Al’s Garden Center, Sherwood, OR

By: Cheryl Morey

From: Garden Chic, January/February, 2013

Al’s Garden Center, Sherwood, OR
Gen X / Gen Y Focused in Oregon’s Wine Country

Nestled in Oregon wine country, south of Portland, this flagship store of Northwestern powerhouse Al’s Garden Center represents one of the best large garden center locations in North America. A true believer in practicing what they preach, this Al’s store’s parking lot and entry is near theme park quality, with extensive roadway landscaping, super large hanging baskets and a Euro-style wood trellis store entrance that literally drips annual color. Talk about selling the sizzle - there is plenty of purchasing interest built up even before entering.

Once inside, you are greeted with a bright tropical foliage offering in the center of the store, leaning heavily on orchids and other exotics. Other indoor standouts are the high-end department store-quality lady’s fashion offerings and the especially well-merchandised birding and controls departments.

In the large outdoor plant selling area, customers are treated to extensive and varied plant and decor vignettes at virtually every turn that serve as a “how-to textbook” for the rest of the industry.

This Sherwood location caters to a younger demographic than its original “fruit stand” location in Woodburn, which tends to draw more traditional customers, Co-owner and COO Mark Bigej says. Each of Al’s three locations has its individual strengths and stays true to itself to best serve its customers and community.

“We’re always trying to look at the next segment of gardeners, who, a lot of times, are intimidated by gardening. So what is it that we can do to simplify that?” Mark says. “They’re afraid to ask questions. They’re afraid to work and fail, and so it’s our job to make it seem easy and show them they can succeed.”

Luring those Gen X / Gen Y customers starts roadside and carries through the parking lot of the store’s 10½-acre site, which boasts a state-of-the-art garden center with a retractable roof. Voluptuous hanging baskets flank every light post, grabbing the attention of passersby. “We grow so many of our own plants, and bedding plants are big to us - the color in both perennials and annuals. So the hanging baskets are a real eye-catcher. Customers always ask how we get our baskets to look like that, which gives us an opportunity to explain our story,” Mark says.
Showing these younger customers how to make their space attractive, like with these colorful hanging baskets, is most important to them right now. “Really, at this point in their lives, until they develop more of a passion for gardening, that’s what it’s about - looking good,” Mark says. “They don’t know what the plants are - they look pretty, that’s what they want.”

Selling Edibles & Speciality Foods
Instant gratification appeases Gen X / Gen Y customers, which is why veggie gardening pulls in this demographic. “It’s a quick result. They can have success, and they don’t have to worry about this huge investment,” Mark says. “That’s one of the draws - they’re afraid to make a mistake, afraid to waste their money - so vegetable gardening is a great way to lure them in.” Harvesting the crop is a reward for their effort.

Not only edible gardening but food in general is helping to attract a younger crowd to Al’s. “There are a lot of foodies, so we’re working on getting into more gourmet foods. Last year was our first for really making a home for it year round,” Mark says. “We’re making a better, more permanent home for it. We only handle unique and different things that they’re not going to find other places. The nice thing about it is that it creates repeat customers.”

To sell customers on speciality foods, Al’s incorporates the products into its events, like ladies’ nights. Cooking demonstrations and tastings get all the senses going and sell the products. “At our last ladies’ night, the cooking demonstrations were popular. We had about three or four of them, and they went over really well,” Mark says.

Fashion-Forward by Design
During the ladies’ night, Al’s also presented a fashion show. The clothing and personal accessories department has grown into big business for Al’s, especially at its Sherwood location. “Food and clothes have been driving our gift department - it’s up 20 percent this year,” Mark says. “Our overall business is just slightly off, so to have a department that’s up that much is huge.”

The department started as personal accessories, with scarves and bags. The demand was undeniable, so it grew to include clothing. “As we started going into the recession, the personal items really picked up. Our buyer just kept going a little deeper and a little deeper,” Mark says. “We try to have brands that no one else has - they’re unique, more of upper-end clothing.”

Just as the ladies’ nights create a reason to gather on location for adults, Al’s kids’ clubs make future gardeners (and future customers) feel welcome at the garden center. It not only boosts the children’s confidence in the garden but their parents’, too. “We do one Saturday a month, and at this store, it’s not uncommon to get more than 100 kids to show up,” Mark says. “We ask parents to be there with them so it’s not babysitting. What we find is that the Gen X / Gen Y parents ask more questions than the kids do. It’s a non-threatening way for them to find information.”

Education is key to keeping these new customers. They want to be successful and reap the rewards, whether it’s brilliant seasonal color or tasty tomatoes. “We’re still trying to educate them that if you have success in the spring with your garden, you can keep that going year round,” Mark says. “We offer fall planting tips and garden ideas. And each year, our fall and winter business grows a little bit more.”

This Al’s store knows how to get the younger generation, as well as seasoned customers, excited about gardening.

Get inspired!

Vital Stats

Space Allocation -

Sherwood Retail Property: 10.5 acres
Outdoor Garden Selling Space: 120,000 square feet
Indoor Garden Selling Space: 88,000 square feet
Display Gardens Space: 8,225 square feet
Parking - 300 spaces

Social Media -
Annual Sales - $16M for all locations

Merchandising Secrets
Simplicity is best when it comes to the displays, says Visual Merchandiser Manager Barb Florig: “That ‘less is more’ mantra is really important when you’re trying to catch people.” A sense of organization draws customers in to take a closer look.

But that doesn’t mean a mass of products is a no-no. In fact, along with color blocking and props, massing is among Barb’s top three favorite merchandising techniques. “We use color a lot. We paint everything with a really bright background color - one of the Pantone colors,” she says. “The color draws people’s eye, then they get up close and see that mass of product.”

Props are used to jazz up less visually inspiring products. “I like to take something really boring from dry goods and make it look exciting by adding other merchandising props to enhance it - something unexpected so people will see it pop,” Barb says. Contrasts are key to making each product stand out within displays - “contrasting textures and contrasting colors,” she explains. “We also use a lot of old, repurposed, recycled things as props, like antique buckets - I’m a big dumpster diver,” she says, bringing in some of her display designs at a mere 10 cents.

Using masses of products helps fill the large store, and massive blocks of color gets traffic flowing from one area to the next. Adaptability is key, Barb says: “You always have to be flexible. It’s keeping up-to-date with buyers and finding out what we’re pushing now. Because it’s plant material, you can have a wonderful plan in place, but then the owner is going to find 350 rhododendrons and say, ‘We’ve got to sell these right now because they’re in bloom.’”

Barb loves to read through Garden Chic for inspiration. “Garden Chic magazine is my favorite garden trade magazine,” Barb says, “because it’s most relevant to my job. There are always great photos.”

Link to the Photo Album

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