Overcoming Big Box Obstacles

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Overcoming Big Box Obstacles

In 1870, Bennett’s Greenhouse was a rural operation connected to the community by a single-lane road. Today, it is a $4 million, 25-acre, year-round grower-retailer, located in the midst of mini malls, industrial parks and some pretty stiff big box store competition.

In today’s market, where medium-sized businesses often find themselves squeezed out, Bennett’s and its owners Richard Bennett, Barbara Bennett Ruff and Kathy Bennett Chinn, are finding success by focusing on the things it can do better than its bigger competitors.

Answering Big Box Competition

The Bennetts believe they have something to offer that the big box competition cannot. “It is up to the mid-sized greenhouse to produce our own best choices,” Barb says. “How is a big box going to keep selling 20 kinds of verbena?”

Customer sales have evolved from a flats industry to many more varieties, but in far less numbers. Today, the Bennetts think they have two kinds of shoppers: non-gardeners who like to decorate and want it cheap and serious gardeners who value knowledge and know quality.

Richard strongly believes they can beat the big box store with better customer service. They hire 60 to 70 retail workers. Eight of those are full timers. He looks for employees who can answer beginner and intermediate garden questions and are problem solvers.

The Bennetts know their greenhouse operation is a step up because of better selection and timing. Overall, they pride themselves on consistent quality. However, they do not believe that being locally grown is a factor with their customers.

Customers Drive Production

Richard, Barb and Kathy pay particular attention to their customers’ needs, and that’s what drives Bennett’s plant production. But no one is afraid to test the market. A result of the late Easter holiday this year, Bennett’s decided not to offer Easter lilies. They hope no one misses them.

Family-Owned Greenhouse Grows

The family-owned business started with cut flowers and progressed to “digging bedding plants out of the field.” Now, Richard Bennett handles the general business and retail areas while his sisters, Barb Bennett Ruff and Kathy Bennett Chinn, run production. The sisters handle 2.3 acres of greenhouses.

Their greenhouses are heated and most are cooled with vents and fans. Five houses, used primarily in spring, are cooled by open doors on each end. Called the “acre house,” one is a large gutter-connected greenhouse where most bedding flats are grown. The greenhouse is also used for hardening plants off in spring and growing mums in fall.

The perennials are grown in greenhouses with automatic rollup sides. Bennett’s buys most of its nursery stock. Some bare root trees and shrubs are planted up or finished off.

Barb recognizes that handwatering their stock takes too much time in this labor-intensive business. “We grow so many different types of plants and sizes and use our space for multiple purposes that automating would be very difficult,” she says.

Bennett’s Greenhouse does use a tube-watering system for its mums and some of its 1-gallon annuals, trees and shrubs.
Two acres are set aside for Bennett’s large retail nursery, which offers design and landscape services. Richard has been refocusing his energy on renovation and remodeling projects, which he believes improves nursery sales.

In production, Barb and Kathy work with a staff of about 20 that’s primarily made up of part-time workers. Kathy covers the flats and 6.5-inch potted annuals, hanging baskets and wholesale accounts, while Barb oversees 4-inch potted geraniums and annuals and 3-inch potted annuals, seedlings and the office paperwork.

Bennett’s Greenhouse is open from mid-April for six weeks and again from the middle of June to September, when a spike in 6-inch annual sales occurs. Bennett’s attracts customers from as far as Chicago, routinely from the Indianapolis area and from Purdue University, heavily relying on longstanding relationship with the Lafayette community.

Bennett’s 6-inch annuals have progressed from 300 to 43,000 over the years. The annuals include impatiens, petunias, green peppers, tomatoes and pansies.

They started with 38,000 flats, diminishing from 43,000 in past years, including the multi-packs for annuals and vegetables. They offer two, three and one-pack configurations.

“We did offer the three-pack with one of each–a late, mid and early tomato plant–but customers were taking out one and replacing it with another,” Richard says. “It was not working for us so we discontinued it.”

Bennett’s container selection includes 10,000 10-inch hanging baskets, moss-lined baskets and combination planters. Customers prefer Bennett’s employees do the planting over the self-planting service they once offered. The large selection of succulents, which they want to expand, and their selection of foliage plants year-round target their large following of indoor gardeners.

Bennett’s likes to sell everything anyone wants but space is a constraint for growing it all. They deliberately created a reputation for having harder-to-get-in-packs of plants and the unique way they cherry-pick their inventory.

“We pick for our location, the best performers and what we feel has beauty,” Kathy says. “We do not gear our greenhouse to a particular breeder and arrange our plant material by variety versus color.”

Bennett’s readily admits to having less success with its fall and winter business. Its poinsettia sales are down in the last five years to 10,000, primarily to churches and other retail outlets. The family wonders if 99-cent poinsettias will become the new norm.

Community Garden Involvement

Bennett’s Greenhouse offers two programs, Helping Hands and Frequent Buyer. Helping Hands provides free pamphlets with detailed plant information for customers to take home. The Frequent Buyer program has been only marginally successful.

Richard thinks their partnership with the local symphony to sell tickets has been a more valuable venture. Last year, $28,000 worth of tickets were sold by guild members for their spring event. For each ticket brought into the greenhouse, customers could take home one potted plant.

Another lasting effect has been the America in Bloom relationship with Lafayette. The city has installed permanent planters and Bennett’s Greenhouse has enjoyed its involvement with America in Bloom. But with the recent economic impact to the city, Richard sees it coming back on a five-year rotation versus every year.

Bennett’s Greenhouse remains committed to providing high-quality plants to Lafayette and the surrounding Indiana area. The Bennetts agree with others who observe the pie is shrinking and that specialty growers may be the wave of the future. Still, Richard, Barb and Kathy think there is room for all who make a business of growing plants.

Chris Eirschele is a freelance garden writer living in Groveport, Ohio, with memberships in the Perennial Plant Association and Garden Writers Association. A profile of her work can be found at Suite101.com/profile.cfm/staygardens.

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