“Some of the recent trends in home gardening are very similar to trends in the ’80s in green plants, when we started selling plants that weren’t very durable and were high-maintenance,” he says. “We need to be really careful about that with the outdoor annuals and perennials, and sell plants that do well in our customers’ local area. The more our industry can be up front with the consumer and help them be successful, the more plants we will sell.”
This is the philosophy at Fahr Greenhouses as the operation puts more of its emphasis on its own garden center.
“When someone brings a plant back to us that they haven’t been successful with or killed, I say we’ve done one of two things. We either sold them a bad plant, which hopefully we haven’t, or we haven’t educated them. Educating the consumer is a huge task, but it’s worth it.”
Reinventing In Retail
When Patrick Bellrose met his wife, Mary Fahr, they both were pursuing degrees in horticulture at the University of Missouri. Mary’s parents, Leonard and Darcy Fahr, owned an 18,000-square-foot cut flower range that they started in the 1950s outside St. Louis. Once married, Bellrose joined the Fahr family business in 1970. At the time, the operation was in the process of switching production from cut flowers to blooming potted and foliage plants. Fahr Greenhouses sold wholesale to chain retail stores through the mid-1990s, when it got into the liner business. In 1991, Fahr Greenhouses became a root and sell location for Paul Ecke Ranch’s brand new productâ€“New Guinea impatiens.
“I was skeptical in the beginning but we went ahead and tried it, and the first
year we sold every cutting we grew,” Bellrose says. “Each year we added to that and started working with the whole Flower Fields brand.”
After hearing Dr. Allan Armitage of the University of Georgia speak at a meeting about the unique plants he was working to introduce through Athens Select, Bellrose sent a letter to the plant guru with interest and soon became part of the Athens Select marketing group.
“That was a really pleasurable experience working with Dr. Armitage and so many other wonderful plant breeders and selecting very unusual plants,” Bellrose says. “The key to those plants was good performance in the garden because of their high temperature and humidity tolerance. It was a learning experience for me to see how much work and effort it took from selecting a plant to getting it ready for market.”
Fahr Greenhouses also began producing Patriot lantanas to round out the cutting mix at a time when there weren’t many lantanas on the market.
In 2003, the operation refocused again when it opened its retail garden center and began selling more to landscapers. It increased in size to 75,000 square feet with 3 acres of outdoor production.
Today, the wholesale side of the business sells mainly to the retail side, as well as some other independent retailers and landscape contractors. “In the last four years, we have almost totally gotten out of selling to any kind of chain stores,” Bellrose says. “At one time in the ’80s and early ’90s, we sold a tremendous amount to Wal-Martâ€“that was a large percentage of our gross sales. Getting out was a conscious decision. We weren’t big enough and it wasn’t profitable. We’re going more for the higher market product where we’re not growing volume but making more per unit.”
While no additional greenhouses are in the operation’s future, mostly due to its location in a new city with expansion limits, Bellrose does plan on upgrading the retail center by “opening it up and making it more airy,” he says. A recent addition has been a woodchip boiler, which has helped save approximately 60 percent in energy costs, Bellrose says. The investment cost $25,000 out of pocket, but the savings will help the business quickly see a return.
“We started out three years ago burning corn and that worked well but the price of corn went through the roof,” he says. So last year we burned a combination of corn and woodchips and this year to burn only woodchips, it took a totally different feed system so we redesigned it. We burn 70 percent wood chips and the furnace kicks in so the greenhouse temperature never suffers if the boiler can’t keep up.”
Honesty + Service = Success
Fahr Greenhouses is making great strides in its retail business, with strong recognition of its four-year-old Fahr Top Picks brand. Employees evaluate all of the annuals, perennials and shrubs the operation grows to see how they perform in their own gardens. Based on the evaluations, the Fahr Top Picks line includes about 15 annuals, 10 perennials and eight shrubs that customers can count on success with in their gardens, Bellrose says. For example, geranium ‘Designer Dark Red’ is in the line for its excellent outdoor performance. Of all the red geraniums the operation grows and sells, this Fahr Top Pick outsells all the rest, he says.
“We like to add some new plants each year but we don’t want to hurt the image by adding a plant that might not perform well. The goal is not to add new but to help consumers with plants that will perform easily in the garden. We incorporated our name so when they come into our greenhouse, they ask for Fahr Top Picks.”
Branding on the store level is so much more important to retailers than carrying national brands, according to Bellrose. “Our brand is reinforcement in our name and when they take the plant home, they have our name on it,” he says. “To us, that’s what branding is all aboutâ€“to sell our name to the consumer, not just the general brand.”
Retail sales have increased in double digit percentages over the past four years, which Bellrose attributes to marketing, as well as excellent service and unique products. Combination sales and a customized container planting service have made the garden center explode in repeat sales, Bellrose says.
“We have people come back year after year with their containers; they fill out a questionnaire that’s very in depth and then we go ahead and replant them,” he says. “Once the person is happy with it, you’re almost guaranteed repeat sales. The key is successâ€“not just making it showy the day they pick it up, but making it look nice through the summer.”
Fahr Greenhouses gives the same attention to its landscape contractor customers, offering customized growing, on site and specially timed deliveries. Bellrose expects the operation will turn more of its attention to serving this niche and its own retail store in the coming years, and selling less to other retailers. Providing additional plant care and maintenance services is also an inevitable direction of the future.
“Chain stores have hurt the independent garden center as much as they can,” Bellrose says. “They have the market share that they’re going to have and I think it’s up to the independent garden centers to keep going after the rest of the market share. So long as we can get the pricing we need for our products, not just to cover our costs but to make a profit, our industry has a great future. The future generations want plants and flowers and very attractive homes, but low maintenance. We have a double-edged sword thereâ€“if we try to cheapen our product, it will hurt the industry in the long run. If we enhance our product in the long and short run, it’s going to enhance our profits and customer base.”