Unconventional Wisdom

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Unconventional Wisdom

When Jonn Karsseboom, then a medical student, began working part-time at Al’s Garden Center in Portland, Ore., he fell deeply in love with the garden retail business.

The physical work with plants, close interaction with customers and creative liberty of garden design provided a sharp contrast to the hours he spent studying the science of human anatomy, he says.

Unexpectedly, garden retailing wasn’t the only love Karsseboom found at Al’s Garden Center. There he also met and eventually married owner Jack Bigej’s daughter, Tracy.

A few years and four children later, Jonn and Tracy now own and operate a garden retail destination of their own, The Garden Corner in the Portland suburb of Tualatin, Ore. To say the fledgling operation, established in 2000, is unconventional would be an understatement. Located “smack dab” in the middle of a very built up residential area, Karsseboom says, customers have to know about The Garden Corner to find it.

“That comes with its own headaches and heartaches, but so far all our surrounding neighbors have enjoyed us. They are all very good customers of ours,” he says.

A Natural Advantage

The operation is unique because, aside from a custom-designed pavilion that houses its checkout area and business infrastructure, there are purposely very few structures. Tucked away in a wooded area, many of the live and hardgoods are mostly exposed to nature, though under cover of trees.

Despite this openness, Karsseboom doesn’t seem worried about theft and says he hasn’t noticed any problems. The store is close to the family’s house, so he says, “we sleep very lightly.”

Karsseboom admits he is not particularly fond of greenhouses. Unlike other garden centers that house indoor plants and hardgoods inside and then place plants outdoors, he wants to be able to incorporate plants in every display. But Karsseboom says he is currently seeking some kind of structure that would give shelter to hardgoods and keep fabrics from fading.

The Garden Corner

Owners: Jonn & Tracy Karsseboom

Location:
Tualatin, Ore.

Founded:
February 2000

Web site:
www.thegardencorner.com

“We have some greenhouses I would love to get rid of,” he says. “Right now we are just toying with new ideas and we’re looking and looking until something strikes us for structures. It could be something made out of fabric or sails – I don’t know. One thing I have learned is that the business changes so quickly that I keep everything mobile so I can move things around at a moment’s notice. I don’t like putting anything in concrete because as soon as I do, I feel I should have done it differently.”

He says he applies that logic to all merchandise, as well, because everything is available for sale, even large, merchandised displays.
“Everything is for sale,” he says. “I have even sold a walkway, brackets, fencing – everything can be pulled out of the ground and sold.”

Making Gardening Easier

The Garden Corner buys in all of its live goods and carries several national brands, including Monrovia, Hines Horticulture and Proven Winners, to name a few. Karsseboom says he enjoys some great relationships with his vendors, who work closely with him to come up with ideas to differentiate the business. He says he is very particular about setting his operation apart from other retailers.

“As soon as there is something in another garden center, I always try to do something different,” Karsseboom says. “It takes up a lot of energy and resources but I try to keep things different, whether it’s a different size, angle, color (or) service added to the item, something that makes it incomparable.”

His mission is to make gardening easier by getting to know his customers and find out what drives them, as well as what their hang-ups are.

“My big belief is that garden centers are still too intimidating for the average Joe,” Karsseboom says. “We really need to break down every barrier there is. Whether they don’t know enough about plants to begin, or they don’t want to do the planting and they don’t want to get their fingernails dirty, there is always some sort of obstruction, some sort of speed bump to keep people away. Our job is to discover what that is and alleviate that. And it’s really customer by customer.”

Well-Read Workers

One thing that really sets The Garden Corner apart from other retailers, says owner Jonn Karsseboom, is that everyone who works there is a “hugger.”

Everyone at The Garden Corner follows the philosophies in the book “Hug Your Customers” by Jack Mitchell, he says. In fact, before Karsseboom even interviews potential employees, he’ll often give them a copy of the book to read as a precursor, he says.

“If I talk to someone and think they’re promising, I say, ‘Take a look at this book and see what you think,’ and then if it sounds like it’s what they’re about, we’ll go to the next stage,” Karsseboom says.

With a crew of 25 employees, eight are garden craftsmen, he says. “We call ourselves garden craftsmen because we craft gardens all day.”

The craftsmen include Karsseboom and wife, Tracy, as well as Carrie Summerill, Jaime Johnson, Karen Trasker, Kristine Hanson, Geoffrey Meade and Endre El Teto.

Karsseboom says his very talented and skilled staff makes customers come back. “I really try to figure out what drives them – everyone is driven by different reasons but all in all, they are all very self-motivated,” he says. “They really want to do well and if they were to leave me, they would excel almost anywhere. I think they are that talented and they have that skill with people.”

Offering services tailor-made for each customer is one way to “break down barriers,” Karsseboom says. He makes sure The Garden Corner caters to his customers’ needs, whatever they may be.

“Some folks love to relax in their garden but don’t have the time, so we have to figure out ways they can do that without having to put in the time. Some folks love working in the garden but don’t have the confidence to pick out plants; then we help them do that. Some folks just can’t handle the big stuff, so we need to get someone to deliver it for them and get it set up and get it planted. Some folks love to socialize and host parties and they need their front door to look good for the party but don’t have the time to do it,” Karsseboom says. “All of those little issues are big issues for us and that’s how we aim to be different. The only way we can find that out is by really knowing our customers.”

Using Technology

One way The Garden Corner is aiming to know every detail about its customers is with a new customer relationship management (CRM) point-of-sale system. Currently the business uses SBI, but Karsseboom says he is looking for a new program that will allow him to keep closer tabs on his customers.

“Right now we take notes on customers and find out as much about a customer as we possibly can and then we know what makes them tick,” he says. “But we really want to get back to that even more, so right now we are on the hunt for a good CRM program.”

Karsseboom credits his membership in The Garden Center Group for some of the ideas he has incorporated into The Garden Corner. He says while garden center tours certainly provide good information, the advice he has received on the mechanics of running a business is really intriguing.

“Joining The Garden Center Group has helped us tremendously,” he says. “Robert Hendrickson, Sid Raisch and Steve Bailey have been great resources. Steve Bailey stresses making sure the mechanics of the business work – meaning cost of goods sold is proper and you are always working on your net profit.”

Armed with this information and with his mission to cultivate customers, Karsseboom says in garden retail, it can no longer be business as usual.

“I think our struggle is the same struggle across retail in general. Making sure there is a net on the bottom, keeping labor and cost of goods sold low – those are always struggles,” he says. “But our days of selling to a big unknown group of people are over. I really think that we need to know each individual person coming in to our garden centers and know what drives them. The big thing is figuring out how they want to be treated and that gives the beginning basis of a long-term relationship.”

Laura Drotleff is editor of Greenhouse Grower.

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