Retailing in the Water Garden Business: Two Different Perspectives

Published on November 7, 2007

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###FROM THE DESK OF GUS COLLIER:###

I almost found it laughable when I was approached at this years’ Pondapaloosa in Savannah by *Pondkeeper Magazine* to do an article about retailing in the water garden business. I have never thought of myself as a retailer. I have more or less backed into the retail business because of my new water garden construction venture. So to have any credibility here, let me set the record straight—I am first and foremost an irrigation/sod contractor and have been in this business for twenty years in and around Richmond, Virginia.

My primary focus is volume work for residential developers and home builders as well as commercial developments, shopping centers, churches, etc. Then several things came together for me. First, an article in the local irrigation trade magazine telling irrigators to pay attention to the emerging water garden business; i.e. you could do a $4,500 pond in one day with a 50% gross margin. Not being good in math (it took me 5 years to pass Algebra I & II alone) even I knew this was worth looking at!

Second, while researching this new business one of my stops was the Philadelphia Flower Show. The show absolutely blew me away! I saw displays that only heaven can create. Eight were over the top water features including a working water mill complete with a bayou swamp, cattails and all! Then it hit me, these awesome, expensive displays would be torn down in five days—what wasted money and effort. Back in Richmond, Virginia (Powhatan County) I had 5,000 square feet of office/warehouse space in my building not leased and right then and there I decided I was going to create the Philadelphia Flower Show right here in Richmond in that vacant space and be open 5 days a week all year long. I realized then that you had to display the water features in order for the average person to visualize and understand exactly what we are selling them and with a price tag on it there is no sticker shock.

I went back home and announced to my brother (he works with me) that we have been putting water underground for twenty years and now we are going to put it above ground in the form of water features starting with an indoor showroom in our unleased office warehouse space! After he picked himself off the floor, he said “Bro, you’ve done crazier things than this,” and we started to work. That was in January 2004.

Well, we built it and they did come. We even won the Richmond Home Builders Association annual ‘Best Vendor’s Showroom’ award two years in a row. In spite of the buzz we created a few roadblocks were thrown in our way. My office building is located in the back of an office park and while we had signs on the main highway the public could find us if they were looking. However, the county came along and made us take down our signs, which, of course, was crippling for the business. As luck would have, it a three-acre parcel including a house directly on the major highway heading west out of Richmond, Virginia became available for lease. This is also directly across from our office park. I was able to take advantage of this three-year lease and saw it as the perfect opportunity to promote my business with high visibility. It was a classic ‘extreme makeover’ as commuters watched the transformation of an old house on an overgrown lot into a show stopping destination spot full of waterfalls, fountains and lush gardens. The day the sod was laid brakes were squealing and we were hi-fiving each other with exuberance.

Like the real estate industry slogan goes “location, location, location…” Retailing to me is “displays, displays, displays…” That is why, we, at Collier Water Garden Center have gone to great effort, expense and time to create the most impressive displays we can. Also, early on we decided to carry everything associated with water features including service to become branded as a one-stop shop. Location and displays have given us the credibility and image with the public that we are the go-to source for anything related to water gardening. Every customer we have built a feature for has visited us repeatedly for plants, fish, treatments, yard art, etc. to enhance their new hobby.

Since our relocation thirteen months ago sales are up 300% year to date which validates my theory…displays, displays, displays,…and more displays!

###Gus Collier thinks HUGE, by Callie Hancock###

I was hired to work for The Collier Companies in December of 2005. My job description was vague but basically I was to hang out in a fabulous indoor Waterfall Showroom and talk to customers who happened by about ponds. OK, I thought, I can do this. Fifteen years of working in a retail setting prepared me for anything, or so I thought.

Two weeks later in January 2006 I came on board, and everything had changed. Gus had an idea! Previously the county we are located in had made us remove our signs from the road, drastically cutting back on our customer foot traffic. Meanwhile, just across the highway was a razed dirt lot with nothing but an old vacant house in the middle with a wonderful sloping grade to the road and a “For Rent” sign out front. We were moving—-Collier Water Garden Center was born!

While I was trying to beef up my pond knowledge (what’s a fitting, GPH, good bacteria?!) and learn our products, the house and yard around me were being transformed. Three show-stopping water features were installed, full landscaping, irrigation and sod all in record time; my first displays were in place.

