ANLA Retail Rising Star: A Model Of Efficiency

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ANLA Retail Rising Star: A Model Of Efficiency

Click here to see more photos of Russell’s Tree & Shrub Farm in East Amherst, N.Y.

At 16 years old, Mark Ziemba started out at a landscape company outside of Buffalo, N.Y., with the goal of buying a house. That’s no joke, and it tells you everything you need to know about Mark Ziemba – once he sets his sights on a goal, it is all but certain he will attain it.

At 26 years old, Ziemba is now the retail/operations manager at Russell’s Tree & Shrub Farm in East Amherst, N.Y., located in a small-but-affluent town just outside of Buffalo (and a homeowner).

It’s for his accomplishments during that time between 16 and 26 that he was named the American Nursery & Landscape Association’s Retail Rising Star during the annual Management Clinic event in Louisville this February.

Ziemba’s laser-like focus and desire to grow the business are exactly what define a Retail Rising Star. He gained a bachelor’s degree in business administration specializing in marketing and finance, and is in pursuit of another degree in economics – all at the University of Buffalo – while working at the nursery. He also found time to get some horticultural training under his belt at Niagara Community College.

When he moved from part-time sales associate to a full-time sales supervisor, he realized his original goal of going into banking – a large and still profitable industry in Buffalo – might not be in the cards. “I always had a lot of suggestions at the nursery,” he says. “I always thought there were ways to improve what we were doing.”

Aside from that, he adds, he fell in love with gardening and the garden retail industry. His suggestions for the business became invaluable to the nursery’s operations, and when Ziemba started to think bigger picture, owner Russell Gullo made sure the young go-getter had the opportunity to stay. “It was rewarding, the idea that he thought there was that much value to what I was doing,” Ziemba says.

By The Book

Ziemba’s contributions to the operation have been many, including researching a point-of-sale system and bringing it into the mix to increase efficiency. Prior to the implementation of CounterPoint SQL point-of-sale (POS), each sales person would work with a customer, bring them to the front counter at the retail shop and ring them out. In fact, when Ziemba started, he says there was one computer with a dial-up Internet connection used to check the weather. Now, with the POS system, salespeople can stay out in the nursery and on the retail sales floor while someone else checks them out.

Retail Rising Star

The American Nursery & Landscape Association gave the first Retail Rising Star award at the 2004 Management Clinic. The goal behind the program is to recognize the up and comers of the industry who are making a difference at their businesses, as well as in the industry as a whole.

Mark Ziemba of Russell’s Tree & Shrub Farm in East Amherst, N.Y., is a shining example of both. He is not only instrumental in the operations at Russell’s, but he also is a participating member of the West New York Landscape and Nursery Association. He sits on the “Plantasia” planning committee, a community outreach program sponsored by the association to support local nursery landscape businesses. To add to his leadership qualities, he is a reserve in the U.S. Army and served in Iraq in 2004 for six months.

To recognize all of his accomplishments, Today’s Garden Center and Espoma Co. have partnered to provide a scholarship for ANLA events to Ziemba. The scholarship allows him to participate in the ANLA Legislative Conference, this summer’s Retail Roadshow and next year’s Management Clinic.

“Espoma is proud to sponsor the Retail Rising Star Award,” says vice president of sales Jim Kaminskas, who describes Ziemba as professional, bright and progressive. “As a fourth-generation, family-owned business ourselves, we recognize the future of our industry rests with the next generation of garden center owners and managers, and what better way to recognize them than with this award?”

It’s also greatly improved accuracy when it comes to pricing and checkout areas. Before the POS, the business lost $15,000 in one week due to pricing errors. Ziemba says he’s found it’s human nature for cashiers to price down instead of up if they are unsure about the size and price of a product. By barcoding every product, it takes that psychological component out of it and becomes much easier for cashiers and more efficient to process customers.

The POS also has allowed the retailer to go completely electronic when it comes to invoices, cutting the $12,000 spent on paper invoices.

“We’ve become very efficient and run a high volume through a small garden center,” Ziemba says.
To add to the efficiency, this year Russell’s is adding a 3,000 square foot Cravo retractable-roof glass greenhouse to improve shopability and expand the color offerings, which Ziemba is predicting to boom this spring.

“That greenhouse is really to complete the image change of the nursery,” Ziemba adds. Since 2001, the retailer has changed the look of all the marketing and promotional materials, right down to the slogan.  The chemicals that tend to cause an odor in the retail store will move out to the greenhouse to make way for an expanded gift selection, as well.

On the operations side, Ziemba has renegotiated every contract the retailer has, opting for Voice Over Internet Protocol technology (VoIP) over typical phone lines. He’s restructured all the cell phone contracts and other utilities for a 15 to 20 percent savings this year.

A Positive Outlook

Ziemba says his goal for 2009 is 10 percent growth, which he admits sounds crazy to some. “I’m very confident and excited for increased market share – I think we can market ourselves better.”

Building Customer Loyalty

Lots of garden retailers have a loyalty program, with the goal of building a loyal following and creating good-will between the business and customers.

Russell’s Tree & Shrub Farm tries to build a loyal customer base by appealing to their philanthropic side. The loyalty program is called Steward Of The Earth, and bears the slogan “Plant now for a better tomorrow.” Participating customers receive points valued at 2 percent of all purchases, which they can redeem during a window in August.

Along with the redemption, 1 percent of all the sales for each customer in the program goes toward Re-tree Western New York. It’s a nonprofit group working to replant 30,000 trees that have been damaged or destroyed in Western New York.

It’s a natural fit, since Russell’s deals heavily in trees and shrubs and already works with the state’s reforestation efforts.

The loyalty program is conducted through eMails to the customers, resulting in a zero carbon footprint. The partnership is resulting in more loyalty program customers for Russell’s and more donations to Re-tree.

Russell’s does that through a number of initiatives started by Ziemba and supported by the team at the nursery. One is the increased presence with the We Plan, You Plant program through Sunrise Marketing and TGC columnist Kurt Fromherz.

Ziemba and others at Russell’s are seeing the need for the program in light of the current economy, which could dictate smaller landscape projects becoming do-it-yourself projects.

The newest addition to the program is conducting the whole We Plan, You Plant process online so customers can submit photos and information to the garden center via eMail, creating a zero carbon-footprint for the program. Customers pay a $50 deposit to participate, and get a credit for $60 back in plants if they buy them from the nursery.

Russell’s is also implementing a new program this year, called No Gardener Left Behind. It’s an educational initiative to offer free garden reference materials at the garden center that customers can check out and peruse at their leisure and bring back. It’s yet another way the retailer hopes to differentiate itself from the competition.

Plans For The Future

Ziemba’s plans don’t stop at this spring. He has goals for the future that include creating a world-class seminar series to bridge the generation gap in gardening knowledge and bring in new customers. He’s also working on improvements to the website over the next couple of years to include research and search tools, continuing to bring information to younger customers.

Another goal is to implement handheld technology to improve efficiencies in the tree and shrub yards, as well as in the retail greenhouse, so sales associates can check customers out without entering the retail store.
Overall, the goal is to maintain the quality customers have come to expect from the nursery.

“When someone walks in, everything is always fresh,” he says. “There is never a piece of what I would consider B-material on the garden center sales floor.”

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

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