January 15, 2008
By Sarah Willis

In a typical year, Georgina Garden Centre in Keswick has the good fortune to have two spring selling seasons. The first is the natural spring in May for the homeowners in Keswick and nearby Newmarket and Sutton. The second “spring rush” comes from the cottagers on nearby Lake Simcoe, who look to the garden centre in June and July for their annual containers and easy maintenance colour and texture to decorate their vacation homes.

Shannon Lindensmith, manager of the garden centre, explains that by July the cottage owners have already planted their gardens at home. They don’t want to wait for the colour to fill in at their vacation property gardens. “We sell a lot of window boxes and containers for decks.”

In the 22 years the store has been in business, it has adapted several times to changing demographics. When the company was started by husband and wife Mike Johnson and Connie Rusu, the area was populated with a small rural town and homeowners were outnumbered by the cottagers. Over the last 10 years the local population has been growing by leaps and bounds. Shannon says a new subdivision is built every year. There is no typical customer in Keswick or Newmarket; they can be young families, original owners, or retirees fleeing life in Toronto.

Despite the diverse customer base, Mike and Connie have determined over the years that they can’t be everything to everyone. Shannon says the company motto is ‘go big or go home.’ “We have a few lines and we do them really well. All our nursery stock is hand picked by Mike, who visits the growers and chooses what to sell. We sell a lot of perennials and have worked with our suppliers long enough that they know the quality we are looking for,” she explains.

Like many other independents, Georgina Garden Centre is putting less emphasis on box plants and selling more containers and specialty annuals. Whereas several years ago the store might have stocked six inch annuals in mid to late summer to fill in bare spots, it now sells larger pots of annual colour in May. “People don’t have the patience to wait for the little box plants to fill in anymore,” explains Shannon. “They want easy gardening.”

 Georgina’s perennial sales are no different. “We put in one order of 3.5-inch pots in spring, and then order one gallon plants for the rest of the season. Our perennial displays are changed weekly, or more often if they looked picked over.”

The business is situated at the corner of Woodbine Ave. and Old Homestead Road, just north of Keswick. A traffic light installed at the busy intersection last spring has helped customers safely manoeuvre onto the property. Over the years, Mike and Connie have put up 10,000 sq. ft. of retail greenhouses and a large shade house on the two acre site, so everything but trees and shrubs are sold under protection from the elements.

Georgina Garden Centre actually got its start as Cutrite Landscaping, a landscaping/maintenance business run by Mike, who eventually added a retail division to serve the do-it-yourself clientele. While Cutrite Landscaping is still a going concern — offering landscape design, installation and maintenance services, its name was recently removed from the company sign, letterhead and website in an effort to simplify the company brand. All Cutrite’s business comes from word of mouth, so dropping the name from the sign hasn’t had any negative impact.

Shannon explains that a couple of years ago, Mike and Connie made the decision to hire an independent garden centre consultant to improve the company’s brand and reposition their store. They retained garden centre consultant Bob McCannell, who recommended several major changes – the first one being the removal of the Cutrite name from the sign. Since working with McCannell, Connie and Mike have invested significantly in the store’s infrastructure. They now see a great return on their money.

“Up until last year, the only advertising we did was an flyer mailed direct in the spring,” says Shannon. “We weren’t doing an effective job of getting our name out in front of homeowners.” To help draw customers, Georgina Garden Centre put out 20 two-sided four-colour flyers for the first time last year. Between 15,000 and 25,000 flyers were distributed each week by direct mail and e-mail, 10 in spring, two in summer, six in the fall and two at Christmas.

Mike McCannell and his graphic designer Paul designed the flyers around a formula that features five specials on the front and a clip-and-save coupon on the back. In addition to the great specials, Shannon explains that the layout artist had fun with the flyers. Each week customers could collect a hidden letter to spell a word by the end of the year and win a prize. He also put tiny pictures of Georgina staff members in the flyers that customers began to look for. Shannon says the flyers were so popular that customers called looking for them if they didn’t receive one that week.  
Initially it was difficult for Johnson to go from spending virtually nothing on advertising to spending thousands of dollars on a weekly flyer. The benefits quickly became obvious, and he and Shannon are already starting to plan next year’s flyers and specials.

Like Canadian Tire money, Georgina Garden Centre handed out its Bonus Bucks for many years, but along with the flyers, last year the company invested in a POS system and developed a computerized loyalty card to replace the paper credits. Now customers scan their cards at the cash register to collect bonus points on their purchases. Mike Johnson came up with the Steward of the Earth loyalty card program to promote the good things that the green industry does for the earth. Johnson’s idea is to appeal to people on a personal level, as people tend to take better care of something in which they have a personal stake. Johnson challenges all his customers to become a Steward o the Earth and to plant and nurture at least one tree throughout their lifetime in order to create a cleaner and safer community.  With the motto, “Plant now for a better future,” the Steward of the Earth logo is on everything Georgina Garden Centre prints, including staff name tags. This is to remind customers that anything they plant is beneficial for the environment.

To help promote the newly created Steward of the Earth program last year, Kathy Bruce from the perennial department gave a presentation at a local public school where each child in the school was given a seedling, a Steward of the Earth button, fridge magnet and the garden centre’s Benefits of Trees brochure. The children were asked to take pictures of themselves planting or taking care of their tree and send or bring it to the garden centre in return for an official Steward of the Earth certificate. Bonus points were given to their parents’ Steward of the Earth card. The class that returned the most certificates was treated to a pizza party donated by a local pizza store and a tree planted at the school in honour of the class. Shannon says that one third of the children brought back photos of themselves and their tree. Georgina Garden Centre is planning similar presentations to three or four schools this year.

Shannon affirms that staff must buy into the program in order to keep pushing it to  customers. “We offer staff incentives to keep the Steward of the Earth concept in the forefront of everyone’s mind.”

Johnson is so pleased with the results of his Steward of the Earth program, that he is offering the idea to other independent garden centres to take and adapt to their own needs. His attitude is why not share ideas and help each other out? Interested readers can visit www.georginagardencentre.com for more details on the program, or contact Shannon.

The weekly flyers have been a great way to promote the Steward of the Earth program to customers, along with the various contests and events offered at the store. They had fun with an Ugly Garden Contest in the summer. The winner was awarded $500 in bonus points on their Steward of the Earth loyalty card.

The store also hosts an Easter egg hunt in spring and a Speaker’s Corner in fall, where customers are invited to a tea party to hear a variety of short horticultural talks. In December, customers can shop for a Christmas tree while their children have their photo taken with Santa.

Shannon notes there are more changes in their immediate future. The Municipality of Georgina’s pesticide ban goes into effect in September 2008. “Because of our proximity to Lake Simcoe, and partly in response to the Ladies of the Lake (a local environmental group), we are already promoting a lot of environment-friendly options for the lawn and garden,” so she says the pesticide ban won’t have a negative effect on sales. What it will do is give Georgina Garden Centre another opportunity to push the environmental benefits they have to offer, and hopefully sign up a few more Stewards of the Earth.

Attractive seasonal displays greet customers as they enter the indoor sales area. The gift shop in the rear is given a fresh coat of paint in spring and fall to put a new face on the store.

After an intial order of small pots in spring, Georgina orders one gallon perennials exclusively. They make eye-catching displays and customers want the immediate effect that comes with a larger pot.

Georgian Garden Centre sells six-inch pots of annuals in May, as many customers don’t have the patience to wait for cell packs to fill in.

Speaker’s Corner featuring several guest speakers as well as Georgina’s own staff members, was well attended at the store
this fall.