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Garden centers are often rooted in their community’s history, and many IGCs serve generation after generation of customers. In order to succeed, businesses must maintain a reputation with a focus on quality materials while adapting to customer trends, and Yard ‘n Garden Land has done just that.
Located in Vancouver, Washington, the IGC is now owned by the third generation of the Sonney family. Yard ‘n Garden Land attributes much of its success to the hard work of its progenitors, says Jessica Flatt, CFO and buyer. Flatt is also the granddaughter of co-founders Roy Sonney and his wife LaDonna, who founded the business in 1965 along with Roy’s sister, LaVada Harris. The garden center has been a community mainstay for decades, and customers keep coming back.
“We’ve been here a long time. They know the Sonney family, they know my uncles and my mom, they know my grandparents. I think the one thing that makes us successful is name recognition,” Flatt says. She says her grandpa’s stubborn attitude is what helped the business take off in the first place.
“My grandpa always liked to tell this story of how when he purchased the property where we used to be located — which was across the street from where we’re currently located — people were like, ‘You’re crazy, there’s nothing there.’ I mean there was just nothing,” Flatt says. “They were like, ‘You’re never going to succeed.’ And he stuck to his guns and he bought a bunch of land where we are, and it paid off.”
Yard ‘n Garden Land originally started with bark, and then added plant material. As the trends change, the IGC is keen to follow. “We moved to this new location about 20 years ago, and I think the majority of the reason why we’ve been able to succeed is that we listen to the customers,” she says. The IGC is currently housed in a 10,000 square-foot building and sits on nearly 3 acres of land. There are about 15 full-time staff members and an additional 15-20 seasonal staffers.
Yard ‘n Garden Land attributes its sales growth from $4.25 million in 2018 to $4.5 million in 2019 to the rising residential population of Portland, Oregon — or lack thereof. “People come to the Portland area and then they get here and find out they’ve priced out. The Portland market is really, really tough.” Vancouver is just across the bridge, where plenty of developmental projects are in the works. It’s located in Clark County, the biggest suburb of Portland, but Yard ‘n Garden land is careful to attend to the needs of the new wave of transplants.
“The yards are getting smaller because they’re fitting more houses in smaller locations. We have to be in tune to what small trees and shrubs are going to fit there, while keeping things interesting for them,” she says. Yard ‘n Garden Land’s customer base is homeowners in the 30- to 60-year-old-range but due to the residential surge, there has been an uptick in younger customers.
“Some of our clientele is starting to get a little bit younger due to the rise of the indoor plant scene,” she says. As a result, Flatt says the IGC has increased its houseplant category.
Yard ‘n Garden Land’s main profitable categories include high-quality plant material and bulk material, something Flatt is proud of. “I think they’re willing to pay a little bit more than box stores because they know we get our plant material from good growers and they’re going to be healthy and we take care of them,” she says. “We try to source really high-quality nursery stock because that just makes the customer successful when they get them home and plant them. If they’ve got a good start, then the plants are probably going to survive for them.”
The IGC also offers gifts, indoor plants, ceramic pottery pieces, wind chimes and other add-on sales. During the slower months, the IGC also has seasonal events like fall container classes, Christmas wreath-making classes and a “Selfies with Santa” event.
Looking forward, Flatt says she’d like to introduce a few higher-price point offerings and add in unique or unusual plant material. “We’re really trying to go after those avid gardeners, the people who really like unusual plants,” she says. Flatt also thinks the kids’ gardening category can often be one that’s missed, and one that’s important for inside sales. In the future, she hopes to create an area with kids’ tools and gloves to develop the category.
While longevity and sales growth have certainly helped bolster their market presence, Yard ‘n Garden Land’s philanthropic efforts help them stand out from a sea of big box competitors. Giving back is something that’s very important to the business. According to Flatt, partnering with numerous organizations — whether it be through local donations or providing materials for Boy Scout projects — gives customers an extra incentive to shop at Yard ‘n Garden Land. “We help local organizations so that it all stays in the community,” she says.
Additionally, Flatt praises the friendly and knowledgeable staff members who are willing to help and greet customers. “A lot of people come in and ask for those people by name. Our staff doesn’t make commission on sales, they just do a really great job with customer service,” she says.
Flatt did mention, however, that the primary challenge they faced in 2019 revolved around labor turnover, as they struggled to find applicants willing to do the work. “I think there’s this illusion that you’re going to be working with plants and it’s going to be really peaceful and laid back, and when we’re busy, it’s not like that at all.” She speculates that it’s because of the general cheery and Zen-like atmospheres found in garden centers across the country.
“Customers love coming to garden centers. I think we have that going for our industry — it’s not like the restaurant business at all, where you get grumpy customers,” she says. Not unsympathetic, Flatt realizes that the work can be demanding with minimal job stability in return, particularly with seasonal workers. “A lot of people don’t want to be hired for six months and know that they’re going to get laid off. They’d rather go and try to find something more permanent.”
As Yard ‘n Garden Land looks toward future success, Flatt says quality and service will remain the guiding pillars of the business just as they are now.
“We hope to continue growing and changing with Clark County,” she says.