Wayne Childers, owner of New Hope Greenhouse in Gastonia and an industry veteran of more than three decades, used to be a mentor for aspiring garden center owners.
Industry groups would send them by the dozens to Childers’ five acres, in the backyard of his parents’ house.
“I’d say, ‘I’m going to tell you what you’re going to face in this business,’” recalls Childers, 60, who started his business in 1978. “You’re going to spend sleepless nights in the greenhouse, worrying about your crop. You’re going to have employee problems. Are you sure you want to be in this business?”
Once they nodded, he’d say: “Well, you’ve got to love it. You’ve got to put your heart and soul into it.
“And,” he’d add, “be creative.”
Creativity is what has kept Childers in business, as big-box stores with garden centers such as Lowe’s, Home Depot and Wal-Mart, continue to take more and more market share from small-business owners like himself.
These days he does more than sell plants. In fact, landscaping accounts for nearly 80 percent of his business. And in the off-season, Childers supplements poinsettia sales with a full-blown brick-and-mortar Christmas shop, chock-full of gift baskets, ornaments and all things Christmas decor.
He and his eight employees are even being paid to install holiday lights and decorations for businesses and individuals this year.
“You have to change or you won’t stay in business,” said Childers. “My employees know I may come in one morning and say, ‘We’re going to do something different.’”
Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association, said hundreds of independent nurseries around the country have been forced to change their business models and tactics to account for the rapidly changing industry.
Hardware stores and lumber yards were the first small businesses to feel the pain of the big-box stores’ home centers, Butterfield said. Now, the garden centers’ profits are hurting.
Independent garden centers that once boasted of 30 to 40 percent of total market share in the 1990s now account for just 17 percent, Butterfield said.
Big-box home centers and mass merchandisers, on the other hand, have nearly 50 percent of the market on do-it-yourself lawn and garden products, plants, trees and shrubs, Butterfield said.
Many independent nurseries have closed because of it. Others, Butterfield said, are moving toward a niche offering. And others, such as Childers, are diversifying – which is exactly what entrepreneurs hoping to survive and thrive in today’s volatile industry must do.
Survival in the off-season
Though winter is a surprisingly good time to plant trees and shrubs, most people aren’t thinking about landscaping while they’re doing holiday shopping, Childers said. But it’s still important to sustain business in those tough winter months.
And if the weather is an issue during the height of the busiest season ( such as the torrential downpours the Charlotte area saw this spring and summer), it’s even more important to stay alive in the off-season.
“Most garden centers do business for 90 to 100 days of the year, in spring and early summer,” Butterfield said. “That’s when you’re making most of your money for the year. ...You get three or four rainy weekends in the spring and you’re in trouble.”
Childers’ Christmas store helps him do that.
Butterfield said garden centers in Europe, particularly in Great Britain, have long embraced the holiday market.
They’re usually the ones selling Christmas trees – live and pre-lit – and they coordinate special offerings for children, including skating rinks.
“They try to be the holiday center, and that’s one way for them to distinguish themselves from the big-box stores,” he said. “You’ve got to have more than ‘Silent Night’ on the sound system to sell Christmas.”
Childers’ shop, which he opened for the first time in 1998, definitely does. Browsing customers get apple cider, coffee and old-fashioned candy.
Evergreen- and cinnamon-scented candles heighten the mood, and a large toy train circles the counter.
“It’s got a whistle and kids love it,” Childers said.
And customers can expect regular door prizes, promotions and a plethora of North Carolina goods, from apple butter to jam.
A special touch needed
But even the Christmas shop has been in a battle with the big-box stores.
When they first opened in 1998, Childers sold poinsettias, artificial trees and ornaments. Then Michaels and Hobby Lobby took most of that market share.
Childers then started cutting live Christmas trees in the mountains and bringing them to the shop to sell alongside the poinsettias.
“Then they built a Food Lion beside us selling for $29.99, what I was selling for $49.”
Back to the drawing board.
“It’s hard for (independent) garden centers to compete on price,” Butterfield said, adding that big-box stores have greater purchasing power and also aren’t afraid to have loss-leaders.
That’s why small businesses have to “go specialty” and do what the big-box retailer cannot do.
So about three years ago, they started phasing in North Carolina products to cater to people who want to give local gifts to loved ones.
They’ve been a big hit, Childers said.
And, he said, there aren’t many big-box stores that are putting up Christmas lights for people.
Foot traffic comes when you get more creative, Childers said: “I can’t do it all. But I’ve got to do what’s different.”
McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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