Successful Operator: Dutch Growers Garden Centre

July 31, 2008
Written by
In Saskatchewan’s capital, Dutch Growers Garden Centre is working to bring the world of gardening to the city of Regina, an area not traditionally known for its green thumb.
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A photo taken at the centre’s Plant it Pink Day planting party where local breast cancer survivors were invited to help staff plant the pink pots for the fundraising event. The Van Duyvendyk family, in blue from left to right, are Avery, Karen, Tim, Rylan and Carson, and they are joined with the survivors and staff.

Karen and Tim Van Duyvendyk are the couple behind the garden centre, a business they opened in the spring of 2005. Prior to the opening, Tim was an owner in the Dutch Growers Saskatoon location, a family business that’s been operating for over 50 years. The Van Duyvendyks were in the process of starting their own family and felt the time was right to open their own garden centre. They bought a pre-existing centre in Regina and gave it the Dutch Growers name and spirit – Live, Grow, Give. The two garden centres now share the same name and pass along tips and information from time to time, but are run as two independent businesses in Regina and Saskatoon.

The Dutch Growers Regina garden centre measures 2.5 acres and includes a greenhouse and a 5,000-square-foot gift shop. The centre is open year round and offers a wide selection of bedding plants, annuals, perennials, houseplants, pond plants and trees and shrubs. The centre is always looking to expand its product lines in order to make sure its customers are receiving only the best product. “We’re in such a growth phase. We are seeing a resurgence with our tropicals and people are really looking for hardy trees and plant materials,” says Karen Van Duyvendyk. “People are finding us one of the most reliable sources in the city for product,” she says. Customers are learning that the centre offers a high quality selection and have come to trust the products that they offer.

A specialty of Dutch Growers are the hanging baskets they sell to customers. Van Duyvendyk estimates that they grow over 5,000 hanging baskets each year and says that their customers are quick to snap them up. She describes the baskets as “big 14-inch planters that we trim back really tight so they become full and lush.” The hangers are all created using container recipes named after Dutch Growers staff members, the Van Duyvendyks’ three children and even titled after the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Customers have also come to recognize the Dutch Growers’ “Plant it Pink” pots, which is a fundraiser that began after a family member was diagnosed with breast cancer. This year alone, the business has raised over $10,000 in support of the cause.

Since opening, the garden centre has focused largely on welcoming new people to the centre. The pre-existing garden centre had a very slim demographic and catered mainly to an older crowd. “This was a garden centre in business for 15, 20 years. It really needed a facelift and we’ve really given it one.” The Van Duyvendyks wanted to make the centre more accessible for both the elderly and children. “We gave it the classic loop structure and reorganized the space. Customers come in and say ‘oh, you’ve expanded the place’ but we’ve really just reworked it,” says Van Duyvendyk.
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Karen and Tim Van Duyvendyk use their three children in their advertising materials as a way of welcoming their customers into their home. Pictured, left to right, Avery and Carson Van Duyvendyk.

Once the appearance of the centre was updated, the duo began to look at how they could broaden the clientele shopping at the business. “Our focus has been to diversify and capture a yonger demographic,” says Van Duyvendyk. Dutch Growers started a program called “Happy Plants Grow Happy People” to encourage new gardeners to dig in. “Gardening can become a stuffy hobby with all those Latin names,” says Van Duyvendyk. “When customers come in, we say ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ so they don’t feel pressured to name certain plants.” The plants are organized by colour and height to appeal to beginners who want to ease into gardening. Van Duyvendyk says this approach has worked well to attract young gardeners, but hasn’t slowed the more “seasoned gardeners either.”

The centre’s 15-foot-tall cedar gift shop offers shoppers “a nice homey environment.” The building is a replica of an old 1900s train station stocked with traditional gardening décor such as gnomes, turtles and frogs as well as more modern product lines of jewelry and “doggie bling” to appeal to the young homeowner. Van Duyvendyk says they change up the merchandise as frequently as possible and try to offer customers more than just the product. She cites one display where she offered fact sheets on the symbolism behind adding turtles or gnomes to the garden – “we try to personalize it all.” Christmastime at the centre is just as important as the summer growing season as the centre is home to the largest Christmas store in southern Saskatchewan. Staff take advantage of the gift shop’s 20 foot ceilings by elevating the trees so they appear 15 feet tall and surround the base with giftware displays. In the greenhouse, the live Christmas trees are opened up and hung so people actually know what the tree looks like before they make the purchase. Van Duyvendyk says the garden centre is also known for its poinsettias and during the festive season staff sell a lot of living green arrangements.

