Recognizing an Opportunity (02:26)
Marijane Thomas didn't have a passion for plants when she started her business at age 24. But she knew Castle Rock was a growing community that didn't have a garden center, so there was huge sales potential. She decided to give it a try.
Seeking Knowledge (01:23)
Marijane was willing to admit when she didn't know something, and she tried to learn as much as possible along the way. She took community college classes to learn about the industry. People in the business were happy to offer help as well.
Starting With No Prior Experience (02:50)
Opening the garden center became a necessity when Marijane's husband lost his job. Within 30 days they had opened their business in an old gas station in a great location. With the help of family and friends they refurbished it in one weekend.
Acquiring Initial Inventory (02:29)
Marijane's father-in-law lent them $30,000 to start the business. They had to find vendors and get inventory quickly. Other garden center owners shared information. Today their weekly sales equal what they made in their entire first year.
Setting Up Shop (02:47)
After a few years they shortened their name to Castle Rock Gift & Garden. A sign vendor questioned Marijane's authority because she was so young. For the store layout, they had to work within the constraints of the gas station.
A Soft Launch (01:52)
There was no marketing campaign in the beginning. They just opened their doors and people found them, partly because they had beautified what had been an eyesore. They kept track of all the ways they could improve the following year.
Fighting the Bureaucracy (03:11)
Marijane often had to look up answers to customers' questions. People appreciated her honesty and they started getting regulars. Later, their expansion plans were halted by an endangered mouse. They almost gave up.
Path to Expansion (02:23)
The decision to expand was made in 1998 but they weren't able to get into their new building until 2001. The old building was bursting at the seams. They presented a detailed proposal to several banks and got the financing for the new building.
The New Facility (02:24)
The business now had 5 acres to fill with product. Every category was expanded, from trees to pottery. They built a playground to entertain children while parents shopped, which increased sales.
Dig In! (01:25)
During a drought in Colorado, Marijane helped produce a video about xeriscape gardening for local TV. A station later asked her to host a garden show. The award-winning show, now on FOX, helps people get started gardening.
Tips for Success (02:13)
To succeed in this industry, you need to be willing to jump in, and to ask others for help. Customer service isn't complicated: Be good to your customers and they will be good to you. Be honest. Insincerity doesn't work.
Lessons Learned from the Journey (02:20)
Marijane and her husband started their garden center in less than 30 days in a converted gas station with $30,000. Within 3 years they were ready to expand into a bigger facility. Vendors and other garden center owners were a big help.
More Lessons (00:60)
Take community college classes to educate yourself. Marijane started without much knowledge of or passion for plants. She saw the lack of a garden center in her area as a good business opportunity. She's learned a lot through experience.
Choosing a Location (01:59)
Garden centers require a lot of space, which can be expensive unless you locate away from high-traffic areas. But garden centers tend to be destination locations, so customers will come to you. Open space and ample parking are essential.
Having a Destination Location (01:12)
Unlike in a mall, people go to a garden center to spend quite a bit of time in that one store. Garden center customers want to spend money there because of their passion for gardening. Word of mouth advertising and repeat business are key.
Sizing Up the Competition (01:21)
If existing garden centers in the community aren't well-maintained, there may be room for competition. Having consistent hours, a wide range of product, and the knowledge to answer questions will earn customers' trust. People go there to get advice.
Financing the Business (02:15)
Banks will loan money to buy an existing building and land, but not to finance inventory. If money and space are limited, find vendors who are flexible about minimum quantities and who can fill orders quickly. Figuring inventory costs is not difficult.
Merchandising and Inventory Planning (02:17)
Stores should look full. Learn how to display your product to give the perception of being well-stocked. Getting financing requires that you show commitment and passion. Some vendors don't require payment until 30 days after delivery.
Working With Vendors is a Win-Win (01:54)
Starting a garden center in Colorado, you could probably manage with only a dozen different vendors. Developing relationships with vendors can help you cut costs. Ask questions and figure out every possible way to save money.
