Starting Up – Your Water Garden Business?

Rivergate Store
Rivergate Store

When did you start a water garden business?

Jack and I started our business in 1991. We are a family owned business. I had a landscaping company and I had a client with a water garden. It was more of a cement pond. He grew water lilies and iris. Jack liked ponds and put one in our garden. When we went to visit my client/friend that grew water lilies he showed us a catalog (Lilypons) in which you could order the water lilies bare root and pot them yourself. He invited Jack over to help him divide the water lilies, which he planted in galvanized tubs.

Jack came home with a mountain of Pseudocorus iris and he potted them to sell at the local garden show. They sold like hot cakes. So we dug a pond on my families’ farm to grow waterlilies in potted containers and sell straight to the public. Two more greenhouses were added for marginal plants. We built our fish containments and became known in a very short time. Our location is somewhat rural and the decision was made to add the hardware and expand to wholesale almost immediately. We Delivered our plants by our own truck, and shipping UPS.

What led you to start a retail business? You were already an established aquatic plant grower and product wholesaler correct? Was there a need in your area for a retail water garden store?

Our forte was always customer service. In the beginning we were always telling people how to grow and manage a pond, whether they were retail or wholesale. Information was hard to come by and the annual IWGS symposiums were all there was for water gardeners to learn and share problems. We also attended many AKCA events and learned all we could about selling and holding fish. Then Pondapalooza came out for commercial growers and wow, what a difference a decade made. It truly amazes me how much material is available now for people to learn how to grow a water garden or that there was so little available when we first started.

Expanding the retail operation allowed us to concentrate on promoting water gardening and koi ponds. We began to offer pottery and water features to sell. This created a wider variety of sales and a longer selling season. Since our location was somewhat rural, we took up an offer to open a store closer to a small city outside of Nashville. This store was not as difficult to manage as we thought. Good employees allowed us to service both locations.

We still offer wholesale and deliver plants from Atlanta to Chicago. But it seems the water garden industry is still changing and has not quite decided where it will end up. Garden centers that thought they wanted to carry water plants found that if a qualified employee is not there to manage it, the plants and sales of water gardening in general suffered.

The option was to go into a garden center and manage the water plant division ourselves, or open multiple locations to service the water plant enthusiast. We really think it looks like the water garden industry will go back to being the specialty stores, where qualified sales people can offer you the just right solution for any of your aquatic projects.

Did you have to rent a building/land of did you buy it?

We have both. The first location is in a building we share with another company that sells stone and nursery stock. The new location is a piece of property with a home we are buying. It is an acre lot with lots of room to expand.

Are you located in a high traffic area or is your business a destination?

I think all water garden stores are a destination point. But the new locations are both in higher traffic locations.

Did you advertise in the beginning? How did you advertise? (Newspaper/TV/Cable/mail/radio/billboards)?

We have used TV and Cable both for our newest location. We also display at a local home and garden show (with 27000 attendees) and announce our new locations there. We use our mail list to send announcements and newsletters. And we have also updated our web site with new features and search engine capabilities.

Did you join any local business groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce to become part of your local regional business community? If so has it helped?

Yes we did join the local Chamber of commerce. Since we were new to the community we wanted to show that we were a good company to have in the community and sponsor the area. This particular Chamber has been incredibly supportive. We had a ribbon cutting ceremony, which was featured on their web site and in their local paper. We also attended their morning breakfast. At 7:00 AM I was surprised at the number of attendees. It was a joint Chamber event with the Chamber in the next community. We advertised our fall sale and promoted Christmas sales at the new garden center. So I feel it has been beneficial and is low cost advertisement.

What type of inventory did you start out with and why? (Shoestring or full stock)

We started with a fully stocked store. It shows the customers you are serious about being in business and capable of fulfilling their needs. If we don’t have something in stock, we are capable of getting it for the customer.

What kind of accounting inventory software did you decide on? Why? Any problems?

Our original POS system is DAC Easy. It was put in place before QuickBooks had a POS. It is equipped with accounting and payroll. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles I would like, but my entire staff is familiar with the system. I felt we would have enough on our plate working out the logistics of running three stores without the added stress of incorporating a new POS.

When did you realize it was time to expand and start multiple locations? Was it easier the second and third time around or did each site present a new set of challenges?

