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Cover Story
Selling Water Gardening
| Ellen C. Wells
>