First-hand plant knowledge
Cobblestone Home and Garden Centre is located on 4.5 acres just off a major highway and surrounded by land slated for extensive residential development next year. The store covers 7,000 square feet, the greenhouses just over 10,000, and the rest of the property is given over to bulk items such as aggregate, concrete, trees and shrubs.
|The Ingrams grow much of what they sell. That close connection to the land and local growing conditions fosters an awareness of what it takes to grow successfully in their variable chinook climate.
The Ingrams grow much of what they sell in production greenhouses on a 27-acre farm about 25 minutes from their garden centre. That close connection to the land and local growing conditions fosters an awareness of what it takes to grow successfully in their variable chinook climate. A lot of the plants are “tried, tested and true,” says Tricia. This is what makes Cobblestone unique, she suggests: “We are grower/retailers, and you don’t see that a lot in our neck of the woods.”
Tricia says customers view Cobblestone as the go-to place for information about legislation related to outdoor living, including the new weed acts, pesticide regulations, setback rules and architectural guidelines.
Experience in growing in a challenging climate makes for superior product the family stands behind. The high level of care and pride, or heart, of this family operation shines through in all aspects of the business, including staff.
The centre operates year-round, but closes in January for two weeks for inventory, and a break. January through most of April, hours are 9:30 to 6. Beginning in late April/early May, and depending on the weather, hours are 9-9, with Sundays and holidays 9-7. The longer hours continue until September, at which time they return to the shorter hours. In December, the centre is open 9-9. Cobblestone employs up to 50 people during the peak season, about 35 of those full time. At the slowest times in winter, staff is down to five to seven people.
|attendees get hands-on at a build-a-pond event. The centre offers a variety of events, classes and seminar
“Human input,” or employee turnover, she notes, is their biggest challenge. “Retail, whether it’s selling shoes or selling snapdragons, is never the highest-paying industry, so to get skilled labour at the retail level can be challenging.”
For a garden centre employee to be successful, certain qualities need to be married, suggests Tricia. You have to know how to be a retailer and how to be a farmer. “We are retailing farmers,” she tells new employees. “We have to be able to operate our garden centre on the May weekend with the same proficiency that another retailer like the Bay, as an example, might operate. The consumer expects that.”
Their solution is to “hire attitude.” Skills can be taught, but you can’t teach a positive attitude, she points out, adding they would rather hire someone with “a desire to learn and to please” than someone who has a lot of knowledge but is unwilling to share that knowledge and work hard as part of a team.
‘Changing, or changed’ marketplace
A great reputation takes a lot of work to maintain. “It’s really an old and antiquated idea that you’re going to put a store up and people are going to come without some kind of social commitment,” says Tricia. In her opinion, it’s a changing, or a changed, marketplace: “We have to be socially relevant in an industry that is a feel-good industry. People don’t have to buy petunias, so we’d better give them a reason for coming to our store to buy them.”
|Cobblestone groups its home décor products in themes, among them Home Elegance, Cowboy Country and Pamper Yourself.
| Cobblestone’s store covers 7,000 square feet, and its greenhouses just over 10,000.
Word of mouth, however, is their strongest, if most time-consuming, method of promotion. “Once you establish yourself in the community as honest and fair and really garner that trust, all the while trying to lead the trend of your market, that’s where your freest dollars come from.”
After that, she cites the Internet (via a website or Yellow Pages listing), along with targeted e-mails to existing customers in their database, as the top means of bringing in customers. Young customers readily give out their e-mail addresses when they want information sent to them. “Just reminding people that you’re there” is sometimes all that’s required.
Positive impact on the community
Tricia describes Cobblestone as an anchor of the community, but is quick to emphasize the importance of actively promoting the business by offering staff time and expertise. The Ingrams are solidly rooted in the community, but don’t wait for customers to come to them. They vigorously promote Cobblestone through a Facebook page and YouTube videos. With social networking, Tricia emphasizes that, “you don’t see the results immediately” but the effort pays off.
|Caring for perishable products is a challenge that calls for technical expertise, notes co-owner Tricia Ingram.
|Drawing customers into your store with appealing signage and product arrangements is important. “You want people to walk your entire store,” says Tricia.
Cobblestone’s trademarked logos – “Alberta’s Best Plants” and “Dream and Grow” – further sum up the Ingrams’ focus on quality and allude to their own story of success. “That’s really what we did. We dreamt that we were going to have a business and kept working on it and grew with it, and that’s what you’re doing with your garden. You dream about it, then you grow it.”
Five Ways to Reach Out
One of Cobblestone Home and Garden Centre’s biggest strengths is its ability to connect with the community
on a continual basis. Here are some methods you can use:
- Teach courses on gardening and running a business at local schools.
- Offer seminars on popular topics such as container gardening.
- Allow local garden clubs to host their meetings at your centre.
- Offer to landscape parks and public buildings.
- Assist local organizations with fundraising by, for example, lending out plants for charity functions.
| At a Glance:
Company Name: Cobblestone Home and Garden Centre
Location: Calgary, Alta.
Owner: Tricia and John Ingram
Years in Operation: 8