Perennial Growth

To survive, nurseries find a green thumb for customer satisfaction

Back Article Apr 1, 2012 By Samantha Bronson

At Green Acres Nursery & Supply’s new Folsom location, pots of all sizes and hues greet gardeners at every turn. It’s nearly impossible to ignore the rainbow of colors and the assortment of finishes. And that’s precisely the idea. The large selection of containers reflects the changing demands of Green Acres’ customers and the nursery’s effort to keep pace.

“People are staying in their homes more, so they’re looking more for pots and bedding plants,” says marketing director Ashley Gill.

The company has responded by adding to its décor category and increasing its selection of annual and perennial flowers, which “appeals to people both with large and small gardens and even people with just a patio. It’s about taking note of customers’ wants and then responding,” she says.

Green Acres’ sales declined 10 percent in between 2008 and 2009, but by 2011, the nursery’s sales had returned to pre-recession levels. The company still sells lots of trees and shrubs, but the product mix has shifted by about 10 to 15 percent, leaning more heavily now on container gardening, edibles and landscape maintenance products.

A focused approach is critical for independent nurseries clinging to survival. While California is the nation’s No. 1 producer of nursery and floral products, the retail side of that equation remains challenging for independent stores battling tight consumer budgets and pressure from big-box garden centers following the housing collapse. No new homes means no new yards.

The U.S. lawn and garden market posted retail sales of $21.5 billion in 2011, down from $22.7 billion in 2007, according to a November report by New York-based market research firm Packaged Facts, a division of Of those sales, power and manual equipment accounted for nearly half. In addition, an industry rule of thumb estimates that for every $1 customers spend on plants, they spend about $3 on accessories such as hoses, shovels and gloves.

Nationwide, 15 percent of independent nurseries have closed since 2007. Locally, Flora Tropicana in Elk Grove, Windmill Nursery in Carmichael and Sierra Nursery in Roseville, have all shuttered in recent months.

Surviving companies, meanwhile, are boosting efforts to get customers in the door for spring planting season, the so-called Christmas for nurseries.

Specific retail strategies vary, but they share a common theme of responsiveness to changing customer needs while differentiating themselves from big-box garden center competitors, which are managing their own declining sales.

In 2010, Target Corp. closed all 262 of its garden centers nationwide. Meanwhile, Lowe’s and Home Depot are entrenched in their annual race to discover and develop exclusive new plants available in only their stores.

For High-Hand Nursery in downtown Loomis, differentiation begins with design. More a garden than a nursery, the property includes retail shops, a wine tasting room and a restaurant. High-Hand does little traditional advertising but is working to connect with customers through a new monthly email, says nursery manager Lyn Bristol.

Plants featured in the email tend to be those High-Hand grows and usually are showing increased popularity: colorful, one-gallon perennials. “It’s just a one-gallon; anyone can plant it. You can buy a pot with it, and then you’ve got yourself some pretty color on your patio,” Bristol says. “You’ve got to find what people respond to and go in that direction.”

High Hand’s total revenue for 2011 was about the same as it was in 2009 — approximately $3.7 million, fairly evenly split between its restaurant, landscaping business and the nursery. The company has worked to hold its profit margin steady by making a conscious effort to be more self-reliant. It has added a 125,000-kilowatt solar power system to its roof. It also manufactures its own iron goods and grows many of its nursery plants. This year, it will continue to enlarge its growing operation to decrease reliance on wholesale growers, according to nursery owner Scott Paris.

The growing operation currently contributes to about 30 percent of the nursery’s revenue.

In East Sacramento, Talini’s Nursery & Garden Center has noted its customers’ increasing interest in urban homesteading and farming. When Sacramento city leaders last fall voted to allow backyard hens, for example, Talini’s saw an opportunity to further spotlight its offerings. Through a connection with a former employee, the family-owned nursery began selling elaborately decorated chicken coops for upward of $500.

Talini’s manager Jill Franklin says the nursery has sold many coops, which also attract attention of passers-by, many of whom are interested in the nursery’s large selection of organic plants, fertilizers and garden decor. Fruit trees and vegetable plants, she says, are popular with customers interested in “things they can grow and eat, things that are sustainable.”

Given that interest and the success of its first-ever public event last fall, Talini’s is planning a series of presentations this spring to further draw customers into the store. Topics will vary from rare and native plants to organic herbs and heirloom tomatoes. All are top reasons customers come to Talini’s, Franklin says. The nursery also is stepping up its advertising efforts, with ads emphasizing the store’s unique offerings.

For its part, Green Acres is focusing heavily on the opening of its Folsom store. The new location, in the old Circuit City building off Highway 50, provides an opportunity to increase the company’s brand awareness, marketing director Gill says. She says she expects the company’s increased presence and media attention will have an impact on the company’s other locations in Sacramento and Roseville.

“There’s more buzz about the new location than I thought there would be,” Gill says.

To harness that, Green Acres planned a direct mail campaign targeting residents of Folsom and nearby communities. The mailer not only introduced the company but also invited residents to a specialty workshop featuring Jamie Drury, host of HGTV’s “The Outdoor Room.” Drury spoke about his specialty — creating an outdoor living space — with a local focus on drought-resistant plants.

Green Acres will continue with the events, tying them into the seasonal needs of gardeners, Gill says. Throughout planting season and beyond, the company also will keep up with its marketing and advertising, which ultimately will reflect customers’ desires for more plants and pots and fewer shrubs and trees, she says.

Getting customers in the door, she says, also means making sure the stores are well-stocked with a variety of high-quality plants and that employees are well versed about specific issues such as local microclimates. The idea, Gill says, is to make sure current customers are happy with their Green Acres experience so they return and tell their friends.

“People don’t want to leave town and spend money,” Franklin says. “It’s more about staying home.”

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