H.J. Benken Florist & Greenhouse: A Family Tradition

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H.J. Benken Florist & Greenhouse: A Family Tradition

What does it mean when there are no oil stains in your parking lot? Or when you see a Ferrari and Porsche regularly parked outside the front door?

It means you have a pretty darned upscale clientele, and you’d better have a quality product to fit their needs. That’s the evolution H.J. Benken Florist & Greenhouse in Cincinnati is going through at the present. Development around the 68-year-old operation has brought in high profile retail shops and expensive homes, including the wealthy Village of Indian Hill, where the median home value sits at $910,000.

Those relatively new additions to the area have put the garden center at a turning point. To understand the future, though, you have to know the history.

From Florist Roots

The operation started out in 1939 as a florist in the small town of Silverton, Ohio, outside the Cincinnati area. Founders Harry and Johanna Benken expanded the business by building more greenhouses, and when the children began to take over the operation, moved into wholesale growing, as well.

In the 1970s, the shift was on to retail plants, as well as sell them wholesale. Current owners Michael and Kathy Benken are the third generation to own the operation, buying it in 1997, and they have focused on the retail garden center, florist and greenhouse growing aspects of the business. The company no longer wholesales, and the retail garden center has outpaced the florist section in profits.

But the roots of the business came up from wholesale and growing, so the growing focus remains. General Manager Tim Clark, who is the fourth generation to be involved in the business, says future plans call for a new growing range to replace and expand the existing facilities.

“Our heritage is in the growing, where you can control the quality,” Clark says. “If you go outside, you don’t always get that. And, as much as we’ve turned into a garden center, people still consider us a greenhouse.”

The business has become even more multi-faceted, as well. Clark’s brother, John, is the foreman of the landscape section of the business, and his sister, Kate, is on the operations side managing human resources, payroll and other duties.

A Fresh Look

With some help from The Garden Center Group, management at Benken came up with a five-year master plan to reinvigorate the operation. First steps included tearing down three greenhouses to create an open area for perennials, trees and shrubs, says owner Mike Benken.

Other changes included tearing down internal walls within the main retail building to give customers a better line of vision, so they could see more of what the retailer had to offer as soon as they walked in. Employees were charged with the task of building wooden benches in their off time, as well as creating better landscape appearances and painting walls.

They added a new, unique Rough Brothers sawtooth angled-roof structure to cover the shade perennials, but still allow for air flow. “We didn’t want it to look like everybody else’s wooden-covered shade structures,” Benken adds.

H.J. Benken Florist & Greenhouse

Owners: Mike & Kathy Benken

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio

First Established: 1939

Size: 5 acres

Annual Sales: $4 million

Web site:  www.benkens.com

Perennial sales increased 12 percent after the addition of the new structure, says Tim Clark.

Another addition that has increased profits and improved the overall look and atmosphere of the retail store is packaging plants in branded Benken pots. For more details on the benefits, see “Being The Brand.”

This spring, the main retail floor was converted into a modified racetrack structure for ease of shopping. Though Clark says the layout isn’t perfect and there are still more modifications to come, it’s definite progress.

At the present, most of the benches include castor wheels, so they can be moved at will for greater flexibility on the sales floor. The back fence, too, can collapse to bring it closer to the retail structure in off-peak times, closing in the amount of space on the sales floor.

Decisions on product mix and placement were made, creating more room for garden accents at the front of the store and moving silks closer to cut flowers and the floral department. Also, new purple shirts were implemented to allow customers to easily identify employees.

Special touches like someone in the herb department making pesto finish off the new additions.

Attracting New Customers

Over the years, the management at Benken has tried different tactics to bring in new customers. Those included fall festivals and other seasonal events open to the general public that in the end, ate up more time and money than they brought in.

The focus has now changed to hosting specific events that have been winners in the past. A few of those include fund-raisers for local charities. One was a 1970s-themed party called Flower Power that drew 200 people last September. It was a fund raiser for the Aubrey Rose Foundation, created after a 5-year-old girl who died of a heart and lung ailment.

The other was for a Labrador retriever rescue group, in which customers who came in that day received 20 percent off garden center purchases. The events were very successful, both for the garden center and the fund-raising groups.

Being The Brand

Those at H.J. Benken Florist & Greenhouse, like many other garden center owners and managers, realize the value of their own brand. That’s why they’ve decided to make their own brand the most visible in the store, having annuals and perennials grown in Benken branded pots.

The plastic pots come from Dillen Products, and the garden center supplies the logo and other material to go on the pot. Everything grown at Benken is grown in the pot, and much of the contract-grown vegetative annuals go in the pots, too – especially customer-favorites geraniums and New Guinea impatiens.

Benken doesn’t carry the same sizes as other retailers, opting for quart and gallon-sized pots instead. Since implementing the self-branding program, management has been able to raise the prices of quart pots from $4.99 to $5.99 with little resistance from the customers.

“We tried to set ourselves apart from other garden centers – certainly Lowe’s and Home Depot, but also from the Natorp’s (in the area),” explains general manager Tim Clark.

In that vein, Benken also forwent the traditional flat, opting instead to sell everything in pots. The smallest item sold is a 4-inch peat pot that sits in a tray.

The new customer, however, can be very elusive – especially in a location that sometimes sees the estate’s gardener more than the estate’s homeowner. Advertising has been directed at specific ZIP codes, and cable television and direct mail has been the focus.

The housing situation has been a challenge, though. Despite the wealth associated with the nearby neighborhoods, the homes are on large pieces of land, making the neighborhoods less dense and less populated overall. Plus, the garden center is off the main roads, so customers have to seek it out.

“This is one of our biggest opportunity areas,” Clark says. “I can’t honestly say we’ve cracked that nut yet.”

Balancing Tradition And Innovation

H.J. Benken Florist & Greenhouse is like many other garden centers – tasked with the goal of balancing the tradition of the growing and florist heritage with the necessity to innovate in retail.

Customers are looking for something unique, and this retail operation strives to give it to them through touches consumers won’t find elsewhere. One example is a book compiled by the staff that lays out the best plants for the Cincinnati area. Called the “Cincinnati Guide To Fine Gardening,” it’s given away to customers as a guide, promoting Benken as the experts, and including personal touches like pictures of Kathy and Mike’s grandchildren.

This year is the 17th year publishing the book, and it includes information about the company, as well as general planting information, key dates and even pricing. It’s a great tool not only for promotion of the garden center, but to solidify H.J. Benken as the expert in a highly competitive area.

It is personal touches like these that will keep old and new customers coming back for more.

Jennifer Polanz is a freelance writer with Grasshopper Freelance. She can be eMailed at jepolanz@gmail.com.

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