Vanderwees Home & Garden

October 31, 2008
Written by
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A destination in Northern Ontario


Located in Thunder Bay, Ont., Vanderwees Home & Garden has become a year-round destination centre where people can come for much more than just plants and gardening expertise. In addition to the garden centre, Vanderwees Home & Garden offers customers a garden café, furniture, patio and leisure accessories, a gift shop, an animal farm, seminars and workshops. They also play host to a number of events throughout the year.

The operation has an extensive history that began in 1960 when Joe and Laura Vanderwees first opened a small vegetable market. They soon ventured into tropical plants, poinsettias and over the years, continually expanded the greenhouses to encompass more growing material. Most recently, in 2004, Vanderwees Home & Garden constructed a new retail garden centre and greenhouse facility, which premiered a year later. The business is now owned by Joe and Laura’s son, John Vanderwees who has played a role in the company since the beginning. The operation has grown to include 36 greenhouses, a perennial,
tropical and vegetable house, a 16,500 square foot retail garden centre and an overall greenhouse and retail area that exceeds 50,000 square feet.

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Vanderwees Home & Garden provides thousands of planters and hanging baskets designed by staff.
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One of the three murals that can be found at Tulips Café.
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The centre carries a variety of hardy and tropical water plants.
Louise Kondakow is the gift shop manager at Vanderwees Home & Garden and has been with the business for many years. She says they’ve worked hard to make the operation a place where people of all ages can enjoy. The family can come to stock their gardens with the centre’s vast selection of annuals, perennials, tropicals and pond plants and stick around for the many other attractions. For the kids, the Little Red Barn is home to geese, ducks, rabbits
and miniature goats year round as well as tropical birds like Max, a Macaw Parrot, and other budgies and finches. Kondakow says one of the biggest attractions for kids is Spruce the Moose, a talking moose head that greets customers. “We have cute little phrases that he says. Parents and grandparents bring the kids and they just love it,” she says.

Tulips Café has become another big draw for the centre after it opened three years
ago. Set against three murals of Dutch scenes, the café serves up fresh brewed coffee, a homemade lunch featuring the café’s famous soup, local Dutch bread and a dessert case full of locally made treats. There’s always a flower on every table so plants and blooms are constantly on the top of mind for customers. Kondakow says they have customers who come into the café almost every day, some of whom have become fixtures since it opened.

Customers frequently come to Vanderwees in search of more than one item and that’s thanks, in part, to all the services and product segments they offer. “Because we’ve opened it up to different products we get everyone from expert gardeners to new beginners.” As far as a target market goes, Kondakow says there’s something for everyone at the centre and they are trying to “target anyone that hasn’t come to the centre before.”

Despite all these extra services, Kondakow says their quality of plants is still one of the primary things that works to drive traffic to the centre. The centre grows its own perennials and annuals and searches out varieties that will thrive in their northern climate. “People really come out for the quality of plant material that we grow and we are always looking for new and different varieties that grow in our zone.” Vanderwees Home & Garden has also positioned itself as an expert by selecting a number of plant picks for gardeners looking for a little extra help. Extending back to the centre’s Dutch heritage, they label products as ‘Uitstekend!’ meaning ‘Outstanding!’ highlight plants that are the best of the best. The centre’s signage is also consistent, clear and features the Vanderwees Home & Garden logo and motto – ‘Beautiful Gardens Begin Here’ – to deliver consistent branding to customers.

Marketing plays a big role in the business and Kondakow says they have a marketing team that meets every Wednesday to look at events, future plans and ongoing promotions. “We are always concentrating on marketing.” Vanderwees Home & Garden advertises on television, radio, in print and flyers. John also takes part in Garden Talk, a weekly radio show that runs Saturday mornings from April to June and September
to December where he takes gardening questions from listeners.

Vanderwees Home & Garden has an extensive website that features a number of sections to inform people about the different products they offer. The site features a gourmet food section for the centre’s gourmet products, a photo contest where readers can submit pictures of their gardens and quizzes. “There’s always something new going on the site,” Kondakow says. At the beginning of 2008, the company began MyGardenMyHome online, which is where customers can go to purchase products online. Since it’s a new addition, Kondakow says they are still gauging the response and it is one of the challenges that the garden centre faces because “it’s labour intensive to man and the online market is quite saturated.”

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The tropical greenhouse is a retreat for customers in the winter.
One of the garden centre’s real strengths is the way they train and manage their staff. In the peak season, the operation employees up to 110 full-time and part-time employees and the roster dips down to 20 employees in the winter. With all those new employees coming in and out of the business, it can be difficult to keep everyone in tip top shape when it comes to knowledge and service, but Vanderwees Home & Garden has found the solution. Kondakow and Vanderwees took part in a week long staffing seminar at a conference in the U.S. last year and brought a new staff training seminar back to the centre this year. “The training program encompasses the whole operation,” says Kondakow. She says they use training cards that outline all the different tasks and jobs involved with the business that range from how to properly answer the phone or approach customers, down to applying fertilizer. The program also incorporates the values of the business and outlines the company’s financial goals and mission statement. “We want to bring everyone to the same level,” she says. Each staff member learns from the same cards and then the group is tested. They have refresher periods with the staff and mystery shoppers come in to keep staff up-to-date and to monitor the success of the program. Kondakow says they try to teach staff one to two cards a week and have staff mentors to help with the learning and the implementation of the program. It gives employees a chance to expand or increase their knowledge of another department at any time via the cards and helps create a better understanding of people and their responsibilities. “The top reason we implemented the program is because it’s so far reaching.”

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The garden centre grows its own tomatoes in a semi-hydroponic greenhouse.
The result of this extra focus on the staff is that they’ve been able to nurture loyal and dedicated employees. “We have staff members that have been here for over 20 years,” she says. At one point the business even had three generations working at the centre.

The dedicated staff can be vital in helping to run and plan the long list of events that the centre plays host to, whether it be their Harvest Fest in the fall, the craft fair in the spring, garden parties, a ladies night to raise money for cancer or special shopping events for their best customers. Vanderwees Home & Garden is known as Ontario’s Largest Retail Christmas Land as they fill the centre with fully decorated Christmas trees, décor, giftware and seasonal vignettes come November. The operation is covered in over 10,000 lights and celebrates the beginning of the holiday season with the Festival of Lights and a firework show which Kondakow says is “the only light show in town.” From early November right up until Christmas Eve, the business is full of activity from Christmas events, which bring both new and old customers to the garden centre.

When it comes to feedback, Kondakow says one of the things they hear most from customers is the fact that they enjoy the environment and atmosphere of Vanderwees Home & Garden. “Customers come in and say that they just wanted to walk around and not be bothered.” She says because of this, staff often use a soft sell approach with customers to avoid being in the shopper’s face. The garden centre also acts as a retreat during the cold winters in Thunder Bay. “A lot of people come out in the winter just to walk around because it’s like walking through Florida,” she says of their tropical buildings.

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Displays are changed frequently to keep the centre fresh.
By striving to provide their customers with a complete gardening and retail experience, Vanderwees Home & Garden has successfully become an attraction for both gardeners and non-gardeners alike. Kondakow sums it best and says: “The one thing we wanted to become was a destination. I think that we are definitely there.” "

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