Managing Inventory (01:57)
Watering is the most important thing. Keeping inventory healthy and fresh is essential. You need employees who understand and care enough to keep plants well-watered and maintained. Automatic irrigation systems cut labor costs.
Product Turnover (01:43)
In a slow economy, people become do-it-yourselfers, cutting down on sales of larger trees. Containerized trees will start turning over faster. Good salespeople can increase sales by giving suggestions for complimentary products.
Learning About the Business (02:46)
There are national associations that publish guidelines for garden center owners regarding various costs of doing business. Good management minimizes plant loss. There are lots of good classes available from a variety of sources.
Ongoing Education (02:11)
The industry is constantly changing as new plant varieties and new products are developed, so there is always something new to learn. Customers want the newest, hottest plants. Growers are a great source of the latest information.
Commitment to the Business (02:36)
Knowledge of plants can be learned, but passion for customer service and running a business can't. People shop for plants based on color. They look to the garden center for advice on which varieties are best.
Consulting Versus Selling (02:52)
Consumers are looking for answers. Sometimes that means steering them away from a product. Having five products on the shelf for one purpose is confusing. Narrowing it down to one cuts your cost and makes life easier for staff and customers.
Additional Services (01:56)
Castle Rock works with the local library to put on gardening seminars. Selling big trees requires more labor, space, and equipment for delivery and the turnover is slower, so you have to decide if it's worth it.
Castle Rock doesn't deliver on weekends, when all staff are needed on site. Their policy is to call on Monday to schedule the delivery. Exceptions are made for special circumstances.
Licensing and Regulation (02:53)
Check with the Secretary of State's office to find out what's required to start any business. Garden centers also need licenses from the Department of Agriculture. Be sure the zoning rules of the local area will allow a garden center to operate.
Know Your Area (03:16)
Garden centers don't need environmental impact statements like large growers do. Nurseries generally make an area look more appealing. Homeowners' associations sometimes ban certain plants. Do your homework on local rules and laws.
Make the Most of the Space You Have (02:33)
A small nursery focusing on spring and summer annuals could do well in a high-traffic area of a city. In an outlying area with more land, a nursery can have more selection and more seasonal attractions. Parking needs vary greatly by season.
A point of sale (POS) system tracks inventory. Software will alert you to items that need reordering and those that aren't selling. Quick processing of sales is important to the positive customer experience.
Sources of Information (01:28)
Nursery trade journals are a good source of POS system information. The Independent Garden Center trade show held in Chicago in August has hundreds of vendors, offers seminars, and provides networking opportunities.
Operational Tips (02:10)
Merchandising and display is crucial, as is hiring the right people. Even little things matter, like offering plastic to protect the customer's car. Students are eager to apply for seasonal nursery work so there is no shortage of applicants.
Window of Opportunity (02:16)
Mid-April to July 4 is peak season in the nursery business. 85-90% of yearly sales are in that 10-week period. So having the right people managing major departments is critical. Cross-training is also important.
Retaining and Motivating Employees (02:09)
Department managers are highly knowledgeable about their area. It's not hard to retain good employees if you treat them right. A lot of them love their work, and being outside and active. Sales contests are good motivators.
"Buy two, get one free" offers are very popular. Figure out what drives customers into the store. Once there, they will buy. Direct mail is used heavily. Maintaining a customer database is essential for connecting with existing customers.
Be Part of the Community (03:02)
There is minimal use of social media for marketing. The main thing is to get creative with your marketing to draw customers during the non-peak months of the year. Castle Rock sponsors local sports programs and donates items for charities.
Advice To Someone Starting Out (01:27)
You have to be passionate, willing to make a commitment, and to make sacrifices. It won't be easy but it will be rewarding. To start a small nursery in an existing retail space would cost between $30,000 and $50,000 for inventory.
Summary of the Entrepreneur's Advice (02:09)
Get all the different licenses you need. Use industry specific software. Staffing needs vary by season. Go to industry trade shows.
Summary of the Entrepreneur's Advice, Continued (01:42)
Keep in touch with customers via mail. You need $30,000 to $50,000 for inventory to start. The industry is always changing. You need to have a passion for the business side of things in order to be successful.
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