s Christmas Land attracts big crowds. “Our November and December are bigger for us than spring,” DeWayne says. The year’s biggest week comes when gift buying peaks at Christmas. The IGC giftwraps nearly 25,000 packages annually, complete with hand-tied bows and a gold DeWayne’s logo sticker.
Acting on inspiration
The ideas that take shape at DeWayne’s start with varied seeds. A tour of European garden centers more than a decade ago helped inspire the shop-in-shop concept now seen at the IGC. Though a boutique wasn’t on the agenda, the Lees recall garden centers that housed odd, diverse little shops that weren’t typical IGC fare.
That may have spurred DeWayne’s boutique idea, brought on by Recession years. “I was getting a little bit nervous with the garden center side of the business and just trying to keep revenue in,” he says. He thought that while people might let their gardens go, they’d still be interested in looking good.
Tina was at market in January 2010 — buying for the next Christmas — when DeWayne called and asked her to buy clothes for a boutique. “April 16, 2010, we opened a fully customized ladies’ boutique,” she says. “That’s just how we work.”
The “aromatherapy” that greets visitors at DeWayne’s has its roots in a scent experienced at an Atlanta hotel. Struck by the smell, DeWayne quizzed hotel staff and learned their secret. The IGC now pays to have scents piped through the ductwork. During the holiday season, it’s Fraser fir.
That sweet smell of waffle cones cooking? That’s real, courtesy of the newly opened sweet shop — 24 flavors of ice cream and 20 flavors of fudge. At DeWayne’s request, the cones are made on site and ventilation pulls the smell to the sweet shop entrance.
DeWayne concedes inspiration often comes from his gut. When he feels strongly, he acts. “He’s a risk-taker for sure, but that’s what’s really made us successful,” Tina says. “When most people are a little cautious or scared, he goes for it 100%.”
Creating the experience
It’s easy to focus on product diversity and high-profile brands, but that would be overlooking the special touches that distinguish the experience at the IGC. DeWayne explains that the atmosphere differs in every department, but it all starts before customers ever leave their cars.
“They see the landscaping. The parking lot is cleaned every morning. They hear music, just quiet in the background, before they ever enter the store. Then there’s the smells when they come in,” he says. It’s about 15 to 20 feet before customers reach product. By the time they do, they’re acclimated to DeWayne’s atmosphere.
All new hires have a one-hour session with Tina, where they learn about the company’s history, its customer service priorities and the level of excellence the IGC requires. All products are carefully chosen and curated by their teams, from $9.99 gift shop items to $1,000 gold bracelets.
The shop-in-shops are custom-built and decorated for the purpose at hand. When changes happen, that can mean new rooms and walls or existing rooms completely gutted. A contractor works on site nearly full-time, and a local artist adds one-of-a-kind finishing touches.
With apparel and jewelry high on the list of attractions, Tina says people often assume she’s the mastermind behind the experience. Not so. “DeWayne is truly the entrepreneur spirit and visionary behind it all,” she says. A man of few words, he quickly interjects that it’s her, too. “Yes,” she says with a laugh. “I have to control him.”
Making a statement
To see DeWayne’s today, it’s hard to imagine its simple roots and the challenges the Lees overcame. In the earliest days, as DeWayne’s Pumpkin Patch segued into DeWayne’s Country Garden, expansion of the local outlet mall forced two moves.
The current location was purchased in 1999. Construction of a gift shop in 2001 brought award-winning restrooms (after 10 years of portable toilets) and the streamlined name. A two-year redesign and expansion project from 2015 to 2017 made room for more retail and more parking, and brought the IGC to its current size. But the path to growth had hurdles.
One critical challenge came in 2008, a year that evokes Recession-related memories for IGC owners nationwide. That’s the only year in its history that DeWayne’s experienced a drop in sales. Tina recalls the time, as competitors faced economic decline by cutting back on everything from labor to products.
“DeWayne said, ‘Everybody’s scared. We’ve got to show them we’re here to stay,’” she says. They took out a loan and did extensive landscaping out front. “We invested instead of cutting back and it paid off,” she says. “We were way up the next year and it’s continued since.”
Managing for success
The Lees’ management style has changed significantly along the way. In the mid-2000s, they worked 70 to 80 hours a week. “The business was running us instead of us running the business,” Tina says. A turning point came when they hired a consultant. “He told us you have to step back and delegate in order to grow,” she says.
For a couple used to opening and closing everything from the front gate to the registers, it wasn’t easy. The shift took two years. They developed their management style and their management team, whom they credit with bringing life to their vision. “We’ve been very blessed with the right people at the right place at the right time,” Tina says.
Once the Lees were free to focus on the numbers and see their business in a new light, that’s when they really started to grow. “We do what we do best and hire the rest,” DeWayne says. “Let go of things. Trust your staff. Hire good people and let them go.”
Thinking back on their rapid growth, Tina says, “I was 16 when I started dating him, and he was just a little roadside produce-stand fella. I would have never dreamed.” Customers often ask staff members if DeWayne is still alive. “They assume he’s an old man who’s passed and gone,” she laughs. “He’s just a unique creature.”