Bucks Country Garden grows in value
Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, May 1, 2009
Tom Hebel loves to build things, so it isn’t surprising that when he decided to renovate Bucks Country Gardens 10 years ago, he demolished his showroom and started from the ground up. The result was enough room to get back into the outdoor furniture business and provide a shopping experience sure to entice the most discriminating customer.
“The true reward for me is not putting money into the bank, although that’s nice, too; it is having something we can be really proud of,” Hebel said. “We’ve been fortunate to build a business that is attractive, well staffed and well thought of.”
Located on 35 acres in the middle of Bucks County, Pa., the full-service garden center caters to an affluent demographic who come in for everything from live plants and casual furniture to landscaping services and home decor.
Hebel joined the business in 1981 when it was Royer’s Nursery and Greenhouses. A landscape architect, Hebel took over the landscape design services while the owner turned what had been a wholesale nursery into the beginnings of a garden center. Royers’ carried outdoor furniture in the mid-1980s but eventually dropped the category.
When the owner retired and sold the business to Hebel in 1993, he soon renamed it Bucks Country Gardens.
“We just didn’t have the footprint to be a full-service garden center and a major casual furniture showroom ... and we also didn’t have the appropriate warehouse, so we weren’t being very efficient in what we were doing,” Hebel said.
Although he didn’t more than double the size of his showroom in the 1999 remodel specifically to make room for outdoor furniture, when the 20,000-sq.-ft. space was completed adding back the category simply made sense.
Today, outdoor furniture makes up about 18% of Bucks Country Gardens’ retail revenue. When combined with Christmas and home decor under the umbrella of the company’s lifestyle department, it is the largest share at more than 25%.
Tweaking the brand
Like many retailers, Hebel approached the current season with caution only to be pleasantly surprised by the early traffic. His March outdoor furniture sales were up substantially.
“We sell a lot of high-end furniture and I thought, 'What if someone doesn’t want to spend $6,000 on a dining set?’ But that hasn’t been a problem,” he
said. “All of our March sales were up 15% over last year, and last March was a good year.”
At least some of the increase can be tracked to promotions.
“We are doing lots of things this year on a fairly regular basis with the intention of having our community talk about us in ways they may never have talked about us before,” Hebel said.
The intention, he explained, is not to change the company’s high-end brand but rather to expand its customer base by demonstrating that Bucks offers value for all.
“The message the last five years has been 'bigger and better — you’re making all this money, now come spend it.’ We didn’t say that specifically but that has been [the message sent by] everyone in retail,” Hebel said. “We aren’t sending that message anymore. Today we are sending the message that we have something for everybody.”
Part of the new campaign is a self-published magazine with spring and fall editions. Each department is featured with the overall content more educational than promotional, although there is a call to action. Hebel estimates that the spring edition costs about $30,000, including in-house costs, and that about two-thirds of that was defrayed by advertising by local businesses. If it generates sufficient response, the magazine will become a quarterly.
Although Hebel approached his outdoor furniture suppliers about advertising in the publication, they all declined.
In general, he would like to see all of his suppliers become more proactive in helping him and other retailers during the economic downturn.
“I don’t think it is any secret that in today’s economy we all have to be participatory,” he said. “What if a vendor came to me and said, 'Tom, I would really like to work with you. What can we do to increase your sales and our sales? I haven’t heard that from one [outdoor furniture] vendor this year with the exception of New River. I’ve heard it from almost every one of my green suppliers and quite a few of the hard goods and the nationals.”
In addition to the magazine, Hebel’s plans for stepping up marketing this season include significantly upgrading the company’s Web site to make it more interactive. He will continue his traditional outreach as well, with weekly full-page ads in the local newspaper, e-mail blasts and the Garden Rewards customer loyalty program in which customers receive a 3% return on annual purchases. If purchases total a rebate of less than $10, participating customers still receive a $10 coupon.
“In past years, we’ve sent out vouchers totaling between $75,000 and $100,000,” Hebel said. “It’s been very successful in terms of attracting people.
Since returning to the outdoor category, Bucks Country Gardens has done particularly well in sales of cast aluminum and wrought iron furniture. Although rockers and adirondack chairs from New River “sell themselves,” the number of customers coming in looking for wood gets smaller every year, Hebel said. The same holds true for sling furniture. “I can’t give it away,” he said.
Not surprisingly, teak and sling are big categories for two local competitors. Hebel has no problem referring customers to the competition for those items.
In peak season, Bucks Country Gardens employs up to 75 people. Its core staff includes 20 full-time employees and another 20 or so who are considered full time although they don’t work January and February. While many have been there for nearly 20 years, overall the staff is a mix of “lifers” and “transients” which Hebel appreciates.
“I endorse the idea that new blood is vital to any business that wants to stay on top,” he said.
Also vital he believes is learning from others in the industry — so much so, that last year he revamped his approach to managing his business after learning about the organizational structure of another garden center. He now works with a five-member team to manage all aspects of the business.
Much of the team’s focus is on creating an environment customers want to experience, from the trained and knowledgeable staff to a clean, well-organized showroom, paved walkways and pleasant music. The staff, the environment and the company’s active role in its community all combine to keep it thriving in any economy, Hebel said.
In fact, he believes the biggest challenge for his business and the garden center and outdoor furniture industries has nothing to do with the economy.
“It’s “How do we reach the next generation?” As we and our customers mature, we have to start talking a different language to a different generation, which puts some of us 50-plus-year-old people in a very uncomfortable situation,” he said.
In the meantime, he is inspired by the recession.
“It gives us the opportunity to set ourselves apart,” Hebel said.