The first thing I noticed about the Water Garden Industry was that the people in it are awesome. Everyone I bumbled and stumbled into helped me learn something new. As Water Gardening continues to emerge in the mass consumer market the people that work in the industry continue to work together. The mindset is different from most retail markets. In water gardening the competition is friendly, it is recognized that the more we share ideas and push each other to greatness, the more we will all benefit. Every happy customer we produce brings more attention to our industry as a whole, just by word of mouth! The next thing I learned was even though our initial splash was spectacular, I needed to keep my customers coming back. I needed more displays and more product. I needed knowledgeable, friendly staff and great customer service. I needed to have educational seminars, build a pond days, photo contest, pond groups: Basically I needed customer interaction. But one of my biggest challenges is to improve on a show yard that was already perfect!

Since we opened our doors in the new location in June of 2006 we have grown by leaps and bounds. Where we once had a few standard aquatic plants, we now have multiple custom-built plant tables and a very large selection of plants to choose from; I think there may even be a greenhouse in my future! Our few goldfish have turned into multiple varieties of koi, goldfish, the odd shark and snail and the high-end imported koi (that still make me nervous). We have a rock yard full of a variety of natural stone and boulders. The simple cash register has been replaced by a super high tech POS system that I’m told will change my life.

When I look around the yard now and remember how it was, I am in awe. We have a ‘Gift Garden,’ a nicely laid out and fully operational ‘Fountain Garden,’ a formal ‘Herb Garden,’ handmade wooden pergolas that shadow our Disappearing Fountain Display and a fenced in ‘Pottery Garden’ surrounded by tall arborvitaes and climbing vines. Our newest display features the work of a local artist with his new line of garden art including “Funky Feeder” birdfeeders, fountains and metal sculptures and statuary; all unique and one of a kind! Everywhere I look I see displays that have evolved (sometimes multiple times) into what they are now. And I also see how I can change them, improve them, grow!

Our customer interaction goals are improving as well. We hold free seminars in our indoor showroom on every aspect of water gardening, “Do It Yourself Days” with hands on “how to” demonstrations, we have an annual photo contest, Build A Pond Days and the chance for customers that purchase kits to win a build a pond day at their home (free labor), Holiday Open Houses; we want to be put on Richmond’s tacky light tour this year, special promotions for members of our mailing list, and that’s just to name a few. My enthusiastic co-workers are all as excited with the vision of our company as I am, so the ideas never stop. So far the hardest part has been finding the time to fit in everything we would like to do.

My favorite part of retail is the people. The people I am lucky enough to work with, the people in the industry that fuel my ideas, my visionary boss who has entrusted me to bring his idea to life, but most of all, my customers. I have had people visit our WaterGarden Center that simply look at me and say “wow!” Some come for the peace of water, to ease their troubles, some come for ideas to help them with their own creations. But most say that they just had to stop and see for themselves what we have to offer.

We are off to a great start at the Collier Water Garden Center. The first full season has been profitable and filled us with more ideas for when we move. When we move? Mr. Collier only dreams big! Before we had even opened our doors in our current location he had a contract on 22 acres down the road. Our plans for the “new property” have begun. We see a café in the middle of an existing pond, a trellised boardwalk with a farmers market, an event place for weddings, corporate meetings, etc., storefronts for all things ‘outdoor living’, greenhouses, stone-mulch-dirt yard; knowing Gus, that is just the beginning!

We are continuing to utilize our indoor showroom for garden club meetings, office parties, birthday parties and even the occasional wedding. Everything continues to evolve around here sometimes before we even have time to notice. So I tighten my life jacket, smile and hold on, it’s sure to be quite a ride!

###About the Authors###
**Gus Collier**
Collier Water Garden Center
1438 Anderson Highway
Powhatan, VA 23139
804-897-9465
chancock@collierirrigation.com

**Callie Hancock** is the general manager of Collier Water Garden Center, a division of Collier Companies, located in Powhatan VA. Collier Water Garden Center is a full-scale retail pond center offering customers everything from plants and fish to fountains and unique garden art. Callie worked at LandAmerica as a computer systems trainer from 2002-4. However, her experience as a pharmacy technician at the Midlothian Apothecary for 15 years has prepared her well for the current position. While relatively new to the water garden industry, she has attended multiple classes and seminars and has spoken to area garden clubs on different aspects of water gardening.

Contact information:
chancock@collierirrigation.com
Phone: (804) 897-9465
Fax: (804) 897-9466
Website: www.thecolliercompanies.com

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