Sun River pic

More than a Photo Stop

Sep 2, 2018 10 Comments

If you are in garden retail, summer is the time to take a break after the spring zing and maybe join one of the many garden center tours and meetings offered in various states. It’s a great opportunity to spend time with like minds, share stories and ideas with one’s peers across the country. Having seen plenty of garden centers myself this summer from Seattle to Boston and knowing there is another tour this coming week, I wanted to share some of my stories from 30+ years of doing just that:

If you’ve heard me speak recently, you already know we are seeing a serious polarization in the independent or “local” garden retail channel. It’s similar to what happened in the local hardware channel in the 1990s, when around 50,000 retailers shrunk to around 18,000 now. But those survivors are now thrivers!

The Good Are Getting Better

It’s very clear from the last few years that in the family-owned, privately-held garden retail channel, the good are getting better. They are winning market share (often in the same town) from the less good and this year’s data from our two network groups and clients validates that observation. The better-managed companies are making more margin dollars and, for those in the know, more “Gap” dollars, even if the sales “topline” looks similar.

So as you tour these stores, look beyond the photo-shoot displays and clean bathrooms. Ask the questions that really matter: Where did they get their inspiration and ideas? How did they know it would pay off? Who do they seek counsel from and make critical decisions?

Early Adopters

I am guessing you’ll find that your hosts were early adopters and networkers. Although ANLA’s Management Clinic sadly ended six years ago now, I’ll bet your hosts were regulars there, networking and learning from 7am to 1am. I suspect they were early adopters of capital improvements such as state of the art greenhouses, benching and signage. They were probably early adopters of network groups, training programs and, dare I say, they might even be among the 730 people who went on one of our 16 England Garden Center tours.

I have spent many hours wondering what makes a winner in this channel. It starts with a clear vison based on months or years of collecting the data/evidence of others’ successes and failures. It continues with a clear feasibility plan which is pre-loaded with strategies for expected (and unexpected) challenges. They have a strong Plan B, an ability to measure and monitor, and an openness and a preparation for change mid-dream if necessary. They are also ready to make some unpopular personnel and/or family decisions (try firing your sister or putting your Mom on a 90 day write up…).

Leverage and Risk

These winners invest more than most others are comfortable spending. They accept risk that stops others sleeping at night and they hire people who know more than they do. Two of our clients borrowed loans equal to their annual sales in the previous year (those were the days when banks were partners!) – while in their twenties…. Another bought out their parents but only if they agreed to move 100 miles away – think about that one!

I know owners who invested early in POS while others shunned it because of their own dislike of computers. We have a client who 12 years ago spent over $16,000 on a sign machine while other more established and larger nurseries scribbled on the back of an old J&P sign. We have clients who travel thousands of miles to see stores not in the garden business, just to keep up with general retail. They all have a passion to learn and keep moving forward, to constantly challenge and “change it up”. They simply don’t say (or tolerate their team saying), “That’s good enough”.

After so many years in the trenches I could go on (yes, I know, I DO go on…) but the key takeaway from working with some of the best in the business is that there are clear, consistent reasons for their success: vision, focus, risk and the humility to constantly learn and change.

The lesson? You can’t take a picture of that. If you’re heading out on a tour, we encourage you to ask the same questions that your hosts asked … and still do. Because another probability of these winners is that they will openly share their successes and failures with you (well, as long as you are not three miles away – they’re not dummies!)

PS: On that timely tour topic, some of you readers may be touring one of our favorite clients this week in Utah – Sun River Gardens (, pictured in header). Take a close look and ask those deeper questions to Scott and Tanya: they are rightfully proud of all that they have accomplished, but it didn’t happen overnight … and it wasn’t easy!  Kudos to them, and to ALL of you – the garden centers who take the time and expense to tour whoever is moving the needle, so you can move it yourselves. That’s how an industry moves forward.






  1. Cyndee Carvalho
    Sep 5, 2018 at 11:31 am

    thanks Ian, always good thoughts, help me keep motivated to keep searching…Cyndee

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Sep 6, 2018 at 8:32 am

      Cyndee, thanks. It’s always good to hear from you and I know Alden Lane has always been networking and moving forward! Have a great Fall.

