For two decades, Ellen May served as executive director of ECGC Distributors Ltd., a peer-to-peer networking group owned by 10 of the leading independent garden centers in the U.S., including Calloway’s Nursery, Petitti Garden Centers, Al’s Garden Centers and Mahoney’s Garden Center. After 20 years working with some of the biggest names in the IGC industry, we asked the recently retired executive director to reflect on what garden centers are doing well and what they can improve on for our 2016 State of the Industry issue.

Garden Center: What do you think garden centers across the country are doing well?
Ellen May: Retail in general across this country is very homogenized and it’s boring. If you go into a Target, you can go in Allentown, Pa., or Portland, Ore., and it will look the same. But that’s not true with garden centers. One of the things that has been so awesome about the folks I worked with is that they are architecturally very sensitive to their locality. Being a non-homogenized retail operation is to your benefit. The wave of going local, whether it’s local products or local involvement, is really critical. You need to be the best community partner that you can. It’s not just beautification. What garden centers sell is a beautification strategy; they are problem solvers.

GC: Can you expand on that?
EM: Beautification is not only pleasure for the eye; for those communities that really understand it, it’s an economic development strategy. You’re much more likely to attract businesses to your community if it’s beautifully landscaped and there are all of these wonderful flowers. At the same time, because of the nature of the products that they are selling, [they provide] environmental solutions. They can teach people how to improve ground water. That’s why we plant along roads, that’s why we have rain gardens, which many communities are putting into their planning and zoning so that the groundwater is cleaned as it goes through the garden.

GC: How can garden centers get more involved in community planning/landscaping?
EM: Of all my years sitting on the county planning commission, the planning department and planning commissioners are not always knowledgeable about landscaping, and yet every project that goes before a planning commission is going to have a landscape plan with it. I’m not saying [garden centers] have to do it, but they could be a facilitator, and therefore very visible. There are many avenues I see that they can take to make themselves even more visible as a very strong local community partner. Take education. Almost every person I worked with was a huge entrepreneur who built their business from nothing. Now you’re into the next generation who is going to take over what was done before them, but the ones in my age bracket built it. And I think it’s a really powerful message to kids that you don’t have to go get a Ph.D. [Horticulture] is an industry that if you are entrepreneurial enough, you can make a good darn good living.

GC: Should garden centers reinvent or redefine themselves?
EM: They’re not garden centers anymore. I don’t know what the appropriate term is, but they are far more than garden centers. It’s about the environment, it’s about safe food, it’s about beautification. There’s research that plants decrease hospital stays and increase worker productivity. There are all kinds of positive results, and the term “garden center” doesn’t say it. I think we need a brain trust for someone to come up with something much more appropriate.

GC: How can garden centers improve?
EM: Our nation is incredibly culturally diverse. And people need to start looking at the cultural makeup of their community. We’ve got to sell more than European concepts, beyond culinary herbs. I don’t know what the answer is, but there’s an opportunity to do some more significant research. I think there ought to be focus groups of different ethnic groups. If I were running a garden center in Detroit, [for example] I’d run focus groups with Arab neighbors, some that were first generation, second generation and third generation, and see if I was meeting their needs.

We need more female decision makers. Eighty to 85 percent of our customers are females. That’s not going to change with Gen X or Gen Y or anybody else. Until Julie [Kouhia, CEO] took over Molbak’s, my board was 100 percent male. I just scratched my head, and thought, who are your customers? It’s just absolutely mind boggling.

GC: What are some perhaps smaller steps garden centers can take to improve their businesses right now?

Independent garden centers’ unique look and feel is refreshing in a world of homogenized retail, says Ellen May.
MICHELLE SIMAKIS

EM: I really think they ought to raise their prices. They undervalue the product. People get very concerned about it, but when I think of everything else I need in my life and how much it has increased over time, and you raise your price two, three cents, I don’t even notice. They need to raise their prices because their cost of doing business is increasing. They still need to think about health care and rising minimum wage.

GC: You’ve talked about the importance of leadership and retention rates in garden center retail and mentioned that it was higher than other retail industries.
EM: At least the [retention rates] were higher from the statistics of ECGC. I can’t vouch for other garden centers, but I was always very surprised and pleased at how high our [average] retention rate was at ten-and-a-half years when the average in retail is 1.9 years.

GC: Why is that so important?
EM: It’s all about the economics of it. It’s really nice to have continuity, because you’ll find customers who look for particular folks, and it’s really nice if that same person is there all of the time. It also is a huge cost savings. It’s very expensive to recruit and train. I would hear the HR directors talk about how difficult it was to recruit. With the advent of social media, there are a gazillion places that you can go to post opportunities, but that doesn’t mean that they are good or that people are going to find them.

GC: So what would your assessment of the State of the Industry be for retailers?
EM: Things are going really well. It’s not the boon times that it has been in the past. There were times back in the early 2000s when they were seeing double digit growth. It seems to follow the economy itself. [The industry is] definitely recovering, but not double digits. Service areas like landscape design/build/installation are very healthy. [ECGC] for the most part felt good enough that they are expanding and investing in their businesses. One of the challenges is people tend to look month to month and year to year instead of five years.

GC: What’s the risk of looking month to month or year to year?
EM: You don’t see a trend year to year. It could have been a bad weather year. I’m not saying year to year isn’t important to look at, but if you want to see trends you have to pull it out further. [ECGC] did that comparison. We did it consistently every month, there was a very detailed report that was shared. And because we were national you could see, was that because Boston didn’t get rid of their snow until April, or was it something that was really happening to everybody else, too.

GC: What was the advantage of IGCs in different regions talking about these trends?
EM: So many times they think their business is so weather dependent. And it is but then it isn’t. If you see that there is a huge upswing as there were a number of years ago in perennials and it’s all regions, then it tells you something.

GC: That’s what we’re seeing with succulents and cacti this year.
EM: Absolutely. And why is that? Weather and they are darn easy. And yet they give you the color and the texture, and they are in all the magazines.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.