At GRDN, a retailer in Brooklyn, furniture often acts as both a product and a display fixture.
COURTESY OF GRDN

As nice as it is to fill a full-sized yard or garden with beautiful annuals, perennials, ornamental grasses and hard décor, not everyone has ample space for an outdoor garden.

This is especially true of the urban gardeners — those green thumbs who have to make do with a balcony or a window box. Luckily, there’s a specialized breed of independent garden center that specializes in meeting the needs of these small-space and container-oriented gardeners.

However, these urban IGCs face a similar problem that their customers do — a high premium on physical space. If you’re a retailer in the downtown area of a town like New York City, Chicago, Austin, Philadelphia or Los Angeles, you know the struggle of making your limited storefront work for you and allow you to present the many types merchandise you offer.

Most garden centers place a good deal of importance on their merchandising fixtures — the shelves, tables and racks that hold their outdoor art, plant care essentials, tools and other products — but these fixtures are especially important for urban garden center owners, who must carefully utilize their merchandising tools to create an atmosphere that informs and inspires shoppers without getting cramped.

Getting by in the big city

No matter where you look in the U.S., there’s bound to be a demand for green goods that add life and beauty to people’s homes, and the Big Apple is no exception.

GRDN, a Brooklyn-based retailer that has sold plants, containers, seeds, tools and flower arrangements for the past 13 years, is one of several garden centers in the New York City area that has had to maximize efficiency in its 750-square-foot storefront to serve its market.

Owner Susanne Kongoy says that when she arrived in the city, she had a desire to spruce up her compact living space with plant life.

This eventually led to her opening her own store to supply aspiring urban gardeners like herself.

“I had a very small space when I moved into the neighborhood that the shop is in, and I wanted nice things for my balcony and I wasn’t finding anything,” Kongoy says. “That was sort of the idea behind having a smaller space that offered nicer products that weren’t readily available at a larger big box store, like some nice, handmade pottery, accessories, tools, birdfeeders.”

She adds that the opening of GRDN was just in time for the so-called “Brooklyn Renaissance,” the migration of families and young professionals into the borough in recent decades.

“The neighborhood was just sort of taking off, with a lot families moving in, and I myself had a new family,” Kongoy says.

To differentiate her store, Kongoy avoids run-of-the-mill flowers that can be found at most department stores throughout the city and emphasizes DIY planting projects, which plays well with industrious, young Brooklyn residents.

“We went looking for growers that offered different varieties you couldn’t find anywhere else,” Kongoy says. “I carry perennial geraniums or scented geraniums, but not your basic red and white geraniums. I don’t typically carry things that are ready-made or already planted — maybe as a source of inspiration, but people typically want to do it themselves.”

With locations in the Brooklyn areas of Williamsburg and Red Hook, Chelsea Garden Center also supplies small-space urban gardeners with the green goods and décor they won’t find in the outer-borough big box stores. Operating since 1984, Chelsea Garden Center maintains two retail storefronts and a landscape/design/build division specializing in residential and commercial projects, according to manager and buyer Gina Pellino.

Working with what you’ve got

There are advantages to smaller storefronts; they feel more personal, they’re cozy, and people get the feeling that they’re buying from a truly local business. Of course, a significant disadvantage is the greater difficulty a retailer faces in arranging all of their products effectively. In many cases, there simply isn’t enough space to show off all the unusual and interesting plants or hard goods that these retailers offer.

To make the most of their retail spaces, both GRDN and Chelsea Garden Center have had to evolve and adapt their own merchandising styles to get the most out of their fixtures as possible and emphasize their strongest categories.

One aspect of GRDN’s display style is creating an urban atmosphere with the right colors, Kongoy says. Although she can’t display the 27 colors of furniture she offers, these products can still fit into the store’s color scheme.

“Obviously, I can’t stock that … but I choose a color palette to set the look for the store for the season and keep it different every year,” Kongoy says.

The space restriction also encourages a “waste not, want not” mentality in her merchandising, Kongoy adds. At GRDN, if a customer sees something in the store, it’s most likely for sale, whether it’s a potted plant or the table the plant is displayed on.

“The front table is display, but the merchandising is also a product we can special-order,” she says. “So, that way, it’s sort of ‘everything is for sale’ here. It’s also part of the display, but usually the plant stand is also for sale, and the pot and the plant — nothing is off-limits.”

At Chelsea Garden Center, custom shelving and outside-the-box fixtures have been helpful solutions to the problem of store size. Some outdoor yard space also gives the store extra room for displaying its plant selection.

“Our limited space has always been a challenge when it comes to merchandising,” Pellino says. “For example, we’ve overcome the limitations of a small footprint by merchandising our outdoor containers vertically on 1,500 square feet of custom-made shelving around the perimeter of our garden centers.

This has allowed us to dedicate the majority of our yard to raised garden beds where we display our varied selection of perennials, trees and shrubs from which our customers can easily shop.”

Logistics and hardware

Beyond the obvious obstacles of a smaller retail space, Kongoy says she has also had to contend with a complicated inventory ordering process. With less space for stocking and displaying, more frequent supply orders and deliveries are required.

“In such a small space, we’re just constantly getting deliveries and trying to keep up. Every week, it’s three plant orders, more pottery coming in, there’s no one early spring shipment that we rely on for the season,” Kongoy says. “The hardest things to keep up on, I would say, are the soil supplies and just trying to get a delivery in the city is challenging with the lift gate and pallet jack.”

This rapid turnaround on inventory has the silver lining of allowing Kongoy to know what her customers are buying and stocking accordingly.

“As things sell, as you see what sells, as you see what the customer wants, we started changing it up,” Kongoy says. “It’s just using every bit of square footage that we have available to try to create sales and keep things moving.”

Over the years, NYC retailers have learned that their hard goods — their containers and furniture — can act as anchors for their product displays.

“Containers are centerpieces of our displays both indoors and outdoors,” Pellino says. “The majority of our hard goods, such as soils, fertilizers, tools, etc. are displayed inside our store where our sales staff can assist their customers with any additional gardening needs.”

Kongoy’s focus on out-of-the-ordinary furniture offerings has paid off, not only in terms of merchandising utility, but in customer interest as well.

“We switched out some of our fixtures that might have been more basic or not for sale and put in the furniture,” Congoy says. “So, even being listed as a retailer for [my suppliers] has driven business to me from their websites. I think it’s a good arrangement. And [the suppliers] carry a lot of folding furniture; folding bistro tables, bistro chairs, and people see that in and around NYC and they want to find something like that, so they come to us.”

Garden centers without limited space know that size is no obstacle to creating a great shopping experince, and urban gardeners who frequent these stores may learn to mirror that attitude at home.