Greenhouse Canada

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Don’t be shy …be unique

June 17, 2009  By Myron Love

Rod McDonald, the founder of Lakeview Gardens in Regina, recalls his
mother’s reaction when he first told her that he was opening a garden

Rod McDonald, the founder of Lakeview Gardens in Regina, recalls his mother’s reaction when he first told her that he was opening a garden centre.

“It is such a dirty business,” he recalls her saying, “why don’t you try something else?”   

Garden centre coffee shop Greenland Garden Centre, in the Edmonton area.

Well, McDonald built not only one of the cleanest garden centres, but also one of the most successful in Canada. Although he sold the business in February 2005 to pursue other interests, the engaging speaker is still the “book” on how to succeed in the greenhouse/garden centre business.

He was a speaker at this year’s Manitoba Green Show, sharing his expertise and experiences with an enthusiastic audience. He first reviewed the basics – the need for a mission statement and a business plan.

Coffee shop in Salisbury Greenhouses located in the Edmonton area
Information kiosks, such as this one in Salisbury Greenhouses and Landscaping near Edmonton, are essential: two-thirds of customers initially don’t know exactly what they want. 
 “Customers like seeing a variety of colours (with poinsettias).”


“You can’t be all things to all people,” he said. “You have to become a niche marketer. Pick a spot and go to it.”

He said there should be no hesitation in upgrading facilities. “There’s a myth out there that if your place looks too good, people will think it is too expensive and won’t shop there. In fact, people like shopping in a nice place which speaks of success.”

Customers will pay more for quality, service and selection
He adds that independents have to charge more but that customers are prepared to pay more for better quality, service and selection.   

“Everything about your place – the display gardens, the entrance, the product displays, the cleanliness, the signage – has to be special,” he said. “If you are not special, what sets you apart from the thousands of other places where a customer can spend money?”

McDonald said it’s important to tell people what sets you apart from the crowd. If you have 35 new and exciting plants that no one else is carrying, let the public know. “I loved to compete when there was no competition,” he said.

McDonald spoke about how to use the media to help build your image. The best advertisements, he noted, are news stories about your store. “Any time you have something new in your garden centre, contact the media outlets and let them know.”   

As for advertising budgets, he recommends retailers put aside three to four per cent of their gross income for marketing. He suggested that buying two-thirds of a page in your local newspaper is just as effective – and less costly – than buying a full page. As well, he recommended the time slot just before the 6 o’clock evening news as the most effective spot in terms of number of viewers.   

McDonald recommends against radio advertising. “People don’t listen to or remember radio ads.”

Box stores win every time on low margin items
While the box stores will win on low margin items such as peat moss, there is profit to be made for garden centre operators on trees and shrubs, quality bedding plants, beautiful hanging baskets, perennials, plant food, potting soil and holiday plants.

While McDonald found that giftware didn’t sell well in his garden centre, it is still important to stock slow moving items as well as low-end stuff. “You want to be able to say that you carry everything, just like the local hardware store,” he said.

“In poinsettias, for example, even though 70 per cent of our sales were red, 20 per cent white and 10 per cent pink, we carried other colours as well because customers like seeing a variety of colours.”

Turning to signage, he threw out some ideas – such as “Rod’s Favourite,” “Easy to Grow,” “No Hassle Guaranteed,” and “Your Mother Will Love Them” – to pique consumer interest.

Selling plants in bulk, such as “three for $29.95,” or “buy two, get a third one free” promotions also boost sales.

Most customers don’t know exactly what they want
He noted that 70 per cent of customers who come into a garden centre don’t know what they want. “They are open to suggestion,” he said. It’s a tremendous marketing opportunity.   

If your staff isn’t making you money, either you have the wrong employees or you’re not training them well. He would have an hour-long seminar with his high school student employees at the beginning of the season. “I would stress the importance of having their hats on with the peak in front and having their shoelaces tied,” he said. “Most importantly, I emphasized the importance of their moving quickly to get work done.”

McDonald also offered some cost-saving tips such as earning pricing discounts from suppliers by paying bills within 10 days of delivery, asking about volume discounts, having suppliers pitch in with advertising costs, joining a co-op or buying group, and switching some of the company’s money to a daily interest account. ■

Myron Love is a freelance writer and photographer in Winnipeg.

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