The Bigej family poses for a photo during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Wilsonville Al’s Garden & Home store.
COURTESY OF AL’S GARDEN & HOME

Oregon-based grower-retailer Al’s Garden & Home, No. 16 on Garden Center magazine’s 2016 Top 100 list, has opened a new store, the fourth location for the family-owned independent garden center.

Mark Bigej, COO of Al’s Garden & Home and third generation owner along with his two sisters, Darcy Ruef and Dorothy Russo, and his father, Jack, says the family always keeps their eyes open for new opportunities to grow, but this new store in Wilsonville, Ore., just “fell into our lap.”

“There was a garden center there, and the owners [of Wilsonville Garden Center] were retiring,” Bigej says. A construction company purchased the building and reached out to Al’s in mid-October, asking if they’d be interested in the property, a 3.5-acre site just off I-5, a main highway.

“We really like the city that it’s in, it’s a great community. We started negotiating with the owner and we came to something that we thought was feasible that we could do, so we said, ‘Hey, let’s go for it,’” Bigej says. “It has a well-structured building and sales yard.”

Before the grand opening at the end of March this year, Al’s renovated the building and nursery yard, and installed signs with Al’s new branding and name – Al’s Garden & Home.

“We are changing are name. We just feel that ‘garden center’ is a little bit of an old term, so we are trying to get with the times,” he says. “That was the first store where all of the signage is Al’s Garden & Home.”

The other three stores in Sherwood, Gresham, and the first and flagship store in Woodburn, Ore., will be updated gradually over time.

Sherwood was built in 2005 and is on 10.5 acres. The newest store is much smaller comparatively at 3.5 acres, and Al’s also leases the building, which is a first for the company. The store is halfway between the Sherwood and Woodburn locations in an established city that is still growing, and even continued building through the recession, Bigej says. In fact, there is a 500-house development being built right near the store, he says.

“We’re seeing a positive upswing. The economy is strong, housing is strong, and that all helped in making this decision. Also, we didn’t feel our growing facilities were quite maxed out. Our business model is to be a grower-retailer. We felt like we could eke out just a little bit more from our growing operations, so we’re trying to maximize that,” Bigej says. Al’s has three growing locations in addition to its retail stores. “We may find out that we are putting them under a little stress, and that we would need to grow again, which we have the room for. But for us, it’s a constant balance between the production and what we can sell in stores. We felt this would help us utilize all our growing operations.”

The largest project at the Wilsonville store was building an 8-foot-tall, 300-foot-long sound-proofing wooden fence to buffer the loud, busy freeway outside of the nursery area. The fence is a sound barrier, making outdoor shopping a much more pleasant experience for customers, Bigej says. They are also working on landscaping the front of the fence to improve curb appeal from the highway and to serve as advertising for people driving by.

“We also made little updates to make it more functional and improved the look of the front of the store by adding a large arbor that is consistent with all of our stores now,” he says. “We added two automatic doors and an exit door. We put the cash registers in a totally different place … Our goal was that when people walked in, they would know it’s a different place and know it’s an Al’s. I think we achieved that.”

Al’s stores are just outside of the greater Portland, Ore., area, in the Willamette Valley, and the economy and housing market are both strong. Unfortunately, they have not had an ideal spring — it’s been mostly wet and cold, so they are waiting for the weather to improve and for the season to kick off.

They’ve hired eight full-time staff, including a manager from another store, and seasonal staff will join them once spring has finally sprung. But based on the reception the store has already received, Bigej is excited and optimistic.

“Our grand opening blew us away. We were really well received by the community. We had two ribbon cuttings, one for the general public, and had a great grand opening weekend,” he says. “We had a chamber of commerce ribbon cutting, and the business community came out, and we had 100 people from local businesses there. Customers and businesses around have been very, very supportive of it. We’ve been impressed.”

Petitti Garden Centers closes one of its nine locations

The Richmond Heights, Ohio, location was a retail outlet in a Sears department store, which also closed at the end of March.

Back in 1989, Petitti Garden Centers partnered with Sears to open retail outlets at the department store’s locations throughout Northeast Ohio, and president A.J. Petitti says they operated about eight concessions at one point in time. As of this year, they had two remaining — one at Richmond Town Square mall in Richmond Heights, Ohio, and another at Southland Shopping Center in Middleburg Heights, Ohio.

When Sears announced at the end of December and in January that it was closing more than 40 stores nationwide, including its business in Richmond Town Square by the end of March, Petitti Garden Centers also decided to close that location.

“If it wasn’t for Sears going out, we’d still be operating,” Petitti says. “We talked to them about staying open, but we wouldn’t have any access to the [main] building, and there’s no dry storage space.”

Malls have been hit hard in the past decade, as large department stores have left gaping holes in anchor spots. Macy’s and JC Penney have announced store closings for 2017, at 68 and 137 respectively.

Petitti Garden Centers, which is No. 3 on Garden Center magazine’s 2016 Top 100 list, now operates eight locations, but is looking to expand soon.

“We’re starting to explore opportunities for opening new stores in other markets, so it will all work out just fine. [The Richmond store closing] won’t have a huge impact on the company or on sales,” Petitti says, adding that the mall, which also lost its Macy’s anchor in 2015 and JC Penney this year, had been declining for a while. “It was still profitable, it was nice and the community really supported it, and I liked having it, but it’s gone.”

Staff at the store were all relocated within the company as well, so no one lost their jobs, Petitti says.

Petitti is also remodeling and updating its Youngstown, Ohio, store, which the retailer bought in the early 2000s.