The future of garden center retail doesn’t intimidate Sandi Hillermann McDonald, president of Hillermann Nursery & Florist in Washington, Mo. Debating and discussing the topic energizes her.
Over the summer, the same sentiment was echoed in meeting after meeting — the future of brick-and-mortar retail is dependent on the experience businesses create for customers, and that’s something Hillermann McDonald has emphasized since the Recession hit in 2008.
This magazine has featured Hillermann’s various workshops for all ages that the more than 65-year-old garden center has offered for years, including its First Saturday kids’ events like “Decorate a Mum” and “Pot a Pie Pumpkin” and the spring Ladies’ Night.
After the Recession, Hillermann McDonald was looking for other profit centers. She even considered being a U-Haul dealer at one point. She implemented a Pot Shop in 2013, which offers pottery-making classes and parties where people can bring their own food and drinks. When the Pot Shop first opened, Hillermann was a partner in the business with Noreen O’Gorman, but now the owner rents space from the garden center instead so that Hillermann can count on steady profits, Hillermann McDonald says. Customers can also purchase memberships and access the Pot Shop even when O’Gorman isn’t around.
It’s just one small example of how Hillermann McDonald isn’t afraid to adapt and change, and quickly.
Uncorking a new segment
In 2016, Hillermann implemented new departments — including a local wine area that’s doing quite well, Hillermann McDonald says.
They had offered beer- and wine-making supplies for a couple of years, but Hillermann McDonald decided to purchase a liquor license — which set her back just $1,000 — so she could start selling the end products.
“We’re in the center of wine country, so we’ve got wineries all around us, and that is the type of wine we’re selling, and that does very well,” Hillermann says. “We’ve tried some of the craft beers, but the more popular things like Blue Moon and Stella, those [brands] still outsell local craft beer.”
She had considered delving into the category before, after many customers requested that the florist deliver champagne with anniversary flowers, for example. Hillermann McDonald says that service is popular around Valentine’s Day and other holidays.
They also offer adult beverages during certain special events and workshops, including a spring and soon fall Ladies’ Nights, and hope to eventually offer a glass as people shop and browse through the store. But it’s not all about profits at Hillermann — proceeds from a recent painting night went to the United Way.
“We used to do [Paint & Sip nights] through a company called Vino van Gogh, and we did them almost on a six-week time frame on Saturday afternoons for about a year, and that started to fizzle out,” Hillermann McDonald says. “We’re a pilot company for United Way. We were coming up with ideas, and we’ve seen this resurgence in the [paint and wine classes], and this was actually put on by a local woman who does it for fundraising events. All the profits will be able to help the fundraiser, which I think puts new life into it for the local community.”
Another department Hillermann added in the past year is devoted to beekeeping, and they offer supplies for novices and experts alike, including suits, starter kits and honey extracting supplies.
“Beekeeping has become very strong for us. We’ve actually got three hives on the property,” she says. “They’re taken care of by a customer of ours. He has given us local honey to sell, which is great. The customers love it.”
Hillermann McDonald says the hives are promoted on display beds outside of the front of the store, but far enough from the parking lot for anyone who is fearful or allergic.
Product placement, related workshops and local partnerships have helped boost beekeeping, Hillermann McDonald says. Hillermann also provides customers with a booklet made in-house of all of the public places like garden parks that have pollinator-friendly gardens, where customers can get design and plant inspiration if they want to install something similar in their own homes.
“The beekeeping department is fairly close to the checkout, so that has also done very well for us. In our community, we’ve kind of jumped on the back of the St. Louis push for the monarchs,” she says. “The St. Louis mayor and the zoo have done a big push to save the monarchs and pollinators, and we’ve jumped on that bandwagon as well, not only with the [pollinator-friendly] plants. The beekeeping supplies work right along with that.”
A department won’t perform well without good merchandisers and other support, Hillermann McDonald says, and she credits the team with connecting the dots for customers.
“You’ve got to be more than just a brick and mortar, so that’s why we’ve added some funky departments,” Hillermann McDonald says. “My merchandisers do a fantastic job of turning around the store, and the outside sales in the greenhouse. With the greenhouse, it gets a major work over every season. We do try to do lots of photo op areas, because when it comes prom time and homecoming, we get people here to take pictures. We’ve got a real nice outdoor display garden that has a waterfall in it with a bridge that goes over that they love to take pictures around, so once we get in pumpkins and all that, we jazz that area up and make it look good.”
Scott Hillermann, Sandi’s brother and the youngest of the siblings, is vice president, hard goods buyer and helps oversee the landscaping division of the company, which started to pick up and even surpassed retail in 2015. Landscape includes both commercial and residential projects and a full breadth of services like installation, irrigation, lighting and lawn maintenance. The business segment is still performing well, but the company is looking at the potential for growth in the future, Hillermann says.
“There is a tremendous amount of competition now that has changed our outlook of how things proceed and how we do things in town. The growth out here has slowed down,” he says. “We have to figure out what boundaries we want to go to, how far we want to service our customers.”
They’ve saturated their town of Washington, with a population of just 14,000, he says, but exploring other cities means new regulations and restrictions to learn. However, they have an interesting relationship with the competition, Hillermann McDonald adds.
“The majority of that competition, when it comes to mowing, uses our equipment center to buy their new equipment,” she says. The company has long offered Stihl, Cub Cadet, Exmark and Toro. “Some of them are small enough that they don’t have their own places, and they work out of their homes, so then we subcontract materials to them, and we’re still getting [their business].”
Another interesting development is that even though people are looking for help in their yards, once their initial plans are set and landscaping work is started, they want to take care of their own gardens.
“We have seen an influx of the do-it-yourselfers with landscaping,” Hillermann McDonald says. “We may go in, prep the bed, and do the edging, a little retaining wall, but they’ll plant it themselves to help keep costs down. We just try to make a relationship and do whatever we can.”
As a second-generation, family-owned business, relationships are just as important inside the company, as well. Staff members have decades-long tenures, and four out of six of Sandi and Scott’s siblings work for the company. Last July, they lost their father, Bernie Hillermann, who was a partner with his brother and founder Don. Though his passing was unexpected, the family was prepared for the worst, which made the transition less painful.
“My dad passed a year ago, and we really didn’t know what was going to happen, but we had a family turnover plan built with the lawyers for years, and we tweaked it every six months,” says Hillermann McDonald, who is the oldest sibling. “Dad had that all in line, so we knew where we stood. Things are going as planned, and we are looking at doing new things to continue our growth.”