Secret Shopper - Hilton Head, SC

From: IGC Retailer, Best of Show Issue, 2013

Secret Shopper - Hilton Head, SC
The Greenery 
960 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island, SC Shopper's Favorite

I almost miss this gorgeous garden center, as Iím not expecting to see a large Colonial-style house on the property. Off to the side of the parking lot, the outdoor plant selection sits on benches around a bountiful pottery selection. Large and small white cast stone, shell-shaped pots with moss growing on them are a striking contrast beside the large glazed red pots with embossed fleur de lis. Shrubs and outdoor plants in surrounding beds are signed well.

As I reach the back of the nursery yard, the clearance section blasts me in the face with an extra large, red and white 50-percent-off sign. Surrounding the sign are random statuary, birdbaths and bushes strewn on the ground.

Across the parking lot, The Potting Shed is a hodgepodge of plants on a couple wooden benches and a few watering cans. A large pergola nearby is covered with clear plastic corrugated roofing material. Itís a cool idea, but pine needles need to be cleaned off a large portion of it. Inside this display area, vignettes with statuary and potted plants are scattered throughout. The merchandising is tasteful and incorporates green goods, gifts and pottery. A pine needle pathway leads me to another plant yard, where perennials and herbs sit on wooden benching. Locally made stepping stones are cute, but they could be displayed more creatively than propped up on a fence.

The back door of the Colonial-style home is open, so I enter to find a mixture of fine antiquities, contemporary decor and gifts. An employee greets me and tells me the building is a restored two-story Baptist church from 1873. Itís a great place for the upscale merchandise it houses. Out front, the yard is full of cast stone urns and pedestals, as well as a mix of landscape plants.

The Garden Gate Nursery 
2 State of Mind St., Bluffton, SC

This two-story building with an outdoor nursery yard sits in a historic part of town. Outside the front door, beautiful container gardens burst with blooms and color. As soon as I enter the building, an employee greets me and wants to chat. Sheís eager to hear where Iím from and gives me the townís history.

At first glance, this place reminds me of an upscale gift boutique. Glass terrariums with moss and small plants, and tropical specimens in interesting terra-cotta pottery, are intermixed in the displays. Local products add to the eclectic blend. The back wall behind the cash register is covered in chalkboard paint and lists plant specials and other news.

Just outside the door to the nursery yard, a turquoise outdoor mat and a red adirondack chair are the most colorful items, and they extend the indoor presentation of goods outdoors. More cross-merchandising like this would fill out the bare spots out here.

A large decorative concrete display table near the door falls flat with only a few plants and pots, and no story. While there arenít many plant varieties on each wooden bench, the garden center tries to make up for it by incorporating pieces of unique pottery.

Several large oak trees give the nursery yard shade and block out the distraction of passersby. It appears miscellaneous items are stored on the side of the building, creating a noticeable mess that should be disguised.

Bruno Landscape & Nursery
109 Dillon Road, Hilton Head Island, SC

As I pull up, a gorgeous weeping willow tree beside the parking lot welcomes me. An employee yells from across the nursery that sheíll help me in a second. This is definitely a no-frills garden center. Plants sit on black landscape fabric on the ground, and the majority of the nursery yard is shadeless.

The plants are staked with simple name-and-price tags, but there is no cross merchandising. A large oak tree on the back of the property is the centerpiece of a shady tropicals area, where all of the plants are lush. Itís the only refreshing space out here, until the dogs start barking. Not sure whatís going on next door, but the noise detracts from my peaceful shopping experience.

On the far side of the nursery, the fabric ground covering is slippery and the ground underneath is squishy from a recent rainfall. Toward the front, there are more than 30 plants that are so dead they look like sticks in pots. Several Mexican heather specimens in full bloom fill a wooden tabletop. Across the way, colorful benching and a mix of tropicals and succulents sit under a shade cloth. On a bright pink wooden bench, the pink leaves of Stromanthe sanguinea stand out. Itís been a while, now, and the employee who greeted me is still working with the same customer.

Sunshine Hardscape, Landscape & Nursery
38 Plantation Park Drive, Bluffton, SC

My first glimpse at product is near the front gate, in a display garden featuring large cast stone statuary and fountains merchandised with dwarf Japanese juniper trees. Near the back of this area, I have to step over a few cords and a hose tangled on the ground. A recent storm knocked several trees on the ground and made a wheelbarrow full of potting soil a mucky mess. Chalkboard signs used around the garden center to market products and services are tastefully done and a great way to reuse signage.

The different colors and styles of brick pavers the store offers not only serve as ground covering, they are a great sales tool for its landscape services. A rock fireplace with a chimney and outdoor furnishings are staged in a vignette off to the side.

Around the back of the building, plants sit on bright green and purple wooden benching. On the other side, however, shrubs and roses sit on the dirty ground with weeds growing around them.

Lots of hydrangeas toppled in the storm havenít been picked up yet. One area has caution tape around it, so I turn back and walk through the tropicals greenhouse into an area with large fountains and pottery. The statuary selection here is unreal. U.S. military men and women are among the largest pieces.

The Green Thumb 
1117 Fording Island Road, Bluffton, SC

This garden centerís pull-through-style parking lot is cramped by a cast stone block wall and raised planter near the entry. While impressive, itís a little over the top for such a small space. Large bags of compost and soil are well-signed and placed for loading purposes next to where I park.

A pathway lined with pink and red roses on one side and peach canna lilies on the other leads me to a plant display area under a large pergola on the front of the building. Here, cacti and succulents are presented on a three-tier merchandiser, perennials are lined up on wooden benching and healthy ferns hang from baskets above. While tidy and well-stocked, this section needs some drama.

Open shade structures cover most of the front and side nursery yards. A built-in creek bed runs through the middle of the yard, and established plantings grow alongside it. Some areas are not as well-kept, though, with plants on stacked pallets, eroded soil, ragged ground coverings and hoses strewn across walkways.

Near the front of the building, however, a grouping of tall evergreen topiaries, healthy and trimmed to perfection, stand in parallel rows. Glazed pots, and cast stone statuary and birdbaths line the porch. While the presentation is convenient, this beautiful selection of high-end pottery needs a more inspiring arrangement. Inside, a whole wall is devoted to the ownerís intricate fairy garden creations. She approaches me as I admire her artwork and asks if I would like help selecting one.

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