October 23, 2014

Garden centres diversify


“We couldn’t make it if we depended only on gardening to bring people in,” says Deborah Sirman, co-owner of Greenland Garden Centre in Sherwood Park, Alta. That’s a sentiment shared by many of the country’s garden centres, which are getting creative when it comes to diversifying. Here’s a sampling of some of the exciting ways garden centres are attracting customers year-round.

When looking to extend the season, selling real Christmas trees is an obvious place to start. However, many garden centres are leveraging the demand for “all things Christmas” by selling artificial trees, Christmas decorations and tree ornaments. “We sell high quality artificial trees that aren’t available at the big-box stores,” explains Ellen Moore, co-owner of Meadow Acres Garden Centre near Kitchener, Ont., which also carries a large selection of Christmas decorations. “We pride ourselves on the quality of our Christmas trees,” she says.

Sirman takes a similar approach. “We sell to churches and malls but also homeowners looking for good-quality, artificial trees,” she explains. Greenland has evolved to become a Christmas destination, with 50 themed trees on display. “November is our third-busiest month of the year now,” she says. 
Meadow Acres displays its trees beside a very special seasonal attraction - live reindeer!

Several garden centre owners report that interest in decorating with fresh greens at Christmas has soared in the past few years. Demand for fresh greens has quadrupled at Greenland Garden Centre, where they offer classes for decorating with fresh greens. Moore has seen a similar upswing in demand for fresh greens. Custom urns filled with fresh greens are especially popular, she says.

Several garden centres have found offering classes is a great way to attract new customers. These classes cover everything from making wreaths with fresh greens to growing your own sprouts to cooking with herbs. The key to successful classes is to have a good instructor, one who is both knowledgeable and entertaining, says Sirman.

Classes bring in new people while giving the regular customers a reason to come back, adds Susan Mosher, co-owner of Oceanview Garden Centre near Halifax, who finds that free workshops translate into higher sales than those with fees.

Kees Kennema, co-owner of GreenWay Blooming Centre, located between Kitchener and Guelph in Ontario, has made school and group tours for seniors and gardening clubs a major part of his business. “We give talks about farming and gardening. For school tours, we try to tailor it to the curriculum,” he says. And while the children don’t buy directly, they will tell their parents about their visit, he says.
GreenWay Blooming Centre offers group tours to students, seniors and garden clubs.
In addition to the garden centre, GreenWay Blooming Centre has a butterfly conservatory with tropical butterflies as well as an outdoor butterfly-shaped garden. Park benches allow visitors to sit outside and watch the butterflies and hummingbirds, which are attracted to many plants in the garden. There are also farm animals including donkeys, sheep, ducks and rabbits on site. “We want to be a garden destination,” explains Kennema. “It is critical to offer something the big-box stores don’t offer,” he says.

The draw of gardens
Greenland Garden Centre also has an outdoor garden where people are able to see the plants they are thinking about buying. With a water feature and winding paths, the botanical garden is an inviting place. “People come to have picnics or take their wedding pictures in the garden,” says Sirman. There is no cost to tour the gardens; Sirman recently started offering classes in it.

Greenland Garden Centre also creates an indoor garden in one of its empty greenhouses each winter. Dubbed “Escape Winter,” Greenland fills the greenhouse with plants from places like California. Each year there is a different theme, such as Japanese or English Cottage. There is no charge to visit the indoor garden, but Sirman says it gets people out to see the new products that are for sale.

The indoor garden has also been a draw for a café, which overlooks the garden. After operating the café for several years, Greenland replaced it with a full-service restaurant this past year. “In Europe every garden centre has a restaurant,” says Sirman, who stresses the importance of creating an appealing atmosphere. “This restaurant has been two years in the planning,” she says.

Jackie Bezanson, retail manager at Blomidon Nurseries, says they had been thinking about adding a restaurant for ten years. When a storm damaged one of their greenhouses three years ago, Blomidon included space for a café in a new building. Located just off the highway between Wolfville and New Minas in Nova Scotia, the café is a popular destination for highway traffic.

