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Growing beyond the garden

Alsip Home & Nursery was founded in 1969 as a premier garden center in Frankfort, Ill.

Cheryl Cullen -- Casual Living, September 1, 2008

Alsip store display
Alsip left wicker furniture on display during the fourth quarter last year and found customers with three-season rooms who were looking for product. The test was so successful, the store will display grills and wicker furniture year-round again this year.

Alsip Home & Nursery was founded in 1969 as a premier garden center in Frankfort, Ill., a suburb south of Chicago. Nearly 40 years later, Alsip competes as a complete garden center also offering outdoor furnishings, holiday and pet supplies.

Each summer, the store boasts a full line of outdoor grills and patio furniture from companies that include Lloyd/Flanders, NorthCape International, Hanamint, Tropic Zone, Meadowcraft and Agio. Last year, Alsip tested a new approach with its outdoor living product.

“We left some wicker furniture out during the fourth quarter and found there are a lot of people with three-season rooms who are still looking for product, which is difficult to find in the off-season,” said Bob Lindstrom, marketing director.

The test was so successful they'll be leaving out grills and wicker furniture again this year.

“We stay up on trends and stick our neck out more than the average person,” Lindstrom said. “We'll show some things that are a little chancy, but a lot of times those pay off for us.”

Lindstrom credits Alsip's success to its unique product line.

“We try to be a category killer in our area,” he said. “Our selection is broader than the big boxes. Big boxes will carry one-third of what we show on the floor.”

May is Alsip's biggest month, with April and June also strong. “We start to get our shipments in any time after January and into February. The faster we can get set up, the sooner sales kick off,” said Lindstrom, who has 120 employees working in the Frankfort location at its peak.

So busy is the nearly 100,000-sq.-ft store every May, the Chicago area's biggest planting season, customers are hard-pressed to find a parking space.

In 2007, Alsip added a 28,000-sq.-ft. greenhouse onto the existing facility. The move necessitated overhauling the existing parking lot and tearing down outbuildings. The expansion added growing space, increased the parking lot and gave the store more exposure with the new greenhouse highly visible from the road.

“It was a facelift that was needed,” Lindstrom said.

Alsip isn't just a seasonal greenhouse. It gets year-round use. In November, the greenhouse is set up to sell live Christmas trees.

“It makes it easy to shop so while some people may still prefer the outdoor experience of picking out a tree, there are those who like picking out a tree here, comfortably, no matter what the weather is,” Lindstrom said.

After the holidays, Alsip uses the massive greenhouse to do its own growing in preparation for the busy planting season to come. But Alsip isn't all about outdoor living and plants. It also carries a wide selection of pets and supplies, wild bird feed/feeders, silk florals and specialty toys. Until this January, it also offered home décor.

Alsip Signage
Alsip built its reputation on its garden center, but has expanded over the years to include patio furniture, a large pet department, silk floral department and more.

“We looked at our business and asked 'what are our core businesses?' and 'where is our growth going to be?' In January 2008, we eliminated home decor,” Lindstrom said.

As home decor was dropped, virtually every department left standing was moved to a new location for better positioning and expansion. The most notable move was the pet department, which was expanded and enhanced to include pet grooming. “For us, it is a year-round business and pet supplies are a real breadwinner for us in the slow months of January and February,” Lindstrom said. “Every year it has grown for us, which evens out the business that otherwise has a lot of peaks and valleys.”

Alsip boasts the slogan “The Best of Every Season” and uses its slower months of January and February to ready the store for its peak selling season.

“Some of our expansion categories have shown tremendous growth,” Lindstrom said. “There's been a lot of pessimism out there due to the lagging economy, but we're still looking at it as opportunities even though we don't have a lot of necessity goods. We can finish out the year with an increase. Going into Christmas is an opportunity for us.”

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