Two years ago, brothers Dan and Thomas Gallo bought Country Mile Gardens from their father, Tom, who opened the Morristown, New Jersey-based business in 1977. Since then, they’ve continued prioritizing the family-run business’s reputation for high-quality plants and top-notch customer service.
“I think we’re very good on the live plants side of things. That’s definitely our bread and butter,” says Dan Gallo, who earned a degree in environmental studies from Bucknell University and worked in the federal government before returning to the garden center full-time. “Customers tell us we have good pricing and good quality.”
Staying on top of trends
The Gallo brothers have purposely shied away from pivoting their garden center toward a gift shop-model, in order to focus on perennials, annuals, trees, shrubs and hardgoods.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t proactive about staying on top of trends.
“I pay a lot of attention to the industry trends and making sure that we have what people are looking for,” Dan Gallo says.
To track trends, Gallo says he reads a lot, focusing on trade news and product availability reports.
“I read availabilities all year long and try and pay attention to what’s moving and what’s not moving,” Gallo says. “You can kind of pick up on what’s selling elsewhere by what’s disappearing from their availabilities. So I pay a lot of attention to that kind of thing, and my brother does the same with the annuals.”
Being positioned as they are in New Jersey — in close proximity to many growers and wholesalers — Country Mile Gardens is able to buy most of its plants and trees from local sources.
“There’s a lot of great growers in New Jersey,” Gallo says. “On the annuals side, we’re really lucky. We kind of have our pick of a dozen. As time has gone on, I’ve tried to buy more and more from the home state.”
The decision to source locally makes practical business sense for the company.
“It’s financial reasons and quality reasons as much as anything else. The plants are already timed right for our area. Being able to place an order and have it here almost the next day is the primary reason — in addition to the quality,” Gallo says.
For plants not available from New Jersey growers, Country Mile does source elsewhere — including Florida, California, and the Pacific Northwest. “We have probably 50 growers that we buy from, focusing on eight or 10,” Gallo says.
The small growing operation Country Mile maintains on site is mainly supplemental.
“We do some growing, but it’s very small, mostly a few things that we can’t get from suppliers, or some things that we want to bump up, like planters in the spring,” Gallo says.
Country Mile Gardens’ landscape design services is one area the brothers hope to expand. In a given week, anywhere from three to 10 customers might request a landscape design plan, Gallo says.
The garden center launched its landscape design division in 2002, as a means of diversifying revenue streams during the recession, Gallo says.
While Dan Gallo headed up the department initially, when he and Thomas took over Country Mile two years ago, they hired a full-time landscape designer. In the coming year — due to steady demand for services — they hope to add a part-time assistant to the department.
“I’m not a big risk taker, but we are going to try to bring on a half-time assistant. It is growing, and our current landscape designer can’t currently keep up with demand,” Gallo says. “We’re looking at bringing on perhaps a landscape design student who can provide 20 hours a week. And then, after that, perhaps we’ll grow to two full-time staff.”
In five years’ time, Gallo hopes to have expanded the landscape division to a dedicated office space on the garden center property, with a two-to-three person full-time team. “That’s my vision for where we’re headed,” he says.
Last summer, in another of their biggest changes since taking over ownership, the Gallo brothers installed a solar array on the back of the garden center’s roughly three-acre property.
“We’re basically generating all the electricity we need for the year,” Gallo says.
Installing the array was something the Gallos had initially investigated a decade ago, but the higher cost of the technology at the time was prohibitive.
Still, energy efficiency had remained a priority to the family, and making the install this year finally made financial sense.
“It became a non-brainer in terms of the finances, because the cost now was about 30% of what it was when we considered it originally,” Gallo says.
Roughly two years ago, the Gallos also completely renovated one of two main greenhouses attached to the garden center’s 35,000-square foot retail space.
“We renovated partially to keep heating costs down,” Dan Gallo says. “It was an old, glass greenhouse from when they built the store. Now, it’s Lexan [a brand of polycarbonate sheet] and also has some nice retail features to it.”
With the greenhouse redesign, the building is now much more open, allowing staff to have the flexibility to use it for retail, Gallo says.
In the 20 years that sales manager Greg Jennings has been working at Country Mile, he’s noticed a shift in the types of plants that customers are looking for.
“For instance, bulbs — tulips, daffodils, and all that — we used to sell a lot of those, but it seems to be almost a thing of the past now,” Jennings says. “People don’t want to plant as much as they used to. People tend to be less hands-on today.”
Part of operating a successful business is changing with those trends, and Country Mile has been able to keep pace by offering a growing inventory of low-maintenance, hearty plants as well as ready-made planters, Jennings says.“It’s a different pace now, everything is faster,” he says. “Even in the fall season, people used to come in and buy 20 10-inch chrysanthemums, and now, they’re coming in and buying one or two of these large, 24-inch pots that we carry. It’s more money, but it’s instant gratification, without the planting.”
Staying abreast of trends and stocking the types of inventory customers are seeking — as well as hiring knowledgeable, friendly staff — has helped Country Mile stay on top of a competitive local market.
“We’re in a very affluent area and that lends itself to people spending money on [plants and landscaping],” Gallo says.
“But there’s lots of competition around. There are five or 10 other places that people could choose within 10 miles of here, so we have to be good or we won’t survive.”