Longfellow's Greenhouses: Customer Connection
Longfellow's Greenhouses in Manchester, Maine, thrives on developing solid relationships with its customers.
September 24, 2008
Lawrence Longfellow grew up in the greenhouse and garden center business with his father, uncle and brother. Being a seasonal business only, it wasn’t the family’s main source of income. The doors would open in May, close the first week in June, and that was that.
But Longfellow knew it had the potential to be something bigger, and in the mid 1970s, he went out on his own, found a big, flat field and started his own business with his wife, Mavis. Longfellow’s Greenhouses officially opened for business in 1977. It’s now owned by Longfellow’s son, Scott, and Scott’s wife, Sandy.
“It was much more conservative in many ways then,” Scott recalls about his father’s business. He had worked there fresh out of college. “We weren’t that much into the extra lines like perennials. At that time they were a very small part of our business. People were just starting to even know what a perennial was.”
In the early years, Longfellow’s essentially was a spring business with a few seasonal items like poinsettias and Easter lilies thrown in the mix. “It was a different time then, too, in terms of what people bought,” notes Scott. “Consumers had different buying habits at that time – much more conservative than they are today.”
Now Longfellow’s is a bustling, year-round business with continuous plant sales and a gift department, too, thanks in part to a major overhaul on the retail side of the business in the mid 1990s.
“We had a small retail store and smaller parking area, and we knew we were way undersized for the potential business that was in the market in the area,” says Scott.
He and Sandy enlisted garden center consultant Ian Baldwin to help with the planning, redesign and new focus of the business. Three greenhouses came down, making room for a larger parking area and bigger retail store, which opened in the spring of 1994.
Before that, the wholesale growing side of the business had been expanding, too, going from 12 production greenhouses to almost 20.
Now Longfellow’s has approximately two acres of growing space, and the retail store encompasses about 9,000 square feet. There’s also a two acre area of outdoor retail space. In total, the business sits on 14 acres.
Extending The Season
Spring is still the biggest season for Longfellow’s, but Scott says they’ve really been pushing hard on the summer crops, too, including a crop of perennials they pot up in early June. “We’re trying to extend the season with fresh product, and it’s been a good success for us,” he says.
Approximately 95 percent of what Longfellow’s sells also is grown there, excluding trees and shrubs. While flats sales seem to have plateaued, 6- and 8-inch annuals have done especially well in recent years, as have hanging baskets, according to Scott. Plants make up about two-thirds of all the sales at Longfellow’s, but they also sell an array of outdoor living products and gifts, as well as gardening tools and pest control products.
In 2003, Longfellow’s began using SIMPOS point-of-sale (POS) software, and Scott says it’s been extremely helpful. “It really gives us a better handle on profitability and also what is happening with our season, and what has happened in past years,” he says. “It’s a great tool for us to help our business.”
He also says the loyalty club has been beneficial, giving the garden center a way to connect with its customers. Members receive a number of perks, including a $10 coupon for every $250 they spend, as well as an extended, two-year guarantee on trees and shrubs.
But, Longfellow’s benefits from the program, too. The biggest perk for the garden center, according to Scott, is the list of 7,000 e-mail addresses, which they use to send promotions and newsletters to their customers. “We’re careful not to overload them, but we’re finding that to be quite successful,” says Scott. “When we do something with that e-mail message, we do get response back, so we know people are reading them. It’s definitely a nice, inexpensive way to contact our customers.”
Longfellow’s has an interesting philosophy when it comes to selling, and it’s a philosophy Scott thinks his customers really appreciate.
“We aren’t suggestive sellers at all – we’re a bit conservative in that nature, and that’s OK with me,” he says. “I know some places want to try to add on sales, but to me, it’s OK to do it, but only when they need it. It’s not my objective to try to get people to buy stuff they don’t need.”
The employees Longfellow’s hires fit perfectly into that philosophy, too, and Scott is proud of his friendly, hard-working staff. “We’re actually a very conservative, quiet group, but I think they rise to the occasion when there’s a customer that needs help, and they will just be extremely friendly,” he says. “They’re quite knowledgeable, too, and customers find that very valuable.”
Friendly, knowledgeable employees aren’t the only reason customers enjoy shopping at Longfellow’s. The garden center ensures customers don’t have to wait in long lines or struggle to find parking places during peak season. Longfellow’s is all about speedy service for its customers.
“When they’re ready to check out, we’re right on it,” Scott says. “During busy parking times, we have attendants out in the parking lot helping them find a parking space and making that process more simple for them ... Peoples’ time is very valuable.”
Surviving And Thriving
As for the future, Scott sees the independents like Longfellow’s surviving and even thriving – as long as they continue to improve in the areas of service and quality. He thinks there’s a good future for the business, and he doesn’t buy into the idea that gardening will die with the Boomers.
“I’m not all caught up in the generational thing like a lot of people are,” he says. “I think a lot of those people are young – the Ys and Xs – and they just haven’t gotten to the point in their lives where gardening is important to them.” He adds he’s doubtful many Boomers were doing a lot of gardening when they were in their twenties, either.
“I think people have an internal need to garden. I think it’s just something in us,” he says. “We’ve had a long winter and we’ve got to go out and get our hands dirty, and there’s a period of time it’s still too cold to go camping and go to the beach, or whatever people like to do in the summer, so there’s a perfect opportunity in the spring for that to happen. Gardening is a great way to enjoy the outdoors in that particular period of time, so I’m optimistic.”
Ann-Marie Vazzano is managing editor of American Fruit Grower magazine, a Meister publication.