Top 10 Things I’ve Learned From The Garden Retail Industry

Top 10 Things I’ve Learned From The Garden Retail Industry

Greenhouse Retail CenterBack in 1998, when I first began reporting on the gardening industry, I had no idea what I was getting into. Like just about everyone else who stumbles into the industry, I was quickly smitten.

Over the weekend, as I was preparing to move to a new role at Meister Media Worldwide as Editor of American Vegetable Grower magazine, I was thinking over all the people I’ve learned from. And I realized how much I’ve personally gained from the industry. I’m wiser and have a fuller life.


Why? Below are just 10 of the things that I’ve learned that have made life richer. I hope I can transfer some of this accumulated wisdom over to the new industry I’ll be serving, which has retailing challenges of its own at the farm market level.

  1. Cooperating with competitors is smart. I don’t think garden retailers realize just how unusually open this industry is. I’ve watched two retailers, who were in the same market, share contacts for videographers. Another time, I watched a New Jersey retailer sit down with an inventory report to show a New York garden store manager how he works his reports so he can move product faster.
    Where does that generosity of spirit come from? I’m not sure, but I do know it is a big reason why the industry has endured when other similar industries have ceded ground to national stores. By working together, these retailers shore up their weaknesses, play to their strengths, and gain a constant flow of inspiration to keep going.
  2. Delegators succeed more. The first time I visited Sickle’s Market, back when he was bringing in only $5 million, Bob Sickles stopped every employee to introduce me to them as we toured the store. For each one, he bragged about how good they were at their job, and often added a quick run down of past experiences.
    Over the years, I began to realize that his pride in his employees went deeper: he trusted each to do their job without micro managing. And they repaid him by helping him get his store north of $20 million annually, despite having no roadside visibility (he’s tucked behind a park), and staying in the same location.
    Likewise, I’ve visited Roger’s Gardens many times over the years. Gavin Herbert, Jr., is another retailer who trusts him employees to thrive. His creative director Eric Cortina, leads his justly famous buying and merchandising team, turning old, uninteresting buildings into magical shopping experiences. His general manager, Ron Vanderhoff, is one of the most respected business minds in the industry.
    What I’ve learned from these men is that big success rarely comes from single-minded effort. It comes from a willingness to assemble a talented team, set high goals, and trust those talented people to fly.
  3. Don’t be shy to ask for help. Like many young editors, my greatest fear at the beginning of my career was that everyone would figure out how little I actually knew. But after watching how lifelong garden store owners would unabashedly turn to a peer and ask for advice even small things, I realized I was thinking about it backwards. Not-knowing could be a strength. It took the pressure off of me to be an expert, and allowed me to simply listen and report. I now don’t hesitate to pick up the phone to bounce ideas off various retailers and those who I consider to be true experts.
  4. Relationships matter. Running a mom-and-pop business is full of risks. But although I’ve seen a lot of disasters, from storms to a retailer’s unexpected death, I’ve also seen how relationships make the difference in surviving and quietly closing your doors. When times get tough, garden peers step in and help keep a store going until insurance money kicks in, or until a late owners’ grieving family can begin working independently, or perhaps they simply ship some spare inventory when a delivery fails to arrive.
  5. And numbers matter, too. At the base of any business that succeeds are sound financials.
  6. Family businesses need healthy families. This lesson I’ve learned from watching how unhealthy family dynamics lead to a painful disintegration of the business. If you don’t work on the fundamentals of your family, everything else in life suffers. And that’s only magnified in a family business. When you spend your working hours with those you grew up with, those relationships impact everything in the business, including the staff and customers.
  7. It’s OK to steal ideas. When a busload of garden retailers tour a garden center, a customer inevitably asks who we are. When she learns that the store is hosting other retailers, she’s usually surprised there’s such openness. Aren’t the hosts worried their techniques will be stolen?
    Since no two businesses are alike, serve the same customer, or even sell the same mix, adapting ideas from fellow retailers takes nothing from them. In fact, it’s the highest order of compliment.
  8. The more successful you are, the humbler you need to be. Some of the most successful retailers are the most willing to sit down and listen to how others operate. There’s a basic level of respect for others that drives them. I’ve come across only a few retailers who think they can learn nothing from smaller operators. Most of those retailers are now out of business.
  9. Overworking is overrated. I once asked a Ohio garden retailer if his weekends during the season were Tuesday and Wednesday. Without missing a beat, he told me his weekend was February.
    This is such a common attitude. If you own a store, you are committed to it 24 hours a day. But those retailers rarely have kids who want to follow in their footsteps. There’s not enough balance with other things that are important.
  10. No one ever wants to leave the industry once they’re in it. Despite all the hard work and the need to juggle a ridiculous number of skills, there’s something special about the garden retail industry. The camaraderie is profound, and the keen enthusiasm for new ideas inspires everyone who, like me, happen upon a career in garden retail.

Thank you for all you’ve given me over these past two decades. These are lessons that will guide me for the rest of my life.