Many regions previously facing severe drought conditions are seeing a return of normal water levels.

Many independent garden center retailers would tell you that fountains aren’t the easiest category to carry. For years, statuary and fountains have been perceived as a luxury item that is sold in small amounts, and gardeners and businesses alike have recently been restricted by drought and water usage regulations in some parts of the U.S., according to the EPA Watersense database.

Given the locality of the fountain and water gardens department, as well as the price normally associated with these products, it’s often approached as a specialty category. However, some IGCs are seeing renewed interest, consistent selling patterns and other factors that help their fountain sales.

A tough nut to crack

Putting down $20 or $30 on a couple of new plants is an easier decision for most customers when compared to the prospect of purchasing a fountain or installing a waterfall, pond or other water feature. Garden centers have long been aware of this and tend to see fountains as a category that doesn’t move a high volume of inventory.

This issue of high cost and low turnover is compounded in times of economic stress, when consumers have less disposable income and restrict their spending. Paul Hollis, owner of Rail City Garden Center in Sparks, Nev., is one retailer who experienced this effect of the economic downturn.

“It died [down] pretty drastically in 2008, ’09 and ’10,” Hollis says of his fountain/statuary category. “People just didn’t have the income to do it. People just weren’t doing much of the statuary.”

During the recent recession, many customers viewed fountains, like this one sold at Louie's Nursery, as unnecessary expenses.

“I would say that with the [water] features, it seems that when the economy was down, that was definitely a luxury item,” adds Mary Kannor, manager at Louie’s Nursery in Riverside, Calif.

There are several other challenges to selling fountains and water features that other garden centers have encountered, from limited storage space — it’s difficult to stock a large selection of fountains without running out of room — to health scares among potential customers.

“Because there are so many suppliers that we order from, it’s impossible to carry a large selection with the space that we have,” Kannor says. “Also, back when the mosquito [virus] was a big issue, there was a decline in sales with water features, and with the drought, there’s been a decline with water features, so we do a lot of special orders. There are so many colors people can choose from with their fountains. I would say 90 percent of the fountains we sell are special orders.”

Maintenance is also an important aspect of fountains. Retailers that offer fountain and pond departments find themselves needing to provide the right products for keeping these water features clean and functional — another dimension to budget and make room for.

“We do have a fair amount of higher-end customers, but I would say fountains just aren’t a high priority for a lot of homeowners just because of the maintenance of them,” Kannor says. “People are conscious about the birds and what kind of algaecides they can put in their fountains to keep them clean without harming the birds, butterflies and bees.”

Quenching the thirst

A garden won’t get very far without water — even more so for a fountain or water feature. However, depending on their location, both homeowners and retailers at times find themselves at the mercy of state or local water conservation laws. In some southern and western regions, droughts have gotten particularly severe in recent years and gardening enthusiasts have felt the pinch.

Fortunately, Hollis says the situation in his region has improved after a roughly 4-year drought, as nearby mountain snowpack sites have been replenished and water levels are above normal.

“This is the first year that we’ve had water in quite a while,” he says. “We’ve been through a horrible drought, and now we’ve got water coming out the wazoo. Our snowpack, where we get most of our irrigation water and supply here in Reno, comes from the mountains. They’re over 200 percent above normal, so we’ve got a lot of water. But, how long that’s going to last — who knows.”

In Kannor’s part of California, residents are also seeing loosening restrictions on water use after years of strict conservation and recycling, thanks to recent heavy rains. She says customers are showing signs of returning to plants that are less drought-tolerant than varieties they’ve been buying.

“We started recycling our water and we installed a big water tank and we have a water well, so we’re capturing our water and any runoff, we try to get as much as possible and we recycle it,” Kannor says. “I think this spring, what [people] are purchasing is what they were purchasing before all these drought issues. They’re going back to hydrangeas and plants that require a little bit more water, so they’re not as worried about the water issue.”

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The power of water

Some retailers are finding that fountains and water features have benefits that might not be immediately obvious.

Hollis says having running fountains and waterfalls in his retail facility “definitely” enhances the atmosphere of the business, as people enjoy the sound of running water in the store and at home.

“A lot of people are just converting typical turf areas into more sensible landscapes and they like to have a little water running so they can enjoy the sound, and that’s the important thing with water features; it’s all about the sound,” Hollis says. “We have a big waterfall at the front entrance, we’ve got ponds, bubblers and fountains around [the store], we’re seeing a lot more of that.”

Hollis says his customers are also finding out that birds and other animals in their area enjoy yard fountains and ponds, effectively tying together Rail City’s fountain and birding departments.

“The reason I think we’re getting quite a bit of this [interest] — it’s for birds. That’s huge,” he says. “People put [a water feature] in, and they’re amazed how many more birds it attracts to their yard. You hear that a lot.”

Carmen Bezner, co-owner of Kingwood Garden Center in Kingwood, Texas, has realized the birding potential of her fountain department as well.

“We sell a lot of birding items and custom birdseed, and I’ve noticed when we put our little [fountain] in the front … the birds love the running water,” Bezner says. “We have little birdbaths that bubble and we sell a ton of those. I think, a lot of the time, people like them and then they find out the birds really like them too.”

Fountains require regular upkeep, and IGCs with maintenance knowledge can set themselves apart.

Tips of the trade

Hollis has found that going beyond simply supplying fountains and gearing his business toward installation and maintenance expertise sets Rail City apart as a local resource.

“We’re well-educated, we’ve built a lot of them, and we’ve seen a lot of mistakes,” Hollis says. “We did a lot of extensive training and research, initially. We’re repairing a lot of water features now that were put in [by a contractor]. They didn’t have a pond person or a water feature person, and everybody thinks they can build one, so the contractors did it and it’s got issues. That’s part of what we’ve learned over the years — what works and what doesn’t work, what is lower maintenance and [has] fewer problems.”

At Kingwood Garden Center, Bezner says more compact and easy to transport fountains tend to be popular.

“We’ve tried to find more affordable water fountains because a lot of people don’t have $2,000 or so to plop down on a fountain,” Bezner says. “I think people love water features and we’re doing pretty well with medium-to-small ones — any kind of running water. Even little ones you can set on your patio — those seem to do well.”

Selling fountains and water features successfully can be hard work. But with the right staff, the right market and the appropriate strategy, it can be a strong category that helps a retailer stand out.

“It is kind of labor intensive,” Hollis says of the category. “A lot of people will have to make adjustments and understand the pipe size. There is a lot of education and you just have to have a staff that can do that.”