Harlow Gardens: The Art Of Garden Retailing

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Harlow Gardens: The Art Of Garden Retailing

When Harlow Gardens was born in Tucson in 1940, the city’s population was 13,000, and the Harlow family was new in town.

John M. Harlow had originally started a landscape architecture and contracting business in Duluth, but soon realized Minnesota’s harsh winters weren’t going to be good for business. John and his wife, Mary Louise, spent the winter of 1937-1938 scouring the Southwest for the perfect location to build their winter business. Tucson was that place.

John spent the following winter working at a nursery in Tucson, familiarizing himself with the area’s plants and conditions, and in 1940, he opened up shop for himself. What started as a winter landscape business soon became a year-round operation, thanks to southern Arizona’s climate, and in 1941, the whole family, including twin sons William (Bill) and John Jr., moved south.

Growing Up In The Business

The twin brothers now run the operation, with Bill focusing on the retail business, while John works on the landscaping side. Both were involved in the business from a very young age.

“When we were 10 we pulled a red wagon around the neighborhood selling Christmas wreaths door to door,” Bill says. “When Bisbee, Ariz., was a thriving community, we would fill our big dump truck with sawdust, heel in bareroot roses and drive there on Sunday to sell roses off the back of the truck. It was a family affair, with all four children and mom pitching in from time to time.”

Despite their early involvement in the family business, neither Bill nor John intended to enter it full time, because they had witnessed its financial struggles in the early years. The brothers instead attended the University of Arizona to study business.

Harlow Gardens

Owners: William C. and John M. Harlow Jr.

Location: Tucson, Ariz.

Size: Approximately 3 acres

Annual Sales: $1,250,000 retail, $1,300,000 residential landscape and maintenance

“It seems we were more interested in numbers and processes than we were in plants,” Bill recalls. “In both our cases, when we entered the business – John in 1960 and me in 1969 – we both took on jobs focused on business and not horticulture or landscape design.

“It was only later that John received his landscape design training from Ohio State University professors who put on design courses for the Associated Landscape Contractors of America.”

Perhaps it’s that mix of business sense and horticultural knowledge that has helped Harlow Gardens become the destination garden center it is today. With retail sales of $1,250,000 annually and the residential landscape side bringing in $1,300,000 a year, the Harlows are certainly successful. And as for box store competition, Bill says he doesn’t have time to worry about them.

Differentiating From The Competition

One of the ways Harlow Gardens competes with other retailers is to have unique offerings that can’t be found anywhere else. To do this, the store has worked with local artists in the Tucson area to sell their garden and outdoor art at the store. The result is a program that benefits the artists, the garden center and the customers who shop there.

The idea first came to Bill Harlow when he was thinking about ways to set his business apart from the other independent garden centers in town. “I thought the most obvious thing we could do is bring in things that they don’t have,” he says.

They started with one artist, and by word-of-mouth, more joined. Currently, Harlow Gardens offers artwork from 13 local artists, but Bill says he hopes to see that number grow even more.

“In my mind, it adds such a distinctive line of merchandise to what we have to offer that it takes us exactly where we want to go, and that is to have special merchandise,” he says. “We’re just looking to expand that because we love it. We love to see these beautiful art pieces on a daily basis and we like being part of that community, too.”

“Generally, we take the ostrich approach – stick our heads in the sand and pretend they don’t exist,” he says. “There is not enough time in the day to worry about them. People choose. If people choose the box (store) over us, we go out of business. That’s the way life is.”

But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon. In fact, the box stores’ locations are ideal for driving traffic past Harlow’s, which works to the garden center’s advantage. And although Bill and John are pondering retirement, the next generation, Bill’s son John C. Harlow, is waiting in the wings and ready to take the reins. Bill admits, though, that the transition is going to be a challenge.

“In terms of getting him ready, we just do that by including him in everything that’s going on, and he has a lot of authority and responsibility,” Bill says. “But the biggest dilemma is you’re trying to transition from two people who worked together for 40 years to one person who has to basically be responsible for what two of us have been responsible for. With my brother running the landscaping operation and me doing the rest, the most difficult part of the transition is saying to John, ‘You have to figure out how to run both of them by yourself.’ I don’t mean he can’t hire people, but there’s nothing like an owner. So the trickiest part of it is helping to put things in place that allow him to do that – the processes and controls.”

Attracting Non-Gardeners

Bill cites attracting non-gardeners to the store as one of Harlow’s big challenges, and he’s been addressing that challenge in several ways. Last year, the garden center held its first ever “Chris Bubany’s Market Place Christmas Fair.” Bubany is a well-known ceramics artist in the Tucson area who makes beautiful dishes, bowls and plates. She has a large following and drew quite a crowd to the store’s event last November.

“It was one of the most fabulous things we’ve ever done in terms of getting some people in the store who haven’t been here in a long time, or who have never been here, because it was for a completely different reason,” says Bill.

Another way Harlow’s is bringing customers into the store is by offering a wide range of unique gift items. This is a category Bill hopes will grow even more in the future.

“I see more gifts being sold as we solidify our position within the community as the Tiffany’s of garden centers,” he says.

One of the items with which the company has had success recently are Eco-Source pots, which are biodegradable flower pots made from rice husks. Another item that has been especially popular at Harlow’s are brightly colored metal geckos, frogs and other animals from K&M Imports, which Harlow Gardens has been selling for at least the last five years.

“K&M Imports has been truly a tremendous product for us,” says Bill. “Maybe we don’t sell quite as many now as we did five years ago, but it hasn’t gone through that quick transition that many gift items go through that are popular for three months and then disappear. This one has just been very consistent for us.”

Garden Wizards

There are no employees at Harlow Gardens – there are only Garden Wizards. The company has registered the name so no one else in the state of Arizona can use it. It’s become part of the store’s brand image, and all Garden Wizards carry their own business cards.

“Through the repeated use of the term Garden Wizard to identify our retail team, we are constantly reinforcing, be it ever so subtly, the idea that the customer can rely on what we have to say,” says Bill.

In return for being Wizards, staff members receive excellent benefits that include an employee loan and advance program, a cafeteria plan, a 401 (k) plan, Christmas Cash, Thanksgiving and Birthday Gift certificates and much more.

“The people who work with us are not simply ‘worker bees,’” Bill says. “They are part of our lives. This business is our life and it means more to us than just making a profit.”

Ann-Marie Vazzano was managing editor of American Fruit Grower magazine, a Meister publication.

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