‘It Was Awesome,’ Say IGCs of the Season that Broke Records

‘It Was Awesome,’ Say IGCs of the Season that Broke Records

Friday, July 20, 2012 9:00 am

Spring’s early arrival across the country, along with consumers’ willingness to open their wallets, made for a sunny selling season for many this year. “Weather-wise, it was awesome; sales-wise, it was awesome,” says Peter Bowden, Garden Expert and Public Relations for Hewitt’s Garden Centers, NY, ranked No. 49 in IGC Retailer’s 100 report with $10.4 million in sales. “We are very optimistic this year. We are very happy with the way things are going. We’re up every day the sun comes out.” When IGC Retailer spoke with Bowden in late June, sales were running about 12 percent higher than last year. 

In the Midwest, sales started a whole month early for Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery & Garden Center, Crystal Lake, IL (No. 99, $5.5 million). “We had good sales in mid-March, which is very unusual for Chicagoland. Usually, we’re not fully stocked and ready to go until around mid-April,” says Co-owner Richard Harms. Fortunately, the garden center’s growing division had some stock ready early to meet the demand, and Harms was able to get some flat material in from growers.

“The early spring helped tremendously,” Harms says. “It was the best Mother’s Day weekend we’ve had in three years.” He is glad to see the sales early rather than being forced to scramble to make up numbers as the season comes to a close like last year. Plus, the sales in early spring were full-price sales, not end-of-season clearance sales, making for even better margins. Sales came out about 10 percent higher than the IGC’s three-year average for the season. 

Robert Hendrickson, Managing Director of The Garden Center Group and exclusive columnist for IGC Retailer, tempers the thrill of the strong spring with a reminder that reaching goals set throughout the year is more important than a stellar weekend or season. “Remember, a few great days or even record weeks don’t always lead to a great season. Getting overly excited about being ahead of a previous year or disappointed when falling behind isn’t nearly as important as measuring current year-to-date progress against the goals you set,” he says. 

While Johnson’s Garden Centers, Wichita, KS (No. 72, $7.6 million) saw strong sales in March, “a couple weeks earlier than normal,” April sales were good “but not fantastic,” according to President Jeremy Johnson. “I think we just shifted the sales curve a little earlier,” he says. Still, despite a mid-May dip, the garden center reported “seeing good traffic for the middle part of June.” The season’s sales ended about 5 percent ahead of last year, on target with the garden center’s goal this year.

Out West, sales broke at their usual time for Orchard Nursery & Florist, Lafayette, CA (No. 87, $6.5 million), in mid-March, and the garden center saw big increases throughout the season. Despite the scorching Father’s Day weekend, with temperatures 100 degrees and higher, the garden center was about 10 percent up for the year to date. “We’re sticking right there,” says Owner Tom Courtright. “Last year was not a great year for the first four months, but this year, we’re up over 2010. We are very encouraged by that.”

Mother’s Day weekend didn’t break records for Orchard Nursery, but it did ring in a healthy 4 to 5 percent increase over last year. “Our customer count was down ever so slightly, but our average sale was way up,” Courtright says. “I think people have a little more money this year, and hopefully our nursery people are doing a better job of selling.”

Back East, Cole Gardens, Concord, NH, is holding a double-digit percent increase in sales over last year. “It’s all weather-dependent. If the weather is good like it has been - mild temperatures and beautiful weekends - that’s really helpful,” says General Manager Charlie Cole. 

The Biggest Sellers

Thanks to the favorable weather - and smart selling - Cole Gardens experienced a standout Mother’s Day week. “It was just shy of our best Mother’s Day week ever, which was about five years ago,” Cole says. “The whole week was just nuts - awesome, crazy.”

Cole Gardens credits its focus on hanging baskets, in part, for the stellar Mother’s Day week results. “We really wanted to own the hanging basket category, so we brought in more inventory and gave the category more space,” Cole says. And the effort paid off - the garden center reported a 56 percent increase in hanging basket sales compared to the same week last year. 

Hanging baskets boosted the bottom line for Greenscape Nursery, Lafayette, LA, too. Reporting an incredible 40 percent increase for the season in mid-June, Owner Andy Breaux says, “It’s easier to have that kind of a number for us because it’s our second year, but Mother’s Day was great. We had a lot of mixed baskets and containers.” 

Although color seems to account for most of the early spring sales, bigger ticket items started to move again, too. “Blooming plants, annuals and perennials - all of them seem to be moving very well. If it looks nice and it’s in color, people seem to be buying it,” Courtright says. “Fountains are starting to sell again as well. We carry a pretty good inventory. We have them here, ready to take home, so people don’t have to wait for them - that helps.”

Countryside is posting good numbers in garden art, statuary and fountains, too. In fact, by mid-May, Harms had already reordered, which he says is unusual for these categories compared to the last few years. “People seem like they’re more willing to spend,” he says. “We’re not seeing people say, ‘I have to put this back because I’m over budget.’ They’re saying, ‘I wanted to spend $200 for my garden and it’s at $210,’ and they don’t put the $10 worth back anymore."

Harms says, “With the gloom and doom we’ve had the last few years, bright colors seem to be selling well - hot pink Wave petunias and a lot of really bright flowers. We’re running low on bright yellow.”

Thanks to early warmth then a cool down - “back and forth,” as Bowden describes it - flowering trees sold particularly well at Hewitt’s Garden Centers. “The flowering crabapples and ornamental cherries and pears - all of the ‘street trees’ - they put on such a show this year for such an extended period of time that it inspired people,” he says. “Forsythias flowered for about six weeks. I have never seen that before. They normally bloom for two to three weeks, here. We have sold more forsythias this year than ever before - we ran out and had to get more.”

Edibles remain a hot commodity for Orchard Nursery. “Vegetables are still selling like crazy,” Courtright says, “but we’re not seeing anything new and different.”

Johnson’s Garden Centers is - it introduced graphed tomato plants for the first time this season, and they took off. “Our customers are always looking for ‘bigger’ and ‘better,’ and how to beat their neighbors by having the first tomato or the biggest tomato on the block,” Johnson says. “So we’ve been talking about graphed tomato plants all winter, especially on our radio programs, and they’ve been really good sellers.”

Looking Beyond Spring

To keep customers thinking “Cole Gardens” through the winter and put the garden center at the top of their lists for spring, it holds a farmers market inside its greenhouse January through March. “It reminds the community we’re here,” Cole says. “People love it because they can get fresh local food. We don’t have to limit customers so that they only come to us in the spring - with the farmers market, they get used to coming to us year round.” Each farmers market Saturday, about 1,000 people came through, compared to “maybe a dozen people on a good Saturday in the middle of winter,” Cole says.

With so many people coming through early in the season, along with the unusual warm weather, some customers got the itch to start planting edibles too early. Cole warned them that the plants may need protection. “You don’t want to lose a sale, but you want to make sure you educate your customers to be careful of frost,” he says.

To extend the season into summer, Cole Gardens offers kids programs to bring families in. But most importantly, Cole says, “We live and die by the weather.” 

To continue drawing crowds after the spring rush, Countryside has been promoting targeted sale events as the season carries on. Roses were on sale the first week of June to mark rose month, and for Father’s Day, it was “Buy Dad a shade tree, and we’ll plant it for free,” Harms says. “We’re targeting promotions that bring people in - not just blanket sales.”