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We asked independent retailers to share their thoughts on the state of the independent garden center industry, and reflect on their businesses pre- and post-recession. Here’s what they had to say.

Q. What are your thoughts on the current state of the industry? How were you impacted by the Great Recession, and have you fully recovered?
A: “I suspect that, like most of retail, the retail lawn and garden industry will continue to fracture. The good will get better and the weak will get weaker. Two retail approaches that seem to have the best likelihood of success are either [offering] low prices or a great experience. The folks that are caught in the middle of these two extremes will continue to get pinched.

Ron Vanderhoff
COURTESY OF ROGER’S GARDENS

The other omnipresent challenge, especially for our industry, is to understand that bricks-and-mortar retailing and the digital world are colliding. I suspect that our industry is currently somewhat healthy, but are we living on borrowed time or are we positioning ourselves for the huge changes to retailing that are at our doorstep?

It is difficult to compare Roger’s Gardens today to the Roger’s Gardens of 2007. Have we fully recovered? Yes; business is good, our management team is strong and we are investing in the future. But in so many ways we are a different company and doing business in a different time than decade ago. The future is bright if we continue to learn, adapt and change.”
Ron Vanderhoff, general manager and vice president, Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar, Calif.

A: “Since the Great Recession, our industry has changed dramatically. Not just financially, as many independent garden centers have gone under or were absorbed by competition, but due to the rapid shift into the Millennial demographic as a significant part of the marketplace. Independents are losing customers to the mass merchants and online stores. Independents’ opportunity lies in services in a very broad sense. Do It For Me is alive and well and DIY is fading.  

Richard Christakes
JODI MILLER

If we don’t make a hard pivot toward catering to this demographic (Millennials and the upcoming Centennials) while balancing the Baby Boomer customers that have been our bread and butter, we will ultimately all be obsolete within a short handful of years. There will be some dips and valleys in this economic recovery, but the inevitable pop within the next 10 years will be the real shakeup. Start shifting into extreme convenience, experience shopping and beautiful imagery. Understand that Instagram is more important than Facebook and convey a simple message that is geared toward “beginners” and new retailer/vendor relationships that include direct shipping of products right to your customers’ doors. If we’re not careful, or if we are careful enough, we just might all be warehouses for Amazon one day. Or, the killer whale that ends up eating Amazon.&rdquo
Richard Christakes, CEO, Alsip Home & Nursery, St. John, Ind., Frankfort, Ill.

A: “My own opinion and those that I have spoken to at trade shows is that no matter what you do to stay on top of marketing, social media and bringing in the right product, weather will always dictate your ultimate ability to drive sales. I think there is also a need for suppliers in the industry to create more/different accent product for the consumer. Seeing the same product from the same vendors with only the slightest of tweaks makes it difficult to hold customers’ attentions. I think that the edible and native plant lines we carry are of great importance with people’s desire to protect the environment and know where their food is coming from. There is also a great desire in young people to learn about plants (they feel they missed out on being taught how to grow anything from their parents), how they relate to their environment and the satisfaction that comes with growing plants. Making/teaching lifelong gardeners will only strengthen our place in the market.”
Patti Jablonski-Dopkin, general manager, Urban Roots Community Garden Center Cooperative, Buffalo, N.Y.

A: “As always, we are more focused as an industry on maximizing production and delivery. We need to be placing more energy into elevating the perceived and intrinsic value of our products in the eyes of the purchasing population. In the 40-plus years I have been a grower, I have seen our craft demoted from an art form to a mere cookbook operation. Granted, our level of knowledge concerning the growth of commercial crops has been elevated tremendously in that time, but we all know that there is still a great deal of artistry in what we are capable of producing to offer to the public. Why should we place ourselves in the same commodity rat race as our brothers who produce crops such as wheat or cotton?”
George Sander, owner, Hillside Feed & Seed Store Inc., Wichita, Kan.

Q: How has business been for you in the past year, and what have been your triumphs and your challenges? What do you think independent garden centers need to do to remain relevant in the garden retail market?
A: “Business has been good, sales are up. [The] biggest challenge is finding people to work. We are in a location where land prices have increased dramatically, and because of that, our fellow independent garden centers have been or are selling their land and closing shop. This has increased our customer base with no need to advertise.

Provide service and quality products, and stop discounting products early in the season. We have found by continuing to bring fresh stock in weekly throughout July, August, September and October, our customers do not look for sale items but quality product instead.”
Carlo Ammendolia, owner, Angelo’s Garden Centre, Concord, Ontario

A: “In our area, more and more young families are purchasing homes, thus, coming into the garden center looking for easy, low maintenance plantings. Fruits and pollinators are certainly popular. Overall, I would say the state of the garden center industry is doing well. Many of the wholesale nurseries that I buy from are offering just-in-time delivery, which keeps product in-stock and fresh, and inventory management at its best. As a new business in my second year, I am still experiencing steady growth and learning the demographic purchasing as I go. However, business has been great, and there is certainly demand in all departments.”
Melissa Frost, owner, Frost Farms LLC, Bar Harbor, Maine

A: “Independent garden centers are slowly going away, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas that don’t have population growth. Walmart dominates the small towns in Kansas. Our business is up about 5 percent, and operating costs are somewhat lower because of a smaller work force. We were just named Topeka’s Best Garden Store or Nursery by a survey. [Our] biggest challenge is [offering] competitive wages to retain our excellent staff.”
Dave Jackson, owner, Jackson’s Greenhouse & Garden Center, Inc., Topeka, Kan.

A: “[Business is] good but it has slowed. Triumph: moving my biz to a small storefront for more traffic and visibility. Challenges: to keep folks engaged all year long, getting them to shop locally instead of the cheap, easy big box store.”
Christianne Laing, owner/president, Avid Gardener, Cambridge, Wis.

