The frustration in Jason Parks’ voice mounts as he discusses the independent garden center (IGC) market in the southern United States.
As Parks describes, once great IGC retailers are approaching retirement age, and there isn’t a generation on their heels to take their place. The next potential retailers watched their parents or bosses work their back sides off to barely make a living. So why, Parks asks, would potential up-and-comers want to make a career as an IGC retailer?
“It is different here in the South, with some exceptions, because the people we deal with are mostly small and mid-sized garden centers,” says Parks, the operations manager at Parks Brothers Farm in Van Buren, Ark. “A lot of them are hanging on for dear life.”
Most retailers in the South are at least 50 years old, Parks says, and his family’s wholesale greenhouse operation has been doing business with many of them for 30 years. The problem is those retailers are slow to adjust to a changing, more modern marketplace.
Many IGC retailers in the South, for example, aren’t embracing new varieties as they once did. They don’t understand how powerful social media can be as a business tool, and they’re even resistant to use POP and merchandise products.
“We offer free POP,” Parks says. “Ball (Horticultural Co.) will give us whatever POP we want. We have POP for (Dömmen’s) Confetti and other programs, as well. But it’s getting the stores to use it and merchandise it correctly that’s the problem.”
A Different Perspective
Fortunately, the independent garden center market Parks describes isn’t the one all growers are experiencing. Eight hundred miles to the northwest, Welby Gardens general manager Marty Gerace paints a completely different portrait of his IGC customers.
“In Denver, we never had the deep economic troubles that a lot of the country did,” Gerace says. “Sales have been pretty flat for a couple years here in Colorado, but it hasn’t been really bad. I think we’re even starting to see a little bit of recovery here.”
Welby Gardens, like Park Brothers Farm, has focused on IGCs for decades. Also like Park Brothers, Welby has a range of IGC customers in several different states, and Gerace agrees that the IGC market has taken a beating in particular areas of the South.
Still, the IGC market Welby Gardens serves within Colorado is a promising one and, arguably, a model to follow.
“Prices have increased in Colorado,” Gerace says. “Prices in our region are much higher than the national average. It hasn’t been the same type of situation as elsewhere. We’ve always been a leader. We’ve always tried to get bedding plant prices up, and we’ve worked very hard at that.”
If only wholesale bedding plant prices–heck, all wholesale plant prices–were up across the country. The time for price increases must come, Gerace says, but based on the economy, now is not the time to ask consumers to fork over more of their hard-earned dollars.
“It’s not the right time in a lot of parts of the country to buck trends,” he says. “I think you can always ask for a little more, but you have to give the customer something in return. You have to go to retailers with a plan. You have to say, ‘We’re going to provide you with a service, but it’s going to cost you this much more.’”
A New Beast
Bill Swanekamp, a co-owner of Kube Pak in Allentown, N.J., agrees good service for IGCs is a must. Service, of course, has always been necessary, but Swanekamp says independent retailers are more demanding these days because they have multiple wholesalers from which they can choose.
Unfortunately, as Swanekamp sees it, wholesale opportunities at the independent retail level are limited.
“I don’t see growth in the independent sector,” Swanekamp says. “We are, in fact, seeing a lot of the independent market share shrinking. People are buying fewer flowers. The independents are having fewer sales. The struggle with the independents is, in the past, they relied on having all of their sales from plants and flowers. With this economy, it is tough to do that.”
These days, IGCs are more likely to reduce their staffs once spring has passed and let other merchandise take up non-spring sales.
“It’s one of those permanent changes that has occurred in the American economy,” Swanekamp says. “We have seen the gradual demise of the independent. It’s very similar to what happened to many of the local hardware stores.”
It is becoming increasingly difficult, too, to compete as an independent in some areas, especially when box stores are starting to offer some semblance of service. But, Swanekamp says, there are more than a million ways IGCs can counter the box store’s offerings.
“There are independents that figure out how to attract customers,” he says. “They’re making their garden centers more than places that sell plants. They’re offering wagon rides, pies, cakes, pumpkins. It’s almost a community playground.”
Niche offerings are more important than ever, as well, and a strong marketing strategy is a must. A wholesaler’s survival as an IGC supplier depends on both areas.
“Some growers are trying to offer all niche. That’s their goal,” Swanekamp says. “Find that unique product and unique customers, and supply them.”
Time To Modernize
Wholesale growers obviously believe a number of independent garden centers are in need of improvement. Differentiating from box stores by offering unique product, quality offerings and outstanding service will likely always be the formula for success with IGCs.
But modernizing with consumers is essential, too. As Valerie Hole of Hole’s Greenhouses & Gardens says, the current independent garden center is a dinosaur that needs to evolve to stay relevant to today’s consumers.
The IGC’s evolution, however, is partly the responsibility of its grower suppliers. At least that’s the way Parks sees it. And it’s a reason why Parks is taking the extra steps to help independent retailers modernize.
“We’re going to have a business on the side here where we can build retailers a basic website with social media integration,” he says. “We’re going to help them get up and running so they at least have an online presence. Retailers can become the go-to people for their towns, especially a lot of these smaller towns we do business with, by being online.”
Parks would advise other wholesale growers to be proactive in making their independents a success. Taking your services to the lengths of a Parks Brothers Farm would certainly separate your business’s offerings from your competitor’s. Your business, after all, depends on the independent garden center retailer’s satisfaction.