June in the Zone 5 Garden Center

Spring in Wisconsin is often cold, grey and rainy.  This year was certainly no exception!  Barely a day over 75 and many more days than I care to think about in the 50’s with very cool nights.  In June the night temperature has dipped below 50 a lot.  As we approach the longest day of the year June 20, the weather is cool and rainy, again. This has been great for extending the season for cool crops like pansies and linaria but popular tropical plants such as impatien, begonia and fuschia are suffering and stalling.  The weekend forcast of sun and temperatures in the 80s will bring a much appreciated boost to the world of garden retailing.

We enter this gardening season with one eye on the weather and the other on the ‘beast in the corner’ – the economy. Garden center retailing is different from other types of retail in a couple important ways, 1. we deal with a living, breathing, perishable product and 2. everything depends on the weather.  In less than twelve weeks, between April and June, growers and garden centers may take in a much as 75% of their earnings for the year.  If the weather is cold and rainy, especially on the weekend, customers will stay home and spend their disposable income on other home improvement projects

In zone 5, where spring weather is iffy at best, many retailers provide customers covered shopping areas. Greenhouse coverings are a popular choice and have the added advantage of  giving customers the impression that plants are grown there.  The greenhouse display environment provides a pleasant and attractive shopping experience for  that creates loyal customers who look forward to returning each year. It also makes it easier to keep plants in good shape   when they aren’t continually pounded by rain, frozen off or hailed upon!  Concrete walkaways and large carts attract the ‘after work’ shopper looking to de-stress by walking though beautiful displays to purchase lush, colorful plants.

Greenhouse production and garden center orders are usually planned a year in advance.  A year ago we were looking at the economy and thinking the worst.  Unemployment up and new home construction down, what should the strategy be for this year?   While some growers and retailers chose to produce less, focus on the bread and butter items and try to create less waste, other growers and retailers seemed to take the opposite approach.  If customers can’t sell their homes and have to stay put they probably will have money to spend on their yard and garden.  Sometimes it seems the lawn and garden industry is recession proof. When the economy is good, people  look to increasing not only the enjoyment of their property but also its resale value.  Many homeowners understand how much a beautiful landscape adds to the ‘curb appeal’ of a property, so whether selling or staying put, beautifying our homes is the kind of   ‘no risk’ investment everyone is looking  for right now.  I wonder why more garden centers don’t advertise this fact and promote it more?

The first garden center visited this spring was Pasquesi in Lake Bluff, Illinois.  This north Chicago garden center caters to an upscale market and it shows.  Pasquesi began as a hardware store in the 1970s selling lawn and garden products on the side.  The garden center aspect of the business grew while the hardware part lessened with increasing competition form Home Dept and other chains in the area.  About three years ago the garden center was remodeled to the beautiful property it is today.  On the day I visited, Mr Pasquesi himself was at the entrance greeting customers.  He  kindly spoke to me for a few minutes about his store and trends in the garden center industry.  Mr Pasquesi mentioned that color continues to be the big seller with sales of annuals excellent.  Vegetable sales also have skyrocketed where a couple years ago they were a hard sell.  Now people are asking  for the traditional tomato and pepper plants but they also want more unusual things like celery and all kinds of herbs.  Sales of larger items like fountains and pots are slower than in the past.  In most markets customers buy the big ticket items like fountains and pots and keep them for several if not many years.  The affluent customers in this market in past years would often buy new fountains and pots every year.  This year sales of these  larger decorative items are down.  Sales of chemcal fertilizers and pesticides are up probably as a repsonse to all the vegetable gardening. 

Pasquesi has an interesting product mix which includes home decor and pet supplies. The ‘bone bar’ was a popular spot and several customers had their dogs along for the shopping trip.  In looking around that day I think I’d much rather have dogs than kids!  How we love our pets! 

Everything about Pasquesi says quality.  From the colorful displays that greet you at every turn to the free coffee inside, everything is clean and attractive.  Even the floors were incredibly clean, with not a dead leaf or spot of mold in sight.  The emphsis here, as in many garden centers this season, is on colorful containers, larger size pots of color and hanging baskets.

Pasquesi carries a 1204 for basic annuals at $1.79 each or $16.99 per tray.  They carry a good selection of 4″ upgrade annuals especially the Proven Winners line at $4.99.  Hanging baskets ranged from $20 to about $50 for a nice full basket.

Eavesdropping – An older couple shopping run into some aquaintances.  One man says jokingly to the other, “I’m just along for my wife’s daily trip to this store (Pasquesi’s)   What a wonderful example of customer loyalty!

