At Mulhall’s Garden + Home, the goal isn’t more customers or bigger ticket sales, it’s fostering a passion for nature and encouraging growth. As the 60-year-old garden center sees an increase in new gardeners and an expanding interest in ecological health, they’re creating a space where customers and team members can continue that conversation.
In the single biggest re-investment of the garden center’s history, the Omaha, Nebraska, IGC is creating space for customers and employees alike to delve into a passion for plants. And in the process, they’re creating new ways for Nebraskans to come together to explore a shared interest.
“Omaha is a great town but it’s certainly not a big city,” says Mick Mulhall, president. “But the diversity that you see when you walk around the store, both in team members and the people shopping — I think that’s really encouraging.”
Just five years ago, there was concern about whether or not there would even be a next generation of gardeners. But now, Mulhall says the number of people who want to talk gardening is simply overwhelming.
“I think that plants and plant things are becoming increasingly important for a number of reasons,” he says. “This whole green movement, and it takes a lot of different names, but it has become a greater part of common conversation in the last few years than we ever thought possible. We always hoped for it, but we never thought it would happen this quickly.”
Mulhall’s mission is to drive that conversation and make the garden center a place where customers and employees can learn, grow and come together. Rather than focusing on specific ROI, it’s all about creating a community space where plant-lovers can feel welcome and inspired.
“What if the conversation became less about upselling and more about really thinking about our business in the context of climate change and in the context of this new sustainability movement?” Mulhall asks.
For example, Sarah Vanek, education and outreach manager, has been advocating for native plants since she started at Mulhall’s six years ago. In the time since she joined the team, she’s seen increased interest in the ecology of Nebraska’s backyards.
As part of the renovations, the garden center is installing native cultivars as part of its own landscape to provide a space to both show and tell customers about their options.
“We’re definitely seeing a lot more people trying to be a little more intentional about the plants that they’re choosing and how they contribute to the landscape in a bigger way,” she says. “I think also people are just wanting to engage and connect in the natural world generally.”
Since people have started spending more time at home during the pandemic, Mulhall’s is seeing more young people and young families take an interest in plants. From new gardeners to apartment dwellers wanting to green up their homes, there are a lot of different ways the garden center’s customers are finding an entryway into the world of horticulture.
“They maybe don’t have any experience with it, but they’re excited to learn,” Vanek says.
Mulhall’s is taking a big-picture look at sales, thinking more in terms of the conversations they’re having with customers and less on individual transactions. Toward the end of 2020, the company took a five-year retrospective look and found a strong increase in not only membership, but also in new gardeners.
“In our experience, focusing more on the immeasurable, meaning the size and texture and depth of the conversation, rather than sales volume, we’ve actually ended up being more successful than we thought we even could have been by those more conventional retail metrics,” Mulhall says.
The IGC has more than doubled its membership, and on top of that, individual ticket sales have increased by nearly 50%. “We’re meeting tons of new people,” Mulhall says. “A lot of them don’t know much about gardening and we’re ready to invest in that aggressively. And that is not how it was five years ago.”
The garden center is working hard to meet customers where they are. Rather than focusing on what has been traditionally successful for established gardeners, Mulhall’s is listening to what customers want and finding the answers they need to be successful. For example, if a customer comes in after researching a houseplant online, are you excited that they’re interested in the plant or are you frustrated that they have misinformation?
As Mulhall says, it’s all about being inclusive and encouraging that excitement. “We don’t really want to be a part of conversations that require telling someone they don’t know about something. I think how our industry handles the new gardeners is an interesting question and we work really hard to try to make people feel comfortable and included.”
Not only is Mulhall’s seeing a surge of interest from customers and the community, they’re also seeing a wave of new and excited team members. And the same approach applies. A huge part of the company culture is inclusivity and passion, so rather than looking for plant experts, the hiring process focuses on attitude, purpose and interest.
A large of part the Mulhall’s mission is engaging the community, inspiring connections to the natural world and advocating for Great Plains native plants, all while celebrating what makes the store unique — its diverse staff of several hundred employees.
For a while, the IGC was having a hard time hiring the traditional way, which included questions about plant knowledge. Now, they’re looking for curiosity and making space for those without a strong background in horticulture. “We as a company are very interested in curiosity. We believe in momentum. We are not very interested in experience and we really don’t believe in legacy,” Mulhall says.
The hiring and retention strategy’s core pillar is being one of the best places to work in Omaha, which starts with being a purpose-driven company. In fact, interviews begin with details about the IGC and what makes it a place people love to work for.
“I always start at the top, but I’d say what we’re about here is we’re trying to make our community a more beautiful place,” says Mark Perley, director. “That can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people but at its core, it’s getting people in touch with those feelings they have when they’re in nature.”
The interview process now really delves into what potential employees want to achieve and whether or not they’ll fit into the company culture, pushing practical plant knowledge to the side.
