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.
|Vanderwees Home & Garden provides thousands of planters and hanging baskets designed by staff.|
|One of the three murals that can be found at Tulips Café.|
|The centre carries a variety of hardy and tropical water plants.|
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.”
|The tropical greenhouse is a retreat for customers in the winter.|
|The garden centre grows its own tomatoes in a semi-hydroponic greenhouse.
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.
|Displays are changed frequently to keep the centre fresh.|