With half of their customers travelling long distances, it also helps make the nursery a destination, adds Bezanson. The café also provides the food for business meetings and birthday parties held in a meeting room, which was added when they made plans for the new building.

Events build traffic
Many garden centres have turned to holding special events to make full use of their facilities and draw more customers. GreenWay Blooming Centre has hosted artists’ exhibitions, birds of prey demonstrations and antique car shows. “Each one brings in a different segment of the population,” explains Kennema. “What’s important is that people know where we are.”

When the roses are at their peak, Blomidon Nurseries hosts a Customer Appreciation Wine and Roses event, inviting local wineries to participate.

Each November, Oceanview Garden Centre hosts a Ladies Night where women can taste the gourmet foods they sell. “Each participant gets a free coupon which promotes sales,” says Mosher. Terra Greenhouses in Milton, Ont., has used its empty greenhouse to host a weekly Farmers Market for the past couple of winters. About 40 vendors selling beef, poultry, eggs, cheese, crafts, apples and baked goods participate, says Bill Bown, marketing manager. “We feel it’s our responsibility to promote local and sustainable … it’s a service to our loyal customers.”

Last year Greenland Garden Centre held its first Pooch Parade. Using an empty greenhouse decorated with hay bales, pet owners were invited to bring their dogs dressed in Halloween costumes. Sixty people, plus their dogs, came out for the event with proceeds donated to an animal rescue charity. “People had a lot of fun and took a lot of pictures,” says Sirman. “Don’t be afraid to try new things,” she adds.

Merchandise without limits
Many garden centres have expanded the types of merchandise they sell to include jewelry, fashions, home and garden décor, pet supplies and kitchen ware. “Home and garden décor have been very substantial for the past ten years,” says Moore. “There’s a cross-over between home and garden.”

About four years ago they began dabbling in fashions, adds Moore. “We started by selling Croc shoes, jewelry, hats and pashminas, then a couple of years ago we made a conscious decision to devote more space and time to fashion,” she explains. “Our customer range is the 30- to 65-year-old woman, so it’s a natural fit.”

About 10 years ago, Mosher began selling giftware and added jewelry, home décor, bath products, kitchen gadgets and cookware over the years. When it comes to expanding into other retail products, it can be tricky to carry the right stuff. “I look for things the chain stores don’t carry and I keep track of what my customers are asking for,” says Mosher. “And I try to have a price point for everyone,” she adds. Nautical giftware always sells well in their seaside location, continues Mosher. Everyone — the tourists, the locals, the kids — loves shells and starfish, she explains.

Staying on top of trends is essential, says Meadow Acres Garden Centre co-owner, Charles Schachinger. “You need to know when to get in and out,” he says. Schachinger attributes their success to membership in a garden centre buying group. “As one of 40 members, it keeps independent places like us on the leading edge. It’s a valuable information network and it gives us the best pricing available,” he says.

Stay alert for trends
Bezanson agrees that you need to keep up with trends. “I read magazines, travel to trade shows in Toronto and Atlanta, and pay attention to what people are asking for,” she says.

Sirman gets ideas by checking the websites of other garden centres, and visiting garden centres when she travels. “Other garden centres aren’t my competition,” she says. “It’s the big-box stores.” Sirman will promote other independent garden centres during her three-hour weekly Sunday morning gardening radio show. With 250,000 listeners, the show is a great way to promote their business. Sirman was approached to host the show when the previous host retired. She takes turns hosting with five other staff members so it doesn’t become too onerous.

Sirman has also found social media to be a powerful form of advertising. She points to one three-minute YouTube video on their company web site as an example. The video of Sirman giving Christmas tree decorating tips has had more than 300,000 views. “Don’t underestimate the power of social media,” she says. From operating restaurants, teaching classes, selling fashions or hosting a Pooch Parade, many garden centres are finding creative ways to attract more customers and generate more revenue. 

Helen Lammers-Helps is a freelance writer based in Ontario. She reports on topics related to business, agriculture, horticulture, the environment and parenting.