What’s in your cart! Dogs!  4″ proven winners and specialty annuals

Chalet Garden Center in Wilmette  was another wonderful garden center visited this spring.  Chalet advertises that they have been in business for ninety years.   This location appears to have been remodeled last in the 70s or 80s so appears a bit outdated but visiting the store made me realize that is may be part of the charm.   The inside of the store is a fascinating  ‘rabbit warren’ of twists and turns.  The blue shirted staff are very friendly and helped me navigate this maze and zero in on the pond supplies I was looking for.  This garden center is located on a very busy intersection but when you enter the outside display area the feeling is vary natural and oasis-like.  The area is stuffed with plants displayed as vignettes based on care and culture – grasses and drought tolerant, shade loving, hot tropicals.  Only vegetables and annuals are displayed alphabetically.  Its easy to see why this place has been around for so long!  If a customer is looking for something specific it might not be particularly easy to find and will necessitate assistance from Chalet staff.   This is actually not such a bad idea as it gives the Chalet staff an opportunity to really make customer contact, provide customer service, make sales and develop loyalty.  Isn’t this why people come to independent garden centers?   Its interesting to ponder the difference between chain stores/discounters and independents.  Everything about chain stores is for self service, convenience and speed – basic plants highly organized, labelled, signed, priced and lined up like tomato soup cans.  Independents need to sell the dream.  Create an oasis in the sea of shopping.   Beautiful and inspiring displays, a unique atmosphere filled with the sound of water fountains flowing and the relaxing zen of green.  Catch customers interest with informative and educational signage but leave the details to your friendly and knowledageable staff.  What fun!

Steins and Mileagers are the two garden centers I visited in Wisconsin in June.  Even though Kenosha is on the border of the upscale northern Illinois market, garden center customers are world’s apart.  Traditional blue collar Wisconsinites are well known for their ‘thrifty’ spending habits  compared to their north Chicago neighbors.

Steins in Wisconsin has the garden center game in this town, down with a product mix that has evolved from gardens and crafts to gardens and gifts over the last fifteen years.  While Michaels and Hobby Lobby took over the hobby market Steins moved to home decor and gift items.  Price points vary from inexpensive to elegant so there is something for everyone from candles and bath products to baskets, pots, silk flowers and home decor, all attractively displayed by theme and color.  Bright red stickers announce everything is marked down.  These Wisconsin customers demand a sale!   Most of the outdoor display area is paved but not under cover which is limiting to customers in bad weather.  Several large hoop houses contain tropicals that are especially sensitive to cold snaps in spring and keep staff from having to move plants when late frost is a threat.

Monrovia and Melinda Myers have a big presence at Steins.  Monrovia provides large wooden display areas carrying attractive banners  to organize their products into vignettes.  Container plants are not arranged alphabetically and in rows but are displayed as they might be seen in a landscape, intermingled with patio furniture.  Melinda Myers has taken the purple pot as her trademark and combined it with an attractive and informative label to make a great plant package.  Melinda is a well known and highly respected  Wisconsin horticulturist, tv personality and author.

Eavesdropping:    Wife: ” I really like this Tiger’s Eye Sumac but  it might get too large for the space I have in mind. ”  Husband: “I can keep it trimmed back”

What’s in Your Cart?:  Tiger’s Eye sumac soon to be terminally pruned into blobby ‘meatball’ shape.  Also lots of ornamental grasses in carts on sale for 25% off.

Milaegers has two locations, the original location in Racine and a newer one in Sturtevant, WI.  I visited the Sturtevant location this June.  I remember years ago when Milaegers first began carrying clothing and thinking how strange this was.  Now I lust for their clothes, jewelry and especially shoes whenever I visit.  They carry very unique and well made clothes and shoes for the ‘middle age’ woman.  This is actually quite hard to find in the sea of retailers catering to teens, high fashion trends and size 4 people.  If you are looking for something different and special for an event, or a  gift, this is the place.  When my husband wants to know what I want for my birthday or anniversary I tell him “Just go to Milaegers and pick something out” 

Oh yes and they have plants! Milagers in Sturtevant enclosed the entire shopping area with a greenhouse structure severeal years ago to extend the shopping season for customers.  Only a very small part outside is devoted to woody trees and shrubs.    Plants are arranged alphabetically so it is very easy to find what you are looking for.  The best thing seen were huge hanging baskets for $49.99. 

Eavesdropping:  Looking at the big hanging baskets – ‘But won’t they need to be cut back soon’  Also ‘Do you have celery plants?’ (The answer was Yes!)

What’s in Your Basket?:  4″ specialty annuals in Milaegers branded pot.

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