The Perennial Farm: Walking In Their Shoes
The Perennial Farm offers much more than plants by approaching business from the perspective of its customers - garden centers, landscapers and ultimately, consumers.
March 29, 2010
Realizing quality plants are only the entry point, The Perennial Farm in Glen Arm, Md., delights in raising the bar by out-servicing and out-marketing the competition. In fact, owner Rick Watson takes pride in being what he calls the price-value leader and explains what that means.
"We're not always the cheapest in town but we are the price-value leader," he says. "For what you pay and what you get, we consider ourselves the best. Selling plants cheaply is easy. Getting value for your product takes talent. Value is not always the cheapest price."
Watson knows his customers' needs, because he used to be on the receiving end buying plants from growers. He grew up in his family's retail business, Watson's Garden Center, still located in Towson, Md. After graduating from the University of Maryland with a horticulture degree and focus on garden center management, he and a partner started Exterior Design, a design-build landscaping business in 1980. It was his frustrations in sourcing plant material that led him to become a grower.
"When I purchased perennials and ornamental grasses, the plants were always smaller than I needed or wanted," he says. "I wanted a more dramatic input at the time of planting. We started growing our own in larger sizes and then selling them to garden centers."
When Watson's landscape business partner passed away in 1998, he decided to move forward as a grower and renamed the business The Perennial Farm. His wife, Gail, is actively involved on the bookkeeping side and son, Tom, is a senior at Salisbury University, studying business, communications and marketing.
The farm has since grown to 100 employees, half of whom are seasonal. Managers are a mix of industry veterans and outsiders. For instance, sales and marketing director Ed Kiley came to the farm from the aerospace engineering industry seven years ago. In addition to building and designing several great websites, Kiley brings fresh thinking. On the softer side, Nancy Mickey is a plant guru and garden lover who loves to write articles for the company's websites.
The Perennial Farm's fulfillment and logistics systems put the customer first. A few years ago, the company invested in handheld devices from SBI Nursery Software that integrate inventory control, order entry and order retrieval. Plants are pulled according to each customer's order instead of amassing all the plants in a central area. The pull tickets have detailed instructions by customer related to tags and labels.
"Instead of pulling all the rudbeckia together for 20 jobs, we go to the greenhouses, pull plants, clean them, tag them, stack them on a rack and take them to the loading dock, where they are staged for delivery," Kiley explains. "We have a dedicated work station right at the greenhouse. When plants are pulled by order, we can do a more efficient job of selecting what the customers demand."
In addition to pulling the most precise order for the customer, the farm hangs its hat on beating its competition at delivery. The farm serves garden centers and landscapers in a region that spans as far north as Maine down to North Carolina. Four representatives are on the road visiting customers and placing orders on the spot.
"We love to frustrate the competition," Kiley says. "We have customers in Boston who say we get plants to them faster than a source 30 minutes down the road." Watson recalls another story about a competing grower's representative spending a few hours at a garden center and witnessing the fast turnaround from The Perennial Farm. "The garden center had placed a small order with us and it arrived before he left."
Kiley says the farm proactively schedules deliveries. "Everybody wants delivery on Friday, but if you schedule everybody for Friday, you're going to disappoint a lot of people," he says. "So we say we can deliver it to you sooner and push it forward, so for those who wait until Thursday to place an order, we can perform for them."
Just-in-time delivery is especially important for landscapers, Watson adds. "We deliver to job sites and unload there. The shipment doesn't have to go to a yard and be reloaded." The farm also goes the extra mile responding to landscapers' requests for quotes on plant lists. "If we have 16 of the 20 plants but not the other four, we will propose substitutions in similar form or color. We will also get a plant from somewhere else to make the order happen," Watson says. "If you can't supply all the plants, you'll lose the order. They'll give us the order because we are the total solution."
The Perennial Farm supports independent garden centers with a choice of looks and brands. Its signature tag is a Big Barn tag. Retailers can choose custom labeling options by adding their name and pricing. Sticky labels on the side of the pot are another option. In addition to tags, the farm supplies posters and brochures that serve as silent sales aides.
One hot new brand is Treadwell, inspired by Stepables creeping groundcovers. Watson has improved the line by growing plants in a larger size (a true perennial quart) and choosing plants that are easier to get and will withstand his market's growing conditions. Garden Centers can promote Treadwell as its house brand and have market exclusivity.
A version of these plants geared more toward the landscaping trade is Mr. Big Stuff, which is sold in flats of 72 or 50 landscape plugs. This form is ideal for green walls and green roofs.
Another exciting niche the farm is simplifying is native plants. While a specialist could offer 850 plants, the farm has narrowed the assortment down to 225 that look great in pots and are readily available. These plants are featured in a book the company published called, "What's Native," which also has a supporting website, WhatsNative.com. Dr. Allan Armitage wrote the forward for the book and spoke at a symposium the farm hosted for 300 of its customers in January.
The book tells the facts and stories behind each plant, including medicinal uses and folklore. The website has maps that show where plants are native. "It's a subtle way of branding instead of saying our echinacea is better," Kiley says. "We're providing high quality pictures and information."
Educational outreach has been an effective way to market. The farm's experts make presentations to consumers on topics such as how to create a butterfly garden or attract hummingbirds, and their PowerPoints are available for others to use.
One of Kiley's first big projects was building and designing a consumer-friendly website called GrowingForYou.com, which has engaged more than a million visitors since 2003. It is rich in content with hundreds of articles and thousands of pictures. It does not promote The Perennial Farm but is a place where retailers and landscapers can direct their customers - the consumer - for more information. The farm's experts answer consumer questions and respond as Growing For You.
Last but not least, the farm has its own extensive website, PerennialFarm.com, which is a digital companion to its 132-page printed catalog.
Watson and Kiley view the investment in these resources as an investment in retailer success. "If they sell more perennials, we'll sell more to them," Kiley says. "Customers want to buy but they don't want to be sold."