And what they’ve found is a diverse array of team members whose purpose aligns with Mulhall’s. Whether it’s a member of the management team or a seasonal cashier, they’re hearing a lot of the same answers about purpose and passion during the interview process.
So the company is focusing on making the technical aspects of the job as simple as possible in order to hire the right, passionate people to share it with their customers.
“When you hear it and when you feel it from the right person, it’s really amazing that it doesn’t matter what their age or demographic or education or anything is. You can just kind of hear and see the type of purpose they have in their own minds and you feel that alignment,” Perley says.
To further empower their employees, Mulhall’s renovation has created collaborative spaces for the team to share knowledge and optimize their talents. With space for a typical break room, special focus areas, spots for coffee chats, and a more library-type setting for individual and collaborative work, the new employee offices have areas of all kinds of ways to work together, or separately.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Now in its third generation of ownership, the Mulhall’s management team has been long been pondering the best use of their land to serve their customers.
Mulhall’s grandparents, John and Maureen, immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in the 1950s and opened Mulhall’s Landscaping & Lawn Service shortly after. In the early 1970s, they bought the land the garden center now sits on for their landscape company,
“He bought the land to serve his mission, making his new home a more beautiful place to live and work, and it was in that spirit that they built a store to help get more plants into people’s hands, particularly landscapers’ hands, and we’ve been trying to think about that ever since, imagining how we can do this a little bit better and what we might be able to move here or there and how we can welcome more gardeners to this intersection and this part of Omaha,” Mulhall says. “You know, honoring the spirit of the place and the people and what brought us together in the first place.”
This particular renovation was inspired by the swell of interest in the store. Mulhall says it inspired the team to start looking at how they could use their buildings as a physical space to grow conversation around land care in Nebraska.
“It’s been really exciting to join a few years ago and see the opportunity here to continue growing a lot of things that the previous generations started,” Perley says. “So it’s definitely been thought about for a long time and a really fast and furious 12 months putting it all together.”
Mulhall’s Garden + Home sits between two creeks and Mulhall says they’ve always thought the land could be used more efficiently. Mulhall’s uncle, father and grandfather focused heavily on stabilizing the business and making it more professional. Now in its third generation of leadership, they get to focus more on what they really want the business to look like.
“I think the gift to us is that we really get to come full circle with the foundation and a business system sophisticated enough that we can really plan, and we can really think about what we want this to look like,” Mulhall says. “I think we’ve just been super lucky that what we want to talk about increasingly happens to be what our customers want to talk about, and I don’t think it would have worked five years ago. The more we want to talk about native plants, the more people seem to want us to talk about it. And that’s new and really cool.”
The first phase of renovations, which was completed by four local companies, include new office and break room spaces to facilitate better collaboration between employees. The new space includes movable workstations, standing desks, outdoor meeting spaces, updated conference rooms, a personal wellness room and a brand-new break room. And, of course, there are plenty of plants throughout.
For retail customers, there’s a new entrance pavilion that Mulhall hopes will become the hub of not only the store, but a gathering place for the new gardening community he sees in the Omaha area.
On top of that, there will be a whole new set of native plantings to explore and enjoy as a natural oasis in the city. While supporting local pollinators, birds and biodiversity, the plantings are also designed to inspire customers to plant their own native gardens. It gives IGC employees the chance to point out particular native plants like goldenrod to customers who are looking for native options.
“The Great Plains native landscape isn’t necessarily obvious. The nuance of it is intensely beautiful and so I think making space for that and being able to show people that is exciting,” Mulhall says.
The new landscape, which is designed to mimic the natural ecosystems found in Nebraska, is also a point of collaboration for educational programs and workshops. From seed collecting to talks about the science behind the ecosystems, the IGC is ready to bring the community in to learn more about their own backyards.
“I’m really excited to have our landscapes kind of help inspire more connection with our local natural ecosystems and give inspiration for how people might do that in their own landscapes,” Vanek says.
And for landscapers, there are plans for new professional customer pickup. Mulhall’s is going to be adding parking stalls and a large loop for fast, efficient drive-through pickup. “We expect that to be significant,” Mulhall says. “We’ve grown that [segment of the business] a lot this year and we expect to grow that a lot in the future.”
As Mulhall says, landscapers want to get in and get out fast, and they want to know what Mulhall’s inventory is before they arrive. “And we’re on it,” he says.
While Mulhall’s has been growing its landscape division and growing the larger conversation about ecology, land care, gardening and connecting with nature, there are other segments that they’ve removed in recent years like indoor décor.
“We’ve walked away from a lot of businesses I think a lot of other garden centers might have,” Mulhall says. “We really keep it pretty focused on plants and plant things.”
By looking to the future and preparing for the next generation of gardeners, Mulhall’s renovations are not only an investment in the store, but an investment in the industry as a whole.