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Lessons from a few good garden centres

November 9, 2009  By John Stanley


Lessons from a few good garden centres
In August, John Stanley led a tour of garden centre owners to the U.S. to search out the best of the best garden centres.

Nov. 9, 2009 – In August I led a tour of garden centre owners to the U.S. to search out the best of the best garden centres and to find what we could learn that could be used in other countries.


In the party were owners and senior managers from garden centres in Australia, Canada, Dubai and New Zealand. The group met in Philadelphia, travelled to Chicago for the Independent Garden Centre Trade Show and Workshops and then on to Los Angeles.

The group visited Terrain at Styers, and Waterloo Gardens in Pennsylvania and Rogers Gardens, Armstrong Garden Centre, Thousand Oaks, Whole Foods and Monrovia in California.

Many retailers outside of the U.S. believe that American garden centres have fallen behind in recent years. This tour destroyed that myth as the group discovered world leading retail operations that were pushing the boundaries.

So what did we learn?

Terrain at Styers

Forty years ago, Urban Outfitters developed a clothing brand for the early 20’s age group. This then was accompanied by a second brand, Free People, aimed at the mid to late 20’s. Anthropologie came along next as a brand aimed at women in their 30’s. The challenge was what next.

If the business was to maintain its 20 per cent growth a year it needed a fourth brand aimed at 35 plus women who were well travelled, educated and had a sense of style.

The group did their research. They found an $80 billion garden industry that was highly fragmented by big box stores and 20,000 independent garden centres (98 per cent of which were under $10 million turnover). An industry with no national leader and where independents were competing with box stores on margin. They discovered the gardening industry and saw the opportunities.

As a result Terrain was born and they purchased Styers, a family business since 1890, started by Franklin Styers who had the vision to see opportunities in the horticultural industry.

Terrain’s focus is very much on the Baby Boomer who is nesting, has a do it for me consumer who is looking for outdoor living decor. They are interested in locally sourced product and unique artisan products.
The brand formulae for Terrain is identical to Urban Outfitters.
1.    Identify and please your target customer
2.    Craft a unique product
3.    Engage and inspire with visual merchandising
4.    Each store is a unique expression of the brand
5.    Each touch point with customers will support the brand
6.    Create a compelling customer experience

The company provides visual directives from head office. This revolves around the spirit of the brand and the product they want to display. The rest is up to the team. There is internal competition on stock turn as a driver.

The success of this is evident in the displays presented to the customer. Visual merchandising at Terrain is about
·         Creating a compelling environment
·         Inspiring and informing
·         Mixing the familiar with the unfamiliar
·         Recognizing the consumer may not be shopping; they may be exploring, discovering, relaxing and escaping
·         Transporting the customer to a new reality

Does it work? The average customer spends more than two hours in the store.
The company customer service policy is also worth noting.
·         Welcome and listen to guests
·         Accessible to all
·         Expand services to cafe, landscape services
·         Help customers be successful
·         Build long term relationships
·         Customers are our advocates

Waterloo Gardens
In the same city is Waterloo Gardens, a third generation family garden centre owned by the Le Boutillier family. They now have two stores in the area. This is a gardener’s garden centre with a large outdoor retail area, but also an excellent gift shop.
One of the most interesting observations and something worth monitoring is the new guarantee policy for the company.
Most American garden centres still rely on a six or twelve month guarantee rather than a lifetime guarantee. Waterloo Gardens has had a six month policy. They discovered that most plants returned under the guarantee had not been sole with the right related products. Further research shows that only 25 per cent of products sold are sold with the correct related products.
Starting in the autumn/fall will be a new guarantee policy. Plants sold without related products will be guaranteed for six months. Plants sold with related products will be guaranteed for twelve months. The team are being trained to “add on sell” at present.
Part of the training is a “Pretend to Shop Program” for managers. Every week a manager has to mystery shop a department as a customer to check if the full offer is easily available to the consumer.
The other key trend message to come from Waterloo is that consumers want new and they want comfort. They are looking for new products as well as wanting nostalgic based concepts and products.
Having seen the best Pennsylvania has to offer, the group moved onto the IGC Trade Show in Chicago. This was an opportunity to meet growers and suppliers as well as attend retail seminars. This show gets better every year and is now running out of space. If you want to see what’s new in the industry, this is the place to be.
After two days at the show it was time to “hit” the west coast.
Rogers Gardens
Promoted as the prettiest garden centre in the U.S. it is easy to see why. The garden centre started in 1965 when Roger McKenna built the first store. He sold the business to Gavin Herbert Sr and Jr thirty years ago and the new centre was built on the existing site in 1970. This two hectare site still is the prettiest centre in the U.S.A. It is a relatively small site with 190 parking spaces and an 80 member staff team. Forty per cent of sales come from nursery stock and the rest from gifts, gourmet food, fine art, fresh flowers, holiday items, home decor and original Rogers designed living decor.
This is a centre full of ideas in how to maximize the opportunities of merchandising and display.

Monrovia Nurseries is the main nursery stock supplier to over 4,000 garden centres in the U.S. They employ craftsmen, not team members, to help change the retail scene in the U.S. as Bob Smiland, the M.D. says: “In the U.S.A. garden centres we are not putting colour combinations together, we are not merchandising combinations and we are not grouping plants to build trends, this is an opportunity for Monrovia.”
To achieve this, the company has developed their own merchandise and display module which has now been placed in 153 stores across the country. These stores that have used the modular system have seen sales increase from the U.S. average of $30 per square foot to $150 with the unit.
Whole Foods, Pasadena
I ensured on this tour we visited the Whole Foods concept store at Pasadena. Alas, we were unable to take photos as I believe this is the best retailer of perishable produce in the country.
Their signs are outstanding and easily transformed for garden centres. Consider these signs,
“The Best of All Worlds – Local & Organic”
“Supporting Local is Always in Season”
“Over 100 Feet of Local Organic Produce”
“Reasons to Buy Local and Organic”
 “Choosing organics is good for everyone, from the farm workers, to the planet to your family”
“Seafood Cooking and Tasting. Off the Hook News. Clint is ready to cook. Join us as we welcome Clint back to share his cooking skills and tips with us. He’ll make cooking seafood fun, easy and most importantly, tasty”
Armstrong’s Thousand Oaks
This is recognized as Armstrong’s Gen X Store.
The company started in 1889 and is one of the oldest retailers in California. It has 33 stores; 31 in the L.A. basin and 2 in the San Francisco Bay area.
Traditionally it has sold to Baby Boomers, but has realized it needs to down age its merchandising and displays and to provide projects for consumers.
Their merchandising is outstanding, some of the best you will see in the U.S.
After a week, ten exhausted retailers arrived at LAX airport, full of ideas and ready to implement them in their own garden centres.

John Stanley is an internationally acclaimed conference speaker and retail consultant.  The author of  several marketing and retail books including the best seller “Just About Everything a Retail Manager Needs to Know”, John’s retail expertise covers shopping centres, malls, supermarkets, hardware stores, garden centres, farmers markets and drug stores.  For more information on how he can help your business, council or centre, visit his website or email


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