In our second location we were asked if we wanted to rent a space next to an existing stone yard. The owner of the stone yard was looking to rent out part of his warehouse and thought water gardeners would be a nice fit. The new location was more convenient for our clientele.

As we saw the shift in water gardening industry from quality merchandise and plant material and qualified sales people to those that were less interested in the hobby and more interested in quick profit, we came to a decision to promote water gardening as we knew it to be. A lot of education is still needed to help the customer decide what kind of pond they really want. So many customers have a pond built which they had no intention of maintaining. Or they are trying to maintain a pond that is not structurally built for the application in which they want to use it. I ask my customers, what is it you want for your environment? Do you like the flowers, the fish or just the look and sound? How much maintenance are you willing to devote your time or your staff’s time to?

It was somewhat easier by the third location. We knew what we wanted: a large enough facility to accommodate displays and gardens and to expand for future growth.

How do you hire train motivate employees? Do you hold group training sessions, employee meetings etc.?

Most of my employees are hired as seasonal help. I find most of my employees through the state unemployment, some through the local community and some word of mouth. At fist glance the job description is a little unconventional. People don’t know they are going to like it until they have tried it for a while. It is a good fit for some people, others it is not. That is why we start on a temporary basis. Some people are hired with the saying, “if you are standing and breathing, we’ll put you to work.” Ironically, one of these employees has turned out to be our longest lasting employee. Most of them receive on the job training. We have sent employees to Pondapalooza and we circulate as much reading material we can. Although there is always more time that should be spent on employee training and I will occasionally give training sessions on sales and time management. We also offer once a year safety meetings.

Do you rotate employees around to various locations when you need to?

Yes, that is one of the reasons we kept the same POS system for all locations.

What are some of the challenges of operating multiple locations? What are some of the benefits?

The challenge is keeping inventory stocked at all the locations. We run delivery once a week and some times twice during the height of the season. We are constantly sending products with anyone who is heading in that direction.

The benefits are customer enthusiasm and sales. When we were under construction at the Rivergate location, people would drive by and honk and wave. Many people were excited about the new store and could not wait for us to open. Their enthusiasm overflowed to the employees and to the existing stores.

Tips for others who are considering opening a store or expanding to open multiple locations.

Check on the demographics of the locations and know there is a need for your services. Have an advertising plan. And have capable staff to manage the present locations while the new locations are under construction. Be prepared for long days.

But most of all, be prepared to handle the unexpected. Glitches will come up. Problems will arise. If you maintain your optimism and enthusiasm and sense of humor, you can develop from the situation and learn to grow with it. Then you know you’ve done a good job.

About the Author

Cathy Green began her horticultural industrial career in 1983 as an arborist and started a landscaping company specializing in organic fertilization, biological and botanical disease and pest control.

Green & Hagstrom Inc. was formed in 1991. Presently the company has three locations and carries over two hundred varieties of aquatic plants, a large selection of fish, including all sizes of imported and domestic koi, goldfish, and shibunkins plus is a distributor of water garden supplies. We carry our own line of water garden products: the Highland Rim Aquatic Plant Fertilizer, Highland Rim Fish Food and Highland Rim Dechlorinator.

Cathy and Jack Green exhibit widely at water gardening shows and koi shows. They have won the ” Reflections Award ” on two occasions for their water garden design at the Nashville Lawn and Garden Show. Cathy has been featured on television in a Tennessee Crossroads presentation, on the Volunteer Gardener, and on the radio shows “Pond Talk” and “Tennessee Gardener”. She has authored numerous articles in magazines such as Pondkeeper, Watergardening, and Horticulture and newsletters.

Cathy holds the position of president of the Horticultural Association of Tennessee. She is a board member of the International Waterlily and Water Garden Society

One Response to Starting Up – Your Water Garden Business?

  1. Mike Ellis August 3, 2017 at 6:09 PM #

    How is your business currently? 2017? I had an aquarium store for 17 years. After that I worked part time at two different pond stores both of which went out of business after I had already quit. I started part time doing mostly maintenance on ponds and water fountains. That was over 12 years ago each year seemed to get better. Beside maintenance I also install equipment, sell livestock, some plants, replace liners, etc.
    I have wanted to open a retail pond store for sometime now. What do you think about a retail operation when alot of retail is going to the internet? I kind of agree that a pond store is a destination point unlike many other retail store.

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