As many growers were cutting back on selection and raising quantities on a select few varieties in the early ’80s, it’s no surprise that’s when the innovative Jack Bigej and Al’s Garden Center began growing its own plant material.
“We picked up on the trend toward the mass merchandisers and knew we had to diversify in order to stay ahead of the tide,” Bigej says. That’s exactly what he has done. The grower-retailer now produces between 1,500 and 2,200 varieties of perennials, and as an example on the annuals side, around 125 varieties of petunias and calibrachoas.
“We may have gone to an extreme, but we’ve certainly kept up diversity,” says Bigej. Having total control over what you grow is only one advantage of being a grower-retailer. Other advantages include the possibility of branding your product and the ability to set your own pricing.
Branding At Al’s
It is obvious that this dedicated grower and marketer produces an end-product that could benefit from a thoughtful approach to branding. That’s exactly what Bigej has done. Almost every plant that comes from Al’s Garden Center’s three retail stores carries a simple but strong message: “Grown By Al’s.” When your name is on the product, quality control is paramount.
“If we’re going to have a fall sale, we will buy extra October Glory Maple, or we’ll grow Red Sunsets, but we’ll grow four or five items that we buy at special prices, grow on and can sell at special prices,” says Bigej. “So we grow for our sales.” Quantities can also be controlled.
“If we grow too many, we just lower the price, put them on special, blow them out,” Bigej says. “We’re in control.” The operation’s newest venture is pot-in-pot in-ground sockets in the growing fields.
“It gives us total inventory control,” Bigej says. “We have room at our new store for 952 trees, and we keep 952 trees there or very near that all the time. We just keep refilling as we sell. Our inventory is actually sitting out in the field, growing and increasing in value, instead of sitting jammed up on the retail floor.” The company rarely runs out of merchandise–a very important feature in the lush and competitive Willamette Valley.
In retail numbers, Al’s Garden Center grows and sells about $2.5 million in perennials every year. Current new construction includes 2 acres of Cravo retractable roof greenhouses just for perennials.
“We feel the retractable roof is the only way to grow perennials,” Bigej says. ”They don’t like greenhouses except in the winter to keep them dry. The rest of the year we run them wide open. That’s why we build retractables. We say this is the only way to go, if you can pencil it out and make it work. With the price of steel and everything else these days, you really have to get your pencil sharpened to figure it out. If you can afford it, it’s a wonderful way to raise perennials.” The idea of raising perennials from year to year is another big advantage–there doesn’t have to be any spoilage.
“If we bring in 5,000 peonies and we don’t sell them all this year, they’re just worth more next year,” Bigej says. “So we like that aspect of it.” Bigej also reports experimenting with sizes and shapes to see what works.
“We can play with sizes,” he says. “Let’s try this phlox in a 5-gallon. If it doesn’t work, drop the price, blow it out, we’ll go do something else next year. You know, we can play around with a lot of things. If we had to have someone else grow it for us, they’d want to do it in a standard size that everybody else uses and on down the line. It gives us the advantage of being different. And, it just makes our selection phenomenal compared to a box store.”
Building Loyal Customers
Bigej’s sales of annuals isn’t too shabby, either. He reports sales volume of $4.5 million in annuals and holding steady.
“They are going up slower than perennials or shrubs are, but we’ve been at it a heck of a lot longer and harder and really beat it up over the years,” he says. “So we’re kind of getting up to our max or in that range. Again, we will grow for specials.”
Al’s grows annuals in a variety selection and volume that turns heads. The grower side of the operation brings in unrooted cuttings from Central America, South America, Holland and Israel, rooting and selling to other greenhouses as rooted liners. “This helps us increase our selection on our varieties because we can do so many more varieties with the increased volume, and it helps us with our selection for our own plants — for our own retail,” Bigej states.
He says in the spring, the company will try a season kick-off of 150,000 primroses at 50 cents a piece, leading consumers to their store through their wallets.
“Our theory is if we get them in the door first thing in the spring, then maybe we’re their garden center for the year,” he says. “That’s true, especially if we can give them more than they expect. At 50 cents they’re looking for a little tiny runty, ugly thing and we give them a beautiful 4-inch. It exceeds their expectations and it makes you look like a real hero, and maybe you will be their garden center for the rest of the year. That’s what we’re attempting to do.”
The low-price offers aren’t a gimmick. Bigej reiterates that growing and retailing allows flexibility more like non-plant retailers.
“We can grow for our specials. If we want to run Candy Tuft, we grow an extra 2,000 to 3,000 and put it down at a price that it blows out. By doing this, it makes our pricing in our stores so much more attractive. We do just like Nordstrom or anybody else. Put a few things down there cheap, blow ‘em out and get a little more for other things. It’s the same thing that everyone does, it’s nothing new.”