Shopping the town’s farmer’s market didn’t take long… there were no vinyl record stores to be found… and the used book store only took a few minutes to explore. All that was left  to do was  visit garden centers. Google said there were three locations selling plants… one called a greenhouse and two called nurseries. All were located close to each other making them easy to find. The greenhouse location said Closed so I’m guessing it’s only open during the Spring. That left the two places called Nurseries.


A little back-story before we continue… it was a beautiful, blue sky, puffy white clouds, mid-70’s degree Saturday the end of June around noon in an Illinois community of decent size. The perfect garden center shopping day. I had just come off a three day tour of Milwaukee gardens and garden centers with GCA so retained that tour-mode expectation. While my visit to this Illinois community was personal rather than business, my expectation of companies representing our industry remained resolute.


The two companies I visited were open for business and had a number of things in common…
– neither company “owned” the market
After so many years in the industry it’s easy for me to know which garden center in any market is the top-dog just by the look, feel, smell, welcome and vibe… usually before I even get out of the car. With only two players in this community, you would think one of them would have stepped up to the challenge by now.


– neither one took annuals seriously
In spite of really nice retail greenhouse structures, the first stop was bare of annuals other than a few hanging baskets. It was no doubt a landscape focused retailer with blocks of B&B material and multiple bins of bulk material. Growing fields of evergreens and shade trees encompassed the property with plenty of delivery trucks lined up in waiting as if a parade was soon to begin.


Why do so many landscape firms believe that since they sell plants, all it takes to become a garden center is to have buildings, week-end hours, statuary and a couple of people in t-shirts? Plants are they only common denominator. Everything else is so unique the landscaper might just as well open a bagel shop.


The second location had annuals as long as shoppers could maneuver down a series of steps and squeeze through the narrow grower bench aisles into the historically preserved glass greenhouses. Once there, choices were relegated to overgrown, dried-out packs and a few small pots of veggies and herbs.
Retail Rules of the Road:
“The garden center that controls the market for annuals controls the market.”

– perennials at both locations were confined to a few benches and other than daylilies, were either out of bloom or out of season plants displayed in no rhyme or reason
Retail Rules of the Road:
“Annuals attract outdoor decorators… perennials attract gardeners. Garden centers need both to thrive.”

– all the major branded plant and plant care products were available
Retail Rules of the Road:
“The most important brand is you.”

– both locations had the ubiquitous, cobweb covered fairy garden products
Retail Rules of the Road:
“Just because it’s touted doesn’t make it true.”

– both locations had handouts promoting special events and seminars
Retail Rules of the Road:
“The only companies that should be doing special events and seminars are those that have learned how to make a profit selling inventory before doing special events and seminars.”

– neither locations had paved aisles in outdoor plant departments
Retail Rules of the Road:
“The easier it is to shop, the more that people buy.”

– both locations had industry provided plant variety signs on some plants, hand-written price signs on others
– both locations had two staff people on call… inside the store
– neither locations were running any advertising the cashiers knew of when asked
– both locations posted Revolutionary 100 plaques


And the over-powering similarity these centers had in common on a beautiful, blue sky, puffy white clouds, mid-70’s degree Saturday the end of June around noon on the perfect garden center shopping day…


…they both had just one customer car in their parking lot.


And both owners were probably wondering when the economic recession was going to end.