Successful Operator Profile: Destination Prickly Pear

June 18, 2012
Written by
Steveston, B.C., a neighbourhood of Richmond, by all accounts has a rich naval history. Its Gulf of Georgia Cannery, Britannia Heritage Shipyard and annual salmon festival draw crowds from around the province and beyond.

HangingBaskets
 
   
For gardeners the village has a special attraction: since 1995 the Prickly Pear Garden Centre has lured local customers and tourists alike with its constantly evolving blend of greenery and giftware.

The centre’s history is woven into that of Steveston. Owners Patti Maskall and Brian Gilmore started out running garden centres leased from the Hudson’s Bay Co., and after operating a series of these enterprises, naturally ended up in their hometown of Richmond. With a third partner in tow, who later left the business, they decided to breathe new life into an empty building in need of renovation. “We saved it from the jaws of demolition,” says Maskall. The building’s storied life, which includes phases as a machine shop, billiard hall, recycling depot and upholstery shop, dates back more than 100 years.

Gilmore, who had worked for Art Knapp Plantland in Steveston, and Maskall, who put herself through university working at the Bay, finally gave up their latest Bay enterprise in 1997, a couple of years after opening the Prickly Pear.
At a Glance
Company name:
Prickly Pear Garden Centre
Location:
Steveston, B.C.
Owners:
Patti Maskall and Brian Gilmore
Years in business:
17
Website:
www.pricklypear.ca

In keeping with their ancestors’ pioneering spirit (both hail from old Steveston families), Prickly Pear is wholly, and proudly, independent. Only recently did its owners join a group of garden centres, with the intention of wielding more buying power. At 14,000 square feet, the garden centre is relatively small. Ninety per cent of that space is devoted to retail, and of that about 2,000 square feet is indoors.

“We’ve got neat stuff,” is the Pear’s slogan. Its owners pride themselves on offering a wide variety of product and changing it up frequently. One thing that sets the business apart, says Maskall, is its focus on giftware, which is not limited to garden-inspired items. They sell wall prints, candles, martini glasses, coffee cups – anything interesting and trendy. For gardeners, there is an eclectic mix of colourful containers, garden statuary and fountains.

Standbys include Japanese maples, annuals, perennials, ornamental grasses and cut-flower bouquets, the latter of which are made fresh weekly by their own designer. Maskall says one of the centre’s mainstays is its selection of gorgeous hanging baskets, sourced from local growers, hand-watered and lovingly tended to bloom all summer long and into the fall.

“I can usually be found attached to a hose,” Maskall jokes, adding that they take plant care seriously, paying close attention to the quality and health of their products and watering exclusively by hand. With the exception of the perennials, many of which are sourced from Heritage Perennials in Abbotsford, B.C., most of that plant product comes from local growers.

One-off containers
Customers who prefer customized containers are encouraged to bring in their own vessels for planting. Shoppers supply the container, their colour choices and general likes or dislikes. With two to three days’ turnaround time, the centre’s designers fire up their creativity at the potting table – a permanent fixture in the garden centre that provides education and entertainment for the curious. The service has proven a big draw, with customers dropping off their containers and staying to shop.

Who are these shoppers? Maskall divides them roughly into two groups. The first consists of locals who live within 10 kilometres and tend to be 28 to 55 years old, many of whom are retirees or stay-at-home parents. The second group consists of “local tourists,” as she calls them, who venture out from nearby Burnaby, Surrey, Delta and the lower mainland to see what’s new, buy fish at the market, check out the historic cannery and sightsee. Many are return customers who fall in love with the centre’s hanging baskets and come back for more.

Strollers’ paradise
Once inside, visitors are invited by the organic layout of the greenhouse area to stroll and dream. “We set things up differently,” says Maskall. By necessity there are display tables, but the displays, which she has heard customers describe as “visually awesome,” are designed to resemble a natural garden wherever possible, with hard and soft goods mixed together, items moved around frequently, and paving stone paths guiding shoppers. Main aisles are wide enough to accommodate today’s monster baby strollers, she notes, and signs offer “serving suggestions” to less confident gardeners.

Loyal staff are great at assisting these customers using reference books and the Internet. Maskall and Gilmore employ seven full-time and part-time people, all of whom have worked for them for at least three years, and one of whom has been there since the Prickly Pear opened. Getting the balance right is important, says Maskall. “There is a fine line between having enough staff and having people bump into each other.”

They’ve been lucky to have longtime employees, but Maskall acknowledges it is not always easy finding the right person for the job. University students are a good bet, she says, but new hires must have a good personality and a willingness to learn: “you can’t teach them personality.”

Christmas fun for staff and customers
When Christmas rolls around, the Prickly Pear staff pull together to create a magical atmosphere. On Nov. 1 crew and volunteers spend an evening filled with food and music decorating the store. The crew erects 10 artificial decorator trees, hanging some of them upside down to free up floor space, which is given over almost entirely to giftware such as tree ornaments. The trees are meant as inspiration, says Maskall. “People copy the trees.” The centre also sells a few live trees beginning in early December, and, of course, poinsettias. December is the fourth best time of year for the centre, after April, May and June, she notes.

Feel weather more than economy
When asked her opinion of recession talk, Maskall says she doesn’t dwell on fluctuating economic conditions, which despite being a challenge for retailers across the country, have not necessarily been bad for the garden centre business in British Columbia. “We feel the weather more than the economy,” she observes. When things took a turn for the worse in 2008-09, B.C. was “a little bit insulated” and, due in part to good weather, had its best year ever.

“The year that it was supposed to be really bad was the year people stayed at home, and instead of spending the money on going away on a vacation, they put the money into their homes and gardens.”

In good times and bad, says Maskall, they make it a priority to offer something new to return customers. She tells her staff: “Make sure we keep the customers we’ve got. Make sure they get the attention that they deserve and the help that they need, so that they’re not leaving and going elsewhere. Whether the economy is bad or the weather is bad, you’ve got to pay attention to the people that are in your store.”

“We might have something that sells great for us for a couple of years and you want to keep going with it, but no, it’s time to change because you’ve got a limited number of new people coming into your store, but if you’ve got regulars, they don’t want to see the same thing all the time – they want to see something different. It’s the same with the plants; we have a couple of staples, but you have to do something to keep the customers interested.”

This strategy seems to be working for the Prickly Pear, now a fixture in Steveston, having laid claim to several City of Richmond annual garden contest titles and Communities in Bloom awards. Maskall cites attractive window boxes out front and a pleasing green space in their adjacent lot as standout features.

That treed lot hints at the idea of expansion, something Maskall says she and Gilmore are open to but not focused on. “We like the space we’re in right now,” she says, “and it’s a unique situation, but if we found something else that presented the same sorts of opportunities . . . we wouldn’t be opposed.”

Meanwhile, they are happy to remain a destination for local customers and tourists by getting the balance of old favourites and new trends just right.

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