A Unique Destination

December 01, 2010
Written by
The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre in Chatham, Ont., has become a destination in southwestern Ontario. It’s a place that brings out the gardener in loyal locals and a garden centre that’s worth the drive for shoppers in neighbouring towns and cities.

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Dave Van Raay is the owner of the garden centre, which began in 1975 with Van Raay’s father Martin. In the early days, the business grew annuals in small greenhouses and large perennials in fields. It wasn’t until Dave and his wife Sue took over in 1989 that the garden centre started to grow and develop into the large-scale business that it is today. Since then, the operation has moved across the road to a new location and large showrooms and display gardens have also been added gradually.

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The entire garden centre operation spans seven acres, with approximately three acres dedicated to indoor and outdoor retail space.
 
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Owner Dave Van Raay says staff like to interweave products with different textures, shapes and colours with plants throughout the display areas.
 
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Winding, paved pathways make a trip through the garden centre a clean and enjoyable experience, especially for women, who represent The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre’s primary customer.
 
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The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre carries a wide array of products including annuals, perennials, water plants, pond products, home décor and furnishings, Christmas items, bird supplies, and such ladies’ fashion items as jewelry, handbags, purses, scarves and sunglasses.
 
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The garden centre has become a destination for its Bima wood furniture line, which is imported from Indonesia.

 
The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre now spans seven acres, is open year round, and employs 35 employees during the busy summer months and approximately 10 during the off-season. Van Raay describes the garden centre as cozy and says the assortment of buildings distinguishes the business from a big-box store. “You walk through quite a few rooms that take you into different departments and different product categories. It’s a bit of what people call a racetrack effect,” says Van Raay. The retail area is all climate-controlled to ensure shoppers are comfortable whether it’s hot or cold, and outside, much of the shopping area is covered to protect customers in rain or adverse weather conditions. “We enclose a lot of the outside for winter, which enables people to still keep shopping for gifts for Christmas in the garden décor category.”

The garden centre has on offer a wide array of products, including annuals, perennials, water plants, pond products, home décor and furnishings, Christmas items, bird supplies, and such ladies fashion items as jewelry, handbags, purses, scarves and sunglasses. Most recently, fudge has joined the product lineup. To showcase this wide assortment, Van Raay says staff interweave the products throughout the garden centre to make it as easy as possible for shoppers to peruse the selection. “We have nice winding pathways and we try to mix up product, as far as plants go, so it gives a sense of the design possibilities in their own gardens. Basically, we don’t have blocks of certain varieties; we integrate different colours, different shapes, different textures and plants in themed areas, and people can pick right from these themed areas. They can go back to the stock area as well if they want a better selection of a particular plant but for the most part we sell right from our display areas,” says Van Raay.

The setup of the garden centre plays well to the store’s dominant customer: women. “The entire shopping area is made with concrete flooring so ladies can come in and look around,” Van Raay says. “They do demand to have a clean area to walk and, of course, they’re not going to walk out into the mud, so there are many areas throughout the garden centre that are paved and concrete.” Shoppers between the ages of 35 and 60 make up much of the clientele but Van Raay says that in the last five or six years he’s also seen a new crop of customers come through his doors. “There are more younger people, we find, doing landscaping and really taking a keen interest and seeing the value. A lot of men in their mid-20s have really taken an interest in fixing up their yards. They are not necessarily educated people but people who are willing to learn on their own and who want to create as nice an outside as they have inside their own homes.”

Next to spring, Christmas is the second biggest sales period for The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre. Towards the end of October, the garden centre is transformed into a 20,000-square-foot Christmas shop that hosts a holiday open house during the first week of November. Shoppers come for pre-lit Christmas trees and the centre’s large selection of giftware items – candles, cards, fragrances, handbags and more. Van Raay says staff also put on three or four seminars during the season. Last year, a session on sinamay ribbon brought out the crowds. “We had close to 100 people there and it really became popular in Chatham because it was such an easy product to use. That was a unique product for us last year.”

In terms of advertising, Van Raay says radio has been a successful way to get the garden centre’s name out through the years. The business typically invites radio stations to come to The Glasshouse Nursery for an onsite broadcast, as this seems to produce the best results., However, these remote broadcasts are becoming less and less effective as more radio stations come to the Chatham area and the listenership breaks down, notes Van Raay. The garden centre is now putting more emphasis on e-mail marketing. “I do the e-mails myself and I’ll send them out weekly during the busy season,” he says. “They just keep people abreast of all the different functions, seminars and sales coming up. That’s been probably our best form of advertising over the last six or seven years and it costs us next to nothing.” He uses Constant Contact for his e-newsletters because of the ease of use and the feedback the program provides.

Van Raay says The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre faces challenges that are common to the garden centre industry as a whole. “It is very tough to compete with the big-box stores . . . . You’re seeing them at the show buying the same things we’re buying sometimes. We are always shopping and we are always trying to buy direct from companies so we’re not purchasing the same things,” he says. “We have to set the trends, we have to buy the product before we see it somewhere else and not try to sell a product because we can buy it cheaper if we buy a lot of it. So that’s one of the big challenges.”

As a result of this effort to find things that are unique, The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre has become known for two products in particular. The first is found in its water gardening offerings. “We actually created what we call the living rock, which is basically what a lot of other people have termed bubbling rocks,” says Van Raay. “It’s one of the things we started up about 10 or 15 years ago. We incorporate living rocks into a lot of the landscape projects that we do and they’re always a big selling feature. People love the sound of running water in the garden.”

The garden centre has also become a destination for Bima wood furniture. Van Raay discovered the supplier through the Garden Centre Co-op Group (a large buying group in Canada, of which he is a member). Together with a few other members, he imports three containers of the furniture each year from Indonesia. The pieces feature a distressed and antique look and range from bookshelves, armoires and cupboards to full-size dining tables cabinets and benches. “It’s all handmade and a lot of the pieces are custom ordered to our specifications,” says Van Raay. “Most people that come and buy the furniture don’t buy just one piece – they buy three or four pieces because they’re theming their home with the product.” This works to ensure that people become repeat customers for the business.

Van Raay is a strong advocate of working to attract customers as opposed to sitting around and waiting for them to come to you. “You have to keep your prices sharp and you have to run promotional items on a regular basis.” He says it’s not as simple as just putting an ad in the paper – the ad needs to inspire or excite shoppers. “If you don’t have something there that gives people a reason to get in their car and drive here, then your ad might as well be thrown out the window. People need that reason. They’re not just going to come because they saw your name again.”

It’s safe to say Van Raay’s methods are working, as customers are willing to travel to experience all that The Glasshouse Nursery has to offer. One comment that the owner hears frequently from customers is that shoppers have to go a long way to find anything that’s as nice as the garden centre’s product. “We have become known for being a very unique garden centre and something that people come to from as far away as Windsor or London [much larger cities approximately an hour or two away].”

When asked what has been the key to its success, Van Raay says it’s the fact that The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre is always changing. “We have a bit of a song that we use on the radio and it’s ever-changing, ever-new.” He credits the company’s success to “a lot of hard work, having a keen interest, and a desire to come to work, be creative and keep things changing.”

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