Successful operator profile: A Garden Boutique in the Hills

May 01, 2009
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Nestled in the rolling hills of Red Deer, Alberta, Parkland Nurseries & Garden Centre is a garden boutique that delivers customers with a retail experience akin to a leisurely stroll in the garden.

Gloria and Dwayne Beck are the sister and brother team at the helm of the garden centre. Opened in 1971, their parents Earl and Margaret Beck were the plant enthusiasts responsible for the creation of Parkland Nurseries & Garden Centre. Both Gloria and Dwayne grew up working at the garden centre and took over in 1982. Since then, they’ve expanded the business from a seasonal operation to a year-round business and added greenhouse production, wholesale, perennial and retail production, landscape design and installation departments to the business. As a result, the six-acre retail garden centre has become the largest in Central Alberta.

The garden centre offers customers a wide variety of product categories including annuals, perennials, water garden plants, giftware and one of the province’s most well known Christmas shops. Gloria Beck says they strive to feature the hottest and most unique varieties as well as old favourites at their centre. “Whether it be a bedding plant, a perennial, a tree, a shrub or even a tropical, if there’s something new and unusual, it is known that if we don’t have it, we will be able to get it for our customer.”

In addition to the product selection, one of the things that’s helped make the garden centre successful is the way they display their offerings. “We feel that even though the customer is shopping for plant material, they should have the same privileges as being in any type of retail store,” says Beck. “After seeing many garden centres from around the world, we chose to put our whole outside plant area on benches.” Positioning the plants this way makes it easier for shoppers to touch the plants and lift them into shopping carts and also creates a more aesthetically pleasing retail selling area. “In what other retail outlet are you asked to shop off the floor?” she questions. “With all the plants raised on benches, it makes it a gardener’s paradise to wander and basically be inspired.”

Display gardens are also located throughout the garden centre and the outdoor selling area is organized so the retail plants feed into the gardens. Beck says they established their first display garden, “Margaret’s Garden”, in honour of their mother and discovered that their customer’s really enjoyed the garden, leading them to create more. They’ve found that the display gardens have become an area where people come to sit, relax and enjoy themselves. It also gives shoppers the opportunity to see different blooming perennials at various points in the season. The garden centre labels the plants “so if people see something unique they like, they can just go back out to our outdoor plant area and ask for that particular plant.” This appeals to new shoppers at the centre. While the average clientele at Parkland Nurseries & Garden Centre is around 40 years old and up, Beck says they are finding that more young people are making their way through the centre’s doors and labeling plants helps new gardeners find just what they are looking for.

The garden centre employs up to 80 part-time and full-time staff members in the busy season, 20 employees in the shoulder seasons and down to approximately 12 people in the winter. One reason that they hire so much staff is because many are part-timers, an approach that Beck has found to be successful. The past three years proved to be a difficult time for attracting staff, so Beck reached out to retirees. “I basically went out and solicited more of the mature workers – I attended and spoke at forums and explained that they had an awful lot to offer us, which some of them didn’t realize,” says Beck. “We let them know that we could be flexible with hours.” She sought out workers with a passion for gardening and as a result the older staff discovered that Parkland was a great place to work in the summer and some stayed on until the fall and Christmas. As an added bonus, the work ethic, knowledge and experience that grey workers bring to the table often rubs off on younger workers.

As for the upcoming season, Beck is happy to report that their staff numbers are looking much better than in previous years, perhaps a positive sign of how well her mature worker strategy panned out. “We’ve had some very good resumes already and we’ve also had people that worked here in the past phoning to see about work this spring. We are very optimistic about the top-notch, quality people that look like they are coming back.”

Beck keeps her staff trained by conducting a course at the beginning of each year to teach staff about plant materials and also works in cooperation with the province’s Olds College on a training session. In the past, Parkland Garden Centre & Nurseries has hosted a customer service workshop with another garden centre as well as put on in-house workshops. This training has helped her knowledgeable staff become something that brings customers back to the garden centre, again and again. With a motto that states “We are known as ‘the specialist’” customers rely on the expertise that Parkland staff can provide. Beck says throughout the year, the centre also offers workshops on a number of topics so they can continually educate the consumer about gardening.

Parkland Nurseries & Garden Centre is a business that’s very involved in their community. Sales promotions and activities such as a garden tour, kid’s workshops, craft and market sales and tea tasting parties are popular with customers. The garden centre also hosts group functions and weddings. At Christmas, the operation is home to an ice sculpture festival – the garden centre’s “Christmas card to the community” – where designers come in and create themed designs for both young and old Red Deer residents. Parkland Nurseries & Garden Centre also belongs to Alberta’s AgriTourism listings and is a stop on the organization’s Country Drive. Tourists or locals can tour through the interest points listed on the Country Drive throughout the year to get a taste of Central Alberta’s agricultural offerings. Beck says that in addition to these visitors, the garden centre is a common stop for bus tours, especially in the summer, and they see many of the same people visiting year after year. “The majority have a passion for gardening but the bus could also be touring many sites in Red Deer or we put on an activity that they’re interested in. Some just love our little gift shop and they all just like wandering around in the gardens.”

Beck herself has retained a strong position in the garden centre industry, becoming the first female and non-European president of the International Garden Centre Association and a past-president of the Canadian Nursery and Landscape Association. Through the years, the garden centre has received numerous awards including Red Deer’s Business of the Year award and a Tourism of the Year award.

The business also reaches out to the community by implementing environmentally-friendly initiatives and offering eco-friendly product lines. Parkland Nurseries & Garden Centre provides customers with a place to recycle their pots and flats. They’ve set up special bins where customers can drop off these materials and a recycling company picks up the bins from the centre. “It’s working really well and our customers are happy. We’re happy because we are not just left with the pots and we feel that we are contributing to the recycling program,” says Beck. In addition, the garden centre also boasts a growing line of eco-products, one that she says is continually gaining in popularity with shoppers.

It’s these efforts to keep up with the changing customer, combined with the ability to create a soothing retail shopping experience that will continue to keep busloads of shoppers and visitors trekking to Parkland Nurseries & Garden Centre for great plants and more.

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