In 1959, brothers Bob and Jim Echter bought a greenhouse in Arvada, Colo., just 8 miles from the now booming city of Denver. The Echters launched a wholesale carnation business that did well throughout the 1960s. But in the ‘70s, due to competition from South America and rising fuel costs, the family decided to diversify and start growing annual bedding plants wholesale. It didn’t take long for customer demand to drive the family to delve into retail and leave the carnation business. Second-generation owner Steve Echter, president, who runs Echter’s Nursery & Garden Center with his brother, Dave, describes how weather, population increases and law changes in Denver have affected the company and what’s next for Echter’s.
Garden Center: What sets you apart from other garden centers in the area?
Steve Echter: In our immediate area, the thing that sets us apart is the large greenhouse display of all the flowers that we have. We have patio furniture, and most garden centers don’t carry that in our area. We have a plant doctor on staff all the time at the front. When you walk in the door, [he/she is] the first person you see.
GC: Are there any requirements, such as a certification, to be a plant doctor?
SE: There’s no real certification as such, it’s people who are knowledgeable and have worked with us for several years and have had experience. Some of them are master gardeners, others are certified nursery people, and they are all knowledgeable.
GC: I noticed you had an indoor growing supply department. How long have you offered supplies?SE: That’s not a big part — it didn’t really work well for us. When marijuana became legal, everybody was talking about indoor. We got into it, and within a year I think there were 300 different stores in Denver selling indoor [growing] supplies, so it wasn’t going to be profitable for us at that point.
GC: Has the legalization of cannabis for recreational use in Colorado influenced your business?
SE: We inquired with our city to see whether we would be able to grow marijuana in our greenhouses just to find out. We found that [government officials] weren’t interested in doing that in our town. There are lots of greenhouses and a lot of warehouses that are growing, but for us it was an image thing, as well. We didn’t think we could do it under the same banner; if we were going to [grow cannabis], we were going to have to be two separate businesses, really. It’s something that so many people have gotten into in growing and in retail that now prices are coming down and the market is stabilizing.
GC: You mentioned that not a lot of garden centers near you sell patio furniture, but you do.
SE: It’s not our most profitable department, but it’s working for us. We were a big carnation grower in the day, so we had a lot of square footage of greenhouse space. So that gave us the ability to carry things like patio furniture, to which we allocate 9,000 square feet.
GC: What is your most profitable department?
SE: Annuals and pottery are our two better departments. Perennials are good, too. Annuals are our core. After our carnation days, we started out being wholesale annual growers, so that was our strength. The fact we grow our own makes that more profitable for us, too. We grow 90 percent of our annuals, 90 percent of our roses, 80 percent of our perennials, and about 20 percent of our trees and shrubs.
GC: Why did you decide to stop growing carnations and become a retailer?
We’ve seen a lot of young women and young men, which was a pleasant surprise to see young people coming into the garden center, because we were thinking we were going to fade out with the Baby Boomers. All of a sudden, we’re getting these young people and young men in the store, and that surprised me because you didn’t see that for a long time.” — STEVE ECHTER, PRESIDENT, ECHTER’S NURSERY & GARDEN CENTER
SE: It was strictly a wholesale cut flower operation at one time. We built our last carnation greenhouses in ‘73. Prices of heating oil shot up so much and there were shortages, and we were paying $1,000 a day to heat our greenhouses. At the same time, the carnations were being grown in South America outdoors. We started growing and wholesaling bedding plants, and within a year we started our retail store. People were wanting our plants right off the back of the truck. I thought, “we should be trying to sell these at retail, too.”
GC: What has been your biggest challenge this year?
SE: Hail is a big problem in Colorado. Last year, we lost our entire roof to hail. That’s been a problem for customers, as well. You have people coming in who are replacing their plants, but for that bump in the business, you also have people who are discouraged because they planted plants, and then they got hailed out. Then they don’t know if they want to go through the bother [of gardening]. We don’t look at that as a positive.
Competition-wise, we have everybody around us. We have a Home Depot and a Lowe’s down the street a mile away. We have Walmart a mile away. So, you have to adjust your business for every new competitor that’s out there. Amazon is affecting us some but not as much as I thought they would.
GC: What do you do to compete in that environment?
SE: Since we grow our own, nobody has our flowers but us. That’s where we try to compete, and people appreciate the difference and the quality. We work to try not to carry the same exact brands. They look to us for the unusual things.
GC: Has the popularity of Denver for both tourists and new residents affected business?
SE: We have to work really hard to find the employees that you need for the spring season. People that are hiring for year-round are struggling to hire for people, so when you’re hiring for seasonal positions, it’s definitely a challenge. Our starting pay is above minimum wage, but there are so many people moving to Colorado, it’s just a booming economy. The cost of living is expensive in Denver, too, so you feel bad for people who are trying to find an affordable place to live here because it’s getting harder.
GC: What’s your customer base like?
SE: We’ve seen a lot of young women and young men, which was a pleasant surprise to see young people coming into the garden center, because we were thinking we were going to fade out with the Baby Boomers. All of a sudden, we’re getting these young people and young men in the store, and that surprised me because you didn’t see that for a long time. I think Millennials are more responsive to the e-news and the websites, and they’re out there exploring and seeing what’s available. They want to help local, family-owned businesses, as well.
GC: What do you think the future holds for your business?
SE: We are going to see where the competition takes us. I expect Amazon to take chunks of our business away. I don’t see them being as successful in plants as their other things. The key is to make [shopping at the store] an enjoyable experience, that people want to come to the store and look at what you have. They are perfectly willing to buy once they are here. Luckily for us, a lot of our product mix is not something that is easily carried by Amazon, and I think that is going to help our industry a lot more than other industries.