Successful Operator- Jan/Feb 2008

February 26, 2008
Written by Rob McMahon
Changing With the Times - David Hunter Garden Center Attracts Both Young and Old
22Vancouver’s David Hunter Garden Center has been around for more than half a century – but thanks to constant innovations, it hasn’t grown old.

Founded in 1953 by David and Margaret Hunter, the store began on the corner of Kingsway and Rupert streets in Vancouver. Seven years later, they opened a second location on West Broadway, and later on in Port Coquitlam and Surrey. Though the Port Coquitlam and Kingsway stores have since closed, the others remain – and are bursting with business.

Laura Doheny, manager at the West Broadway location, explains how the nursery has blossomed into an institution in Kitsilano, a trendy and artistic area of the city. Some customers who have been visiting since the 1960s still drop by two or three times a week, and a few years ago a pair of ladies used to come to sip cups of tea every week.

“There’s a hole-in-the-wall quality to the place that makes it Kitsilano-chic,” she says. “The whole building is piecemeal and in pieces, but it all comes together as a whole. It’s total character – nothing fancy.”

Along with the same laid-back character, the Surrey location offers a full-service florist who creates custom arrangements and bouquets, including wedding packages, and offers over 80 different varieties of dahlias. As well, through the Teleflora or FTD wire services, the shop has the ability to send flowers anywhere in the world. The Surrey shop also sells bulk soils, which can be delivered to customers.

Doheny, who has worked at David Hunter’s Broadway location for seven years, explains how changes in neighbourhood demographics and gardening trends have transformed the business over the years. As the neighbourhood’s large houses with backyards were replaced with apartment buildings, the garden centre changed its merchandise accordingly. Now, displays include site-specific suggestions, such as plants that enjoy shade that are shown surrounding a cedar tree, or water plants placed in a tiny pond.

“When we started in the ’60s, it was all bedding – fruit trees and roses, with a floral element…[and] at one point, there was a pet store attached,” she says. “[Now, the] young people living in apartments are looking for instant ideas. They’re not the same as the older people puttering away for hours [in the garden].”

For that reason, the centre offers custom-designed gardens and staff consultations for time-strapped young people. This customer segment is often just starting out gardening and is eager to learn.

Doheny says as a relatively small nursery – now spread over two city blocks – David Hunter is able to bring in custom orders, and carries a “wishlist” for customers catering to their specifications. Since the nursery doesn’t deal in large volumes, people can order one or two or three items that are a little more unusual.

“We aim to be small, intimate and personal in style and service,” she says. “We try to get to know our customers by name if possible, and if that’s too hard, remember that we’ve seen them before…and what they’re looking for.”

Since space is at a premium at the nursery, Doheny says the centre hasn’t undergone much expansion, and has to rely on a creative use of display space. The team is constantly changing displays to match seasons, trends and new products. In Vancouver’s warm climate the business can stay open year round, and changes offerings as the seasons pass. For example, at Christmas it supplies poinsettias, while in spring the focus is on fruit trees and bedding plants. Doheny says the constant change keeps both customers and staff invigorated. “We redo all of our end caps two or three times a week,” she says. “Everything is designed to give customers ideas.”

In terms of marketing, the nursery doesn’t do a lot – just a weekly ad in the community paper outlining specials to draw people in. In the past, David Hunter hosted radio and TV shows about gardening techniques, and he and his son Ron served as B.C. Governors of the American Association of Nurserymen.

The company’s tag line is simple and straightforward: For All Your Garden Needs. Staff help out local schools and churches, and received a boost after winning a few business awards. The Kitsilano Chamber of Commerce named the Broadway location “Business of the Year” in 2005, while readers of the Vancouver Courier elected it as their second favourite garden centre.

“Receiving awards like that, you know the work you are doing has been noticed by someone,” she says.

In terms of advice from the award-winning centre, Doheny says constant change and loyal customers are so important. She says customers are always sending little notes and calling up to say thank you for advice they have received from staff.

“Try to keep fresh all the time,” she says. “Having repeat customers is the most wonderful thing . . . Our customers are like extended family.”

The nursery is a third-generation family business (David Hunter’s grandson Miles is the Broadway location’s assistant manager) – an important, and unique, element to their business, says Doheny. While she says that element isn’t highlighted in their marketing material, it is a big part of the company’s vision as a community-focused business. Along with donating plants to schools and churches, every year they hold an anniversary party hosted by the Hunters, who are now retired and live on the Sunshine Coast. As well, Duncan Roberts, the now-retired manager from the 1960s, still comes in on weekends and all the customers know him.

“Women who have been here since the ’60s come in and ask for him,” she says.

The staff is a mix of part-time and full-time staff, with an emphasis on part-timers. Doheny says she hires quite a few students, and tries to encourage people to come back year after year. In the summer, up to 20 people are on staff, with four or five full-timers and the rest working flexible hours. She says one any given day, seven or eight people will be at the store. While she admits the place is busy, with up to 2,000 customers some weekends, she says staff try and keep the work environment fun.

“It’s very busy, very intense…especially during the bedding season in May,” she says. “But it’s fun – I think we all love what we do. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing!”
More in this category: « Trade show update  |  A Good Sign »

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