It’s all about giving their customers extra value at Dutch Growers and one customer service program the centre offers is the Very Into Plants or VIP program. Shoppers received a Dutch Dollar for every $20 they spend at the centre and can use the Dutch Dollars during a special redemption period, where they can access sales or promotions before other customers. “It’s fair and set up so people are rewarded in proportion to how much they spend,” she says. “Customers get the ‘heads-up’ on new promotions and secret sales so they really benefit from the program”,  and they feel like they really get the deals first.
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The centre is big into point-of-purchase materials and staff incorporate them into their end cap displays.

The centre’s website and e-newsletter have also worked to keep customers in the loop with what’s happening at the garden centre. The website has been up and running since Dutch Growers opened its doors and the site’s question and answer section is always a popular page come springtime. “We get hundreds of questions in the spring,” says Van Duyvendyk, who personally takes the time to address the gardening queries. The Dutch Growers e-newsletter is sent out three or four times a year and to prevent customers from receiving information they don’t want, Van Duyvendyk says they specialize the content. Using their point-of-sale system, the garden centre staff track what types of product a customer purchases. If a customer bought hostas, then that customer’s newsletter will contain information about new hosta varieties or care tips. “We can really track demographics – we can see where people are buying shade plants or home décor and focus our marketing campaigns from there.”

And advertising has definitely been one of the Dutch Growers strengths. Customers have come to know and love the cute, young faces in many of the garden centre’s print and website ads – the Van Duyvendyk’s three small boys, Carson, Avery and Rylan. “Because we are a mom and pop shop, we take pride in the fact that we are doing this all as parents. It’s like we are welcoming them into our home.” In addition to newspaper and flyer advertising, Dutch Growers works with the Regina Global TV station to run a weekly segment entitled “Distinctively Dutch Garden Tips.” Every Thursday, after the weather forecast, Van Duyvendyk gets in front of the camera to offer up gardening tips. She says they’ve received a huge response from the segment. One week she showed off the centre’s Proven Winners Diamond Frost hanging basket and the following day, they had people lined up at the centre, waiting to buy that particular basket. Through their advertising campaigns, Van Duyvendyk says they’ve learned to tie their ads into the weather report, either on the radio, on TV or in the newspapers because that’s the one place where gardeners are sure to check.

Another area where the garden centre thrives is cultivating dedicated staff that truly loves what they do. “Coming from Saskatoon, it’s a very open and vibrant place. We came in with that Saskatoon flavour,” says Van Duyvendyk. “Our managers and our senior staff all have that same passion.” Because Dutch Growers can employ up to 55 people during the peak season, Van Duyvendyk admits that sometimes finding those key staff members can be a challenge. “We treat all of our customers like they’ve paid an admission fee to come to our store and it’s difficult to get the proper number of staff to take care of them.” They hire students in the summer or through work exchange programs but have found that attracting the aging population has worked well. “Regina is a crown corporation town and a lot of people take early retirement. We find that they are already very customer service oriented.”
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Dutch Growers has a policy with its giftware – items cannot have what they call a “birthday” or sit on the shelves for longer than a year. The company trains staff to really move product and it controls its purchasing.

Once they’ve found the right employees, the centre works hard to keep staff motivated and in the end, it pays off. Van Duyvendyk says they’ve implemented a number of ‘carrot programs’ that offer incentives for staff. They give out prizes for sales or merchandising. “The little contests work really well with our staff.” She also has had secret shoppers come into the centre and so far, has never received a negative report. The couple believes there’s always room for their employees to grow and make sure to offer staff advancement opportunities. “Most of our staff that we get that stay here say they have come here because they know someone that works here that really loves their job.” Van Duyvendyk says one reason for this could be because they try to build positions for their staff rather than try to stick employees in roles they aren’t comfortable in.

Dutch Growers was recently named the 2008 Business of the Year by Regina’s Chamber of Commerce. The award has already brought new customers to the centre. “It’s opened up our customer demographic – people that hadn’t been here before came in to check out the business of the year.” Van Duyvendyk sees this as a major achievement – especially in a conservative city like Regina, which she says is not known to be a gardening town. In fact three of the centre’s major competitors have closed down in the last few years. The Van Duyvendyks sees this as both a challenge and the perfect opportunity to share their love of gardening with a new crop of potential horticulture enthusiasts.

“It’s an exciting time in the city of Regina. We have a lot of growing to do.”

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