Q: We’ve covered Alsip to the Rescue!, your separate 501(c)(3) pet adoption center that you launched a few years ago, and Groomingdales, the on-site pet grooming business. How are those segments of the business performing now, and how have they evolved over time?
A: Well grooming, besides landscape supply, is a huge, growing category for us. July was a down month overall, but grooming still had its record all-time month, and we’ve been doing it since 2008. Right now we run four dog grooming tables [at each store] at a time, and they are busy and booked out for days. We’re talking about how we can expand to six or eight grooming tables. We could do more if we had more tables. In July, we did $35,000 at the St. John, Ind., store and $14,000 the Frankfort, Ill., store, so we did almost $50,000 just in July. It’s a 50/50 split with the groomers, so half of that goes right to the bottom line. We own the grooming business, and it’s set up like a hair salon. We also have animal hospitals in our stores. Those are owned by another company, and we are their landlord. They rent the space, but then they have a relationship with the rescue.
Q: How are you advertising it, and how do you account for such huge growth and popularity of the pet grooming business?
“Services are one of the best things that people in our industry can get into, whatever niche works for them. A lot of people do custom planting or landscape services. We’re just supplying, and we lean heavily on dog grooming, but I think services are a good thing.” — Rich Christakes, CEO of Alsip Home & Nursery
A: The groomers that we have. We’ve got really good people, and they’ve built up their clientele. It’s just like where you go get your hair done. You probably are loyal to the same person.
Q: We’ve talked a lot about what you do other than plants. What’s new with the greenhouse side of the business?
A: We opened a retail grower outlet store [on-site at our wholesale facility] that’s between retail and wholesale prices and open to the public. This year was our second spring, and sales grew 30 percent from the previous year. The first year, we did double what we thought we were going to do. We are open from about mid-April through the Fourth of July. We’re going to open it back up this fall [for the first time]. It’s called Blooms Greenhouse Grower Outlet. It’s an hour east of our St. John store. We probably would have had crossover customers between the two locations, so that was one of the reasons we didn’t use the Alsip name.
Q: How do you account for the success there?
A: There was a family-owned greenhouse grower-retailer that was there for more than 100 years, and they had pretty much dominated the market, and for whatever reason they went out of business. They were about 7 miles from where we are, so on opening day, I was there shaking hands and meeting people. We didn’t really know that market because we were just wholesaling there. One lady said, “Now I don’t have to buy my plants from Walmart.” I’ll never forget that line. And the pricing. The first year, we kept it real low just to generate excitement, and then this year we stepped it up a little. A hanging basket that we’re selling at our retail stores for $32, there we’re selling them for $22. The first year we sold them for $19.97.
Q: You mentioned landscape supply is another area that’s growing.
A: We’re by far the biggest supplier for landscape contractors in our [St. John store] area. A lot of people who work in Chicago live in northwest Indiana because the cost of living is so much less, but they can get right into the city. St. John has planned, over the next five years, 1,000 new single family homes. We’re supplying a lot to commercial landscapers, too. We’ve developed relationships with some developers and excavators. I guess you consider it re-wholesale and wholesale to landscape contractors, but that has been our biggest growth area in our company — bigger than grooming, bigger than our grower outlet. It’s become a huge part of what we do, and I almost consider it a separate business.
Q: I noticed you offer a CSA program with fruits and vegetables you both grow and source. When did that start?
A: This was our second year doing it. We do grow some of it here, but we also have contracted with some local farmers. We have a mission to try to connect with the Millennial generation as a customer base, and this was one of the ways that we believe we can and are doing that. We didn’t invent the idea of a CSA by any means, I just learned about it three or four years ago when I saw other garden centers were doing it, and we thought we should give it a try. One of the people that works in our marketing department runs the whole thing. He worked for a truck farmer for seven years before he worked for us, and he’s a young Millennial guy. We think that’s going to be a huge challenge for garden centers going forward. [Millennials] are getting trained to go to the box store and they are getting trained to shop online for just about everything, so this gets them in the store. We’re trying really hard to keep customers coming in the doors. I see the economy increasingly being soft and competition is getting tougher, so that’s why we’re always looking at different ways to do different things. Our customer count isn’t what it used to be. We’re doing about the same sales with less transactions then we did before the recession of 2008 hit. We have a lot more competition now. Services are one of the best things that people in our industry can get into, whatever niche works for them. A lot of people do custom planting or landscape services. We’re just supplying, and we lean heavily on dog grooming, but I think services are a good thing.