Armstrong and Pike expanded plant production by 15 percent to have more control over the supply of annuals, perennials, vegetables, herbs and houseplants.

Most IGCs cite customer service as a differentiator, but not many garden centers put as many resources into it as Armstrong Garden Centers and Pike Nurseries. Their commitment to service transcends their retail stores, which span Armstrong’s 32 locations in California, and Pike’s 15 in Georgia and two in North Carolina. (The second Charlotte store is set to open the first week of October 2016.)

Whether it’s daily huddle boards, weekly service training, or new employee orientation, “customer service and relationship-building are top priority,” says Monte Enright, president and COO. The company even has a full-time trainer responsible for equipping employees with skills to meet the company’s high standards.

Armstrong also hosts a two-day Product Knowledge Fair for employees every January. More than 100 vendors set up booths and educate associates about products in a trade show setting. The event features keynote speakers and three breakout sessions — one focused on the company’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) and two devoted to customer service and engagement.

Though separated by vast distances, Armstrong and Pike stores are meant to have similar looks and provide consistent customer experiences.

Consistency from coast to coast

Ensuring a consistent customer experience coast to coast in every store has become critical for success, especially since Armstrong Garden Centers purchased Pike Nurseries out of bankruptcy in 2008.

“The most interesting thing we learned from the diversity of having stores on two coasts is that whether you’re in Buckhead, Ga., or Santa Monica, Calif., the customer is the same customer,” Enright says. “The way they approach gardening and the way they want to be treated is the same.”

“If independents would look at themselves as a retailer first and a garden center second, their mentality would be never to become complacent. Retail never sleeps, so you need to reinvent yourself.”  Monte Enright, president and COO of Armstrong Garden Centers and Pike Nurseries

This insight drives service consistencies. Though both brand names remain separate to maintain local brand equity, loyalty and awareness, brand similarities abound.

“There are three components that make up a brand,” Enright says. “The product and the way it’s presented through merchandising, which is under the jurisdiction of our buying department. Every associate reinforces the brand. Our human resources and then our marketing departments — the way we communicate to customers is very much part of the brand.

“Those three elements are what we call our bicoastal team,” Enright says. “They are the same players on both coasts, so that makes it easy to keep consistency flowing to the consumer. Many associates report back saying, ‘A customer from California came into Pike and said, “This feels like an Armstrong. Do you know anything about Armstrong?”’ and the associate will tell them, ‘Yeah, we’re owned by Armstrong.’”

Policies, procedures, human resources, product selection, training, marketing and merchandising are nearly identical. Of course, there are a few plants from one coast that don’t grow well on the other, but Enright says those seasonal differences are as common from L.A. to San Francisco as they are from California to Georgia. The product mix from store to store is mostly uniform. The biggest difference is the name on the building.

Though it’s critical to maintain consistency with both brands externally, it’s just as important that employees feel like one cohesive team internally. In March 2015, Pike joined Armstrong’s ESOP, which has been in place since 1987, giving employees shared ownership.

“When employees see their stock and equity grow, it’s something tangible that they hold in their hand,” Enright says. “The benefit of that, and the behaviors that have changed because of that, is that they have more skin in the game, and they’re a lot more vocal in our manager meetings and on comment cards. They’re more tuned in to things that most retail associates aren’t: ‘What is our items per cart? What is our sales average? What was the bottom line this year?’ So we know that it’s resonating with them.”

Producing value for independents

To “control the supply chain on the fastest turning products in our company, which is annuals, perennials, vegetables, herbs and houseplants,” Enright says, the company is expanding its production facilities.

Last year it acquired Do Right, a large competitor/supplier in California, to expand production by 15 percent. Now, Armstrong operates three production sites in California that consist of 160 acres, and it has started a growing facility on the east coast to mirror that model. These facilities supply their own retail stores as well as other garden centers and even commercial markets in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, to wholesale customers, including well-known amusement parks in Southern California and casino resorts like Wynn in Las Vegas.

“Our belief is that independents are not our competitors. If we look at each other as competitors trying to put each other out of business, the last person standing will be forced to go to market with what Home Depot and Lowe’s has. The supply chain in our industry will dry up if independents go away. It is all of our jobs as independents to keep each other healthy.” – Monte Enright, president and COO of Armstrong Garden Centers and Pike Nurseries

The wholesale growing division is one of the company’s competitive advantages, but there’s a catch when it comes to supplying competitors.

“We will not sell to box stores. We will only support independent garden centers,” Enright says. “Our belief is that independents are not our competitors. If we look at each other as competitors trying to put each other out of business, the last person standing will be forced to go to market with what Home Depot and Lowe’s has. The supply chain in our industry will dry up if independents go away. It is all of our jobs as independents to keep each other healthy.”

The wholesale growing division does not sell to box stores as part of the Armstrong/Pike mission to support other IGCs.

To put this in action, Armstrong invites wholesale garden center customers to its annual Product Knowledge Fair, with full access to its vendors, product knowledge, customer service training, policies, procedures, marketing insights, accounting practices, and anything else IGCs want to know. When the Health Care Reform Act brought concerns and questions from garden centers, for example, the company held breakout sessions explaining what it was doing in response to the new laws.

The company is committed to improving service, not only in its own stores, but throughout the industry. To do that successfully, Enright encourages IGCs to look outside of the industry for retail inspiration, whether it’s emulating Best Buy’s Geek Squad model of taking the intimidating retail environment out of the equation by visiting customers’ homes for consultations, or keeping up with food trends by incorporating wine happy hours into events.

“If independents would look at themselves as a retailer first and a garden center second, their mentality would be never to become complacent,” Enright says. “Retail never sleeps, so you need to reinvent yourself.”