August 1, 2015

Good and not-so-good news


In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s chain stores ventured into the retail plant market. They included Sears, Woolco, Zellers and Safeway, at least here on the Prairies. The industry dismissed this attempt as a joke. “No one will buy from them! They don’t know what they are doing, and they don’t know anything about plants! Hah!” Even garden centres, which were new phenomena, were dismissed by traditional nurseries and greenhouses as seasonal oddities that would never amount to serious competition for the ‘old boys.’ One Saskatoon nurseryman told me in 1978 or ’79, “Garden centres will never replace nurseries as the traditional choice for consumers.” My, my, how times do change.

In fairness to those ‘old boys,’ who were not so accurate in predicting the future of retailing, I have my own confessions. In 1971, a friend told me he was working on a new genre of music. “It’s called Country Rock, and it will be the next big thing.” I laughed at him. Soon, the Eagles were number one on the music scene. Need I write more?

Along with my failed attempts as a predictor of music, I also predicted box stores would never sell orchids (blew that one) or water plants (I have to stop being a futurist). 

There comes a time when even the sharpest in the trade have to admit they just don’t know what the future will hold. So, that is another one of my 300- word introductions. Here is the real story.

This past spring, I made a concentrated weekly effort to visit the box stores. I checked out Rona, Walmart, Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Lowes and Superstore (Loblaws). With my hat pulled down to my ears and my darkest shades hiding my eyes, I adopted sleuth-like movements to enhance my abilities as a spy. “Bond. Rod Bond.” 

Sometimes my beleaguered wife would accompany me on one of my covert missions, as my ‘beard.’ I considered it a ‘date night’ and had to bribe her with a good restaurant afterwards. This long-suffering woman does not suffer in silence.

The good news, in short, is the box stores’ garden centres are poorly run. The not-so-good news is, they do not lack for customers.

Very few areas of the box stores’ garden centres are organized. Now and again, someone has made an obvious attempt to bring order to the chaos, but rest assured, chaos is the norm. There are sun and shade plants mixed together. There are vines sitting on the same shelf with herbs, tomatoes with Ipomeas, and best of all, there are dead plants sitting right alongside live ones.

That is what strikes me the most when I conduct my visits: The dead and the dying plants. They are the casualties of people who do not know how to maintain plants. I watch as three employees hastily water plants after a hot day, but it is 8:00 in the evening, and those plants really needed water at 7:00 in the morning. 

There are the racks and pallets of plants, row after row, recently arrived from growers, and no place to display them. They remain in their shipping containers. Those plants suffer the most. Even a dedicated employee with a hose has trouble reaching the interior of those racks and pallets. The plants suffer. They flag, they crisp, and they dry up. One of my gardening friends, while not from the trade, is a dedicated plant lover. He cannot resist walking through a greenhouse, anytime he has the chance. When visiting a Regina box store, he noticed that all the perennials were flagging. He found the manager and told her that if the perennials were watered right away, they would recover; “If you wait until tomorrow, they will be finished.” She complained to him about a shortage of qualified labour, and that was it. End of the conversation. 

The basics do not get covered in the chain stores due to lack of qualified staff as well as a shortage of labour. One hot afternoon, I was in a parking lot garden centre. The temperature was around 36 degrees C and there was a pallet of dead plants. A store manager, identified by his white shirt and tie, was watering some of the plants hurriedly. He instructed an employee to give the dead plants, “an extra shot of water to revive them.” Plants do not return to the living world once deceased, and that is Hort 101.

The story carries on a predictable and believable trajectory. I ask staff at home centres for information and I receive mumbles, “I don’t know.” I watch as customers attempt to obtain answers at the box stores, and the staff read the tags  — and that only occurs when a staff member can be found.

Of all of the box stores in the Regina market, only Rona had any semblance of order. ‘Junky’ is the best word one can use to describe the rest, and I use the word with no apologies.  
One note: If the weather is cooler, as in the 20 degree range, box store plants do look better. Once the heat hits and moves daytime temperatures into the 30s, box store stock deteriorates immediately. 
You and I could go on how box stores lack gardening expertise, but we would be like those ‘old boys’ who said nothing would ever change. It has.

The not-so-good news is that garden centres at box stores obviously have customers and sell product. They move lots of product. They have line-ups at their tills and customers are attracted to one thing, the lower prices. In early spring, when many nights of frost are still to come, you will see homeowners, with their half-tons, loading up a dozen pyramidal cedars to plant along their decks and fences. Now, you and I both know that a cedar that is ultra-green in April came from a much warmer climate. We also know that frost will probably claim many of those cedars, yet there goes another truckload, to be planted this weekend. 

I have watched the customers in the box stores and I must admit, they are cautious regarding their hanging baskets. They carefully pick out the better ones, leaving the ‘bowsers’ on the rack. After all, customers purchase bedding plants every year. They are particular and know what is worth buying. 

When it comes to trees and shrubs, the customer lacks knowledge and is easily duped into purchasing something that looks good but will not last. One of the stores no longer lists variety names on apples and flowering crabs; their tags indicate only pink flowering crab or red/green eating apple. They are, of course, selling varieties that are not prairie-hardy; they handle the situation by telling customers that the trees have a guarantee. Great, a guarantee, but the customer never gets a tree that grows. How frustrating!

I was at a supermarket and listened as an employee told a customer that a non-hardy hydrangea would survive the winter, “if you give it lots of water.” The same situation occurs with roses; hardy roses and non-hardies are not distinguished. So I complain, to you, but there are still cart-loads of plants going out the door. Cart-loads that should be going out the independents’ doors. 

To dismiss the box stores for their incompetence is to be foolhardy, and more of an ostrich than an eagle. There are fewer and fewer of us independents , and I have to wonder how many will be left in 20 years? 
Those independents that survive are out-competing the box stores with quality, service and selection. They have adapted. Those who are doing well, have no dead plants on their benches, they have identifiable people, with name tags or aprons, to answer customer questions intelligently, and they offer up real choices. The staff members teach the customers the differences amongst the species and how to garden.  

There are independents who continue to thrive, not just exist, because they are paying attention to what the customer is looking for and needs. Let’s face it. Most customers do not know what they need, and they turn to us for advice and direction. We know that potentilla grows in the sun and fuchsia belongs in the shade. 

I have preached the benefits of seminars many times before and I am doing it again. This spring, a former employee of mine, who has a new greenhouse, asked me to do a seminar on container gardening. He not only had an excellent turnout but he was really pleased with the line-up at his till after the seminar. Information is one of those things that set us apart, and it is also one area where the box stores have trouble competing. 

To beat the box stores, you have to be noticeably different and better. Keep on the road to success and the rewards will be worthwhile. 

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years.  He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.