May 24, 2002
A Tale of Two Garden Centres

By Rita Weerdenburg

A second chance - an opportunity to do it all over again so we can do it better the next time around - is something for which we all occasionally yearn. Especially in the retail garden centre sector, with constant changes to trends and consumer expectations, the impact on sales through potential improvements to merchandising opportunities, pedestrian or vehicular traffic flow and inventory maintenance, provides a daily reality check for owners and managers. For most, however, another chance to start from scratch to design the perfect garden centre is little more than an elusive dream.

     This past year saw the addition of two new garden centres to the Canadian retailing scene, both designed and built by owners with many years of experience and with several previous garden centre designs to their credit. Dissimilar in size and scope and located in two different parts of the country, they agreed to share with Landscape Trades readers how their past experiences influenced their current quest to build the perfect garden centre.

     The newest GardenWorks store, located in Langley, BC, officially opened for business in November of 1999, and represents the ninth retail garden centre of this independently owned and operated chain. Their eight other stores in and around Vancouver and Victoria, ranging in size from postage stamp urban locations, to their principal five-acre Burnaby store, were all exiting retail locations requiring varying degrees of modification before being taken over by GardenWorks. While these eight stores provided management with a vast scope of retail experience, the new Langley store presented them with their first opportunity to design and build an entirely new store.

     Located on one acre of prime retail real estate on a highly travelled thoroughfare and only minutes from Walnut Grove, a high-density suburb of Langley, this store represents an emerging trend on the part of the retail garden centre sector to recognize the importance of location. It is no longer reasonable to expect that consumers will travel many miles out of their way to make plant purchases.

     With 10 years of retailing experience at several GardenWorks locations, store manager Grant Smith was very involved in the design and construction process. In essence, he explains, the Langley store is a downsized but improved version of the company's very successful main Burnaby store, incorporating what works well and changing or improving what doesn't. Probably the most significant improvement made possible by starting from scratch is the customer's access to nursery stock in the outdoors sales area. "The Burnaby store has a natural wedge shape to the property, which means it can be a long walk for the customer to the furthest corner and back again. Here at Langley, the outdoor sales area is designed in a crescent shape so there is not a huge walking commitment on the part of the customer," says Smith.

     Making access as easy as possible for the customer was also the main priority for owner Jim Pepetone when designing and building the third location for Terra Greenhouses, which opened to the public this year just in time for the Victoria Day weekend. With a 20,000-sq. ft. showroom providing access to 53,000 sq. ft. of retail greenhouse space on one side and two and one-half acres of perennials and nursery stock on the other side, easy access is of paramount importance to this mass merchandiser of horticultural products.

     While Terra's retailing philosophy is in stark contrast to the typical hardware box store, the term mass merchandiser does, nonetheless, best describe the merchandising approach of this Milton, Ontario-based retail garden centre. Strategically located at the junction of the soon-to-be-developed suburbs of Milton to the west and Mississauga to the east and with Oakville development steadily encroaching north, Terra is rurally located but only minutes from three significant market areas.

     Visual impact, says Pepetone, was the new garden centre's primary design consideration. The free-span structure of the ultra-large show room provides the incoming customer with immediate visual access to virtually the entire store and a beginning glimpse of the adjoining greenhouse to the right and nursery stock sales area to the left. Especially because of its very large size, the site's physical layout was also of crucial importance. The racetrack design, enhanced by very wide aisles, minimizes the need to walk great distances.

     "It's only 150 feet from the middle of the shrub area to the cash register," explains Pepetone. "It's only 125 feet from the perennials, 175 to 200 feet from the middle of the greenhouse, and most of the showroom displays are 100 feet or less from the check-outs."

     Terra's wide aisle design extends to all parts of the sales area, preventing a feeling of congestion even during the busy spring season. Combined with their horizontal marketing system and high capacity, easy to manoeuvre carts, the wide-aisle design enabled them to increase their traffic flow to typically slow sales areas such as back walls and corners.

     While a warehouse racking system allows box stores to maximize their sales per square foot, in all other areas, it is not appropriate for the sale of plant material, says Pepetone. Besides preventing all-important visual access to the next sales bench, warehouse racks make maintenance and especially watering difficult, resulting in increased losses. Consolidating plant material and keeping benches fully stocked is also more labour intensive, and is just one more reason why Terra relies on their horizontal merchandising approach. Both square foot sales capacity and visual impact are increased with the thousands of hanging baskets on display. At their smaller, suburban store, GardenWorks continues to employ the multi-tier display approach that was proven successful at their other locations. New to this store is a galvanized steel display system preferred by Smith because of its enhanced resistance to moss and mould build-up. Its lighter weight also makes this a preferred alternative to wood, and the added flexibility makes it easier to change displays as inventory levels increase and decrease throughout the season. The multi-tiered end caps take much of the guesswork out of effective merchandising.

