Kate Terrell, general manager, horticulturist and resident "garden girl" at Wallace's Garden Center, with two locations in Iowa, is happy to share the secrets of her family-friendly company’s 30-plus years of success.
Q: What plants and products are popular with customers in the area?
A: Nursery-wise, customers are looking at low-maintenance, sturdy, long-blooming plants and shrubs with some color. They want high-value plants that will give them the most bang for their buck. People are also looking at milkweed, butterfly bush and other plants that are beneficial to bees or can contribute to the environment.
The edible craze is only getting bigger for us. We hold vegetable-growing seminars every Saturday from January through April. Customers aren't just growing tomatoes and peppers, though. We're pushing beyond that into perennials like rhubarb and asparagus. We've been drivers on people growing fruit trees, too. We have an orchard on the property and grew 600 fruit trees last year.
This year we partnered with the Quad City Bonsai Club. It's a small niche, but it's gained us some new regulars and [makes us] an expert in another area.
Q: What do you offer in your bird center, and why did you believe that segment of the business would attract customers?
A: We sell two or three custom blends of bird seed along with an assortment of feeders and birdhouses. The bird center has been a good year-round category for us, especially in winter. In January we sell a lot of bird seed, and also hold seminars about bird feeding or attracting birds to your yard. When people asked us about specific types of feeders, I realized our selection wasn't that great. Now we have more styles and greater overall variety. Our bird customers are very regular; they're like pet owners. If there's six inches of snow, they want to get food for their birds.
Q: What has been your biggest success this year?
A: My gift department is up way over last year's numbers. My merchandise manager and I do the buying together, and we steered away from cutesy gifts to home decor items like lamps and vases. We also launched indoor furniture like dining sets, coffee tables and end tables. It's given our gift department a high-end look with items that are practical, functional and stylish.
Q: What aspects of the business make Wallace’s Garden Center unique?
A: We grow everything ourselves on site. We have 14,000 geraniums, 14,000 mums and 12,000 poinsettias. We're growers first and like getting customers involved with the process. When I do seminars about the year's new annuals, I'll introduce all our growers who have horticulture degrees. [Other] garden centers in our area are strictly retailers, so we're the only ones who are true growers.
We've also focused much of our marketing and store events on families. We added a toy department, and during Christmas we put a bounce house in the greenhouse that kids can use for free. We also have a train ride that runs in a loop around our poinsettias. Making the store family-friendly has worked out well. I'll see families coming in weekend after weekend, building their gardens and letting their children pick out items.
Q: How does your horticulture background add to the work you’re doing?
A: We have 10 horticulture degrees on staff, which we're very proud of. In our marketing, we say we're the place that has the answers. We've done "garden minute" commercials, with 60-second videos on subjects like keeping slugs away from your hostas. When people come in with a problem, we not only give them a solution, but if they want to know more, we can get into why those problems are happening. We're not looking to bore customers, but it's good being able to explain the science if you need to. Customers like to know that you have a "nerd" background.
“Our bird customers are very regular; they’re like pet owners. If there’s six inches of snow, they want to get food for their birds.” — Kate Terrell, general manager and horticulturist at Wallace’s Garden Center
Q: What has been one of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry?
A: Having healthy plants isn't enough. To that end, we've finally started to catch up as far as having a good website. We're also getting into being real retailers and going off what customers want. We'll grow hydrangeas if that's what people want. Stores are figuring out that you have to adapt or you'll die.