  2. Anne Obarski
    Sep 6, 2018 at 4:11 am

    Ian you are absolutely right. And as a garden center tour host recently we toured 4 centers that were all over 80 years old… you aren’t still in business today by reacting… you’re still around by being the benchmark that others want to be and being willing to share your bumps and bruises. It’s the total picture, and that’s a work in progress for ALL of us!

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Sep 6, 2018 at 8:41 am

      Anne, well said and thank you. I like the “share your bumps and bruises’ thought!

      80 years old eh, they’ve seen some generation transitions as well as market changes; that brings in a whole extra level of challenges keeping ahead. Lack of committed future generations is one of the main reasons that Local Garden Retailers are going away…. maybe that’s another blog!

  3. Justin Robbins
    Sep 6, 2018 at 6:36 am

    The “good enough” model won’t be working much longer. You’ve got to pay to play anymore. If you don’t get better each year, and set the tone you want(act not react), you’ll be gone soon. I have noticed a big difference the last couple years in gc’s Who are ok with what they’ve got and ones who want to stay relevant and change constantly. The latter will survive. Thanks Ian, good read. -Justin

  4. Ian Baldwin
    Sep 6, 2018 at 8:50 am

    Justin, great comment, thank you for your kind words.

    It is interesting to me how many marginal or near-to-retirement LGCs survived the recession only to now look vulnerable as the pace of business picks up and they either don’t have the money or the will to invest and change it up. I know you and the Valley team are not about to let that happen!

    It’s a natural cycle that will end up with a lot less local garden retailers but the survivors will be bigger in volume and more proftable, employing less people who make more money (at least that’s my take on it…!).

    See you soon, go GCU!

    1. Jill Denney
      Sep 7, 2018 at 1:42 pm

      I agree that standing still and not moving forward causes companies to become irrelevant. If you expect to keep doing what you’ve been doing for the last 20 years and be successful, it’s not going to end well. Previously, it was not upgrading to POS systems, this day in age I think it is reluctance to invest in what younger generations want out of their gardening and shopping experience!! We just invested in tablets for texting, email and social media. I look forward to seeing how it goes over the next few months.

      1. Ian Baldwin
        Sep 7, 2018 at 3:43 pm

        Jill, good to hear from you (and Justin above) as representatives of the Millennials that everyone is talking about.

        Unfortunately most of us doing the talking are much older than those we discuss(!) so we value your thoughts and news of moving the needle at Portland Nursery!

        A feature of the garden retail winners is that they seek input from everyone inside and outside the industry, veterans and new arrivals, but especially new arrivals. It’s important that owners and leaders ask younger/newer people before they become ingrained and their vision narrows. This takes time and patience but pays off as you can see from the winning garden centers we both know.

        I remember being told, more like scolded, by a boss of mine when I was 18 and wondered to him if some disease I’d seen in the houseplants might mean they needed more ventilation; “I don’t pay you to think, I pay you to work”. Needless to say he lost my motivation and goodwill right there and then and they were out of business 15 years later!! I never forgot that moment!

        Thanks again for joining the discussion.

  5. Miles Hunter
    Sep 12, 2018 at 9:56 am

    Great thoughts. I toured Sun River in Utah last week and it was an amazing garden centre. We took away lots of great ideas. I did ask Scott the tough questions and he shared some of what has made him a success but held back just enough as there were some of his competitors there.
    I like the idea of my parents moving 100 km away when they retire. My father still has a 1980’s mentality about how to run the store.

  6. Ian Baldwin
    Sep 13, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    Miles, nice to hear from you again, hope all is well in BC.

    Yes you are correct in your assessment of Scott and Tanya, they really do “get it” about today’s customer and are a beacon for constantly “changing it up” as he says. They spend very little in traditional advertising, preferring to use social media, while constantly investing back in the facility and shopping experience, then letting happy customers do the promotion for them in that social media space.

    I should just point out though that the example of asking their parents to move 100 miles (not just 100 kms!) was not Scott!

    Thanks again for joining the discussion, have a great Autumn!

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