     With a 6,000-sq. ft. retail store and an adjoining greenhouse, GardenWorks attempts to put as much retail space as possible under cover. Traffic flow is directed - as much as people will allow themselves to be directed, admits Smith - through strategic use of their portable display systems. While Garden­Works prefers a separate entrance and exit as part of their pedestrian traffic flow system, Terra employs a large single entrance/exit with the cash registers located just inside the front doors.

     Creating an infrastructure that houses all of the necessities of operating a modern retail garden centre business, including proper irrigation, heating and ventilation and the myriad of wiring required to run computerized cash registers, the most up-to-date electronic payment venues, communications systems and more is a luxury, especially to any business that has had to "make do" with outdated structures, says Smith.

     Although cooler temperatures may be the most obvious indicators of a changing season, a reduction in light has just as much impact on sales, and the inclusion of proper lighting systems was a priority for both garden centres.

     With a spring season under their belts providing them with an opportunity to work out some of the bugs of their new location, GardenWorks is now working on implementing a bar coding system. This project has proven to be even more tedious and time consuming than expected, confirms Smith, but he is optimistic that their efforts here will pay off when the time comes to implement bar coding systems at their other locations. Pepetone, on the other hand, believes there are no cost benefits to be realized by implementing a bar coding system at this time. "It's not that I don't think bar coding is the right way to go for a lot of retailers," he explains, "but we buy in so much inventory from so many different growers during such a short period of time, we would be totally bogged down if our systems relied on bar coding."

     Currently, Terra purchases about one-half of all their bedding plant and hanging basket requirements, but virtually all perennials and nursery stock is purchased from outside suppliers. While the Milton greenhouses are strictly for retail sales, plans are currently on the books to include production facilities as well. Management's philosophy at GardenWorks is to focus exclusively on retailing, and all plant material is purchased from west coast suppliers.

     The merchandising philosophy of each garden centre is reflected in their outdoor sales area. Once again relying on the visual impact of mass merchandising, at Terra Greenhouses, perennials are alphabetically displayed on waist-high sales benches in masses of colour, with large groupings of special-requirement varieties such as shade plants being the only occasional exception. Further from the store, evergreens and deciduous ornamentals are also mass displayed according to type. Taking their cue from successful European garden centres that are also faced with the challenge of enticing their customers to the further corners of their outdoor sales areas, Terra added a subliminal sense of direction and increased visual impact with a large arbour above the main aisles, leading the customer away from and then again back to the store.

     Working with a much smaller outdoor sales area, GardenWorks provides visual interest through small displays of mixed plant materials, providing their customers with inspiration and ideas of appropriate plant material combinations. Backing onto a protected natural area that boasts many large native trees, the intimate setting created by the many small displays of plant material is in keeping with the character of the property. "We're starting to get a small but regular base of customers who just want to come and browse for awhile at lunch time in our stress-relieving setting," says Smith.

     New, not just to this location but the City of Langley as well, are the bio-filtration ponds required by the City prior to approval of GardenWorks' building permit. Concerned about contamination to nearby fish-bearing streams, GardenWorks was requested to build two small filtration ponds at either side of the parking lot. Run-off waters from the garden centre, fed through drainage pipes, and surface run-off waters from the parking lot, slowly travel through a series of levels planted with a variety of bog plants generally accepted to have cleansing abilities before finally entering the municipal sewer system. "As far as we know, we're the first business in the City of Langley to have included this environmentally-friendly feature into their parking lot," says Smith.

     With less than a year of experience at their respective locations, both GardenWorks and Terra are more than pleased with their initial results. While each confesses to having some of the usual start-up bugs to deal with, on the whole they are on track, they say, to meet their initial sales projections. "It takes three years to realize your full sales potential at a new location," claims Pepetone, and Smith agrees, adding that their particularly wet spring, even by BC standards, made it difficult to maintain their sales projections for the 2000 season.

     The very different scopes of these two retailers required very different merchandising philosophies and consequently, different approaches to the building of their "perfect" garden centres. It's just more proof of the many marketplace niches that can co-exist in the ever-expanding horticultural marketplace.