A: “Triumphs: watching the business still grow and having a great crew. [Our] challenge is finding a great crew. We live in an older area, housing is paid for and/or young folks are starting out and they want their houses looking good. We also give quality service at fair prices. I think the service is what is helping more so than the other two items. Everyone sells pretty good items and prices are all over the place, so I believe service is what brings them back.”
Joe Barson, owner, Barson’s Greenhouse, Westland, Mich.

A: “We are experiencing modest growth rates thanks to the input of younger coworkers who still dare to ask if there is a better outcome for our culture. We have embraced the sustainable model as best we can, which is at once our greatest achievement and our greatest challenge to remain consistent with its aims while making enough profit to maintain our business.

Adapt to the changing desires of the younger generations. Our old models of lawn maintenance and landscaping are going to be challenged by those who are more concerned with the future well-being of our environment than with property values.”
George Sander

A: “A lot of interesting products have fallen by the wayside, while boring bread-and-butter products have filled in. Thirteen benches of red geraniums instead of 20 different species. This is our second year, and I was hoping for a 20 percent increase over last year. Right now, we are at a 72 percent increase. I think plant selection is out best quality. The biggest challenge is money management, followed by keeping up with signage. We weren’t open for the recession … The purging of interesting plants at other garden centers in search of high margin plants opened the door for us. The city is doing well, but the state is still struggling.”
Alex Wisdom, owner, Plant Wisdom Garden Center, Oklahoma City, Okla.

Sandi Hillerman McDonald
COURTESY OF HILLERMANN NURSERY & FLORIST

A: “Younger generations are making a strong comeback into ‘sustainability,’ or growing like my grandma did, and keeping things simple and educational for their children. We are holding our own for this year. We had fantastic growth through July, then heat and drought has caused us to fall slightly behind last year. But last year was fantastic, so I am happy with our status. Our challenge is keeping good people in our landscape services department.”
Sandi Hillermann McDonald, president, Hillermann Nursery & Florist, Washington, Mo.

A: “You need to have that special niche that differentiates you from the rest. Customer service and the ability to set your customer up for success. You can go to any big box store and get a cheap plant but to get the right plant for the right place and have explained what you need to do for best results is imperative. Educating the consumer will gain you respect and repeat customers.”
— Patti Jablonski-Dopkin

A: “[The garden center industry] is stable but not growing. Competition for sales revenue has increased. We have made some good progress on changing lines and improving merchandising. We are all seasonal businesses, and the weather of 2017 has not been good for business in the mid-Atlantic region. In our area, which is 50 miles south of Washington, D.C., the economy has made a normal recovery. We are fully recovered.

We will have to embrace social media. We also need to conquer the mystique that box stores are cheaper. This is often just not true, but this perception can turn your store into an extension agent where you answer everyone’s questions without benefiting from selling them the product.

It is hard for independents to do much more than break even lately. It is like you have an apple and many competitors taking small bites. Pretty soon, you are left with an apple core. With technology, it is harder to come up with something unique that is not already being done.”
Andy Lynn, general manager, Roxbury Farm & Garden Center, Fredericksburg, Va.

A: “Part of the issue, I feel, is the ability for anyone to become a ‘landscaper’ or yard man. Every fireman, policeman or teacher with a little energy will mow lawns and say they can be a landscaper. They will in turn buy plants from the cheapest source they can find without really knowing anything about where the plants should go. We need to make our industry more important where people think they need someone more skilled to help them with projects, not just hire the cheapest person.”
— Vicki Evans, owner, Evans Nursery, Bartlesville, Okla.

Evan’s Nursery in Bartlesville, Okla.
COURTESY OF EVAN’S NURSERY

Q: Do you feel that your garden center and your local/state economy have recovered from the Great Recession, why or why not? What factors continue to affect the economy and your success?
A: “Not completely, but home building is taking a leap beginning this year!”
Sandi Hillermann McDonald

A: “We are doing fine, but five local garden centers closed in the last five years, leaving us to be the last family-owned IGC in our city. Business is fine due to diversification. The gift boutique is booming. The challenge this year is keeping up with demand with the closing of an institution in Hampton, McDonald Garden Center. The economy has recovered fairly, well, however we had a double hit with the closing of a major military base down the street.”
Tish Llaneza, owner, Countryside Gardens, Hampton, Va.

A: “Being in an economically challenged city to begin with, the recession did not hit us as hard as other places. We actually opened our doors in ‘07 and have had continued growth since then. Buffalo has a strong gardening community that has supported us in our first 10 years.”
Patti Jablonski-Dopkin

A: “In our area, we still deal with the lower cost and lower quality of the box stores. We need to be able to offer more to the customer than just items they can find elsewhere. We can grow the industry if we can reach the customer with our message. We are a one-company town: oil. When that goes down, sales go down. Business has been OK, but not great. Still trying to find the point of do we run out, or bring in more. Challenges are trying to keep employees on when we are slow without running too short on funds. We have not recovered from the recession, great or not. We do fluctuate here because of our state economy. Also, legal gambling has hurt us as much as anything. Only so many dollars to go around. Again, until oil makes a comeback, we will fight for every dollar we get. Also, finding younger workers willing to work with a good work ethic is becoming more difficult. People want a pay check, but don’t know how or don’t want to work.”
Vicki Evans

Countryside Garden Center
COURTESY OF COUNTRYSIDE GARDEN CENTER

A: “I would say that nothing has totally recovered from the recession, it may never be back to pre-recession days, but out of it I think that consumers have generally become somewhat more conscientious with their buying habits.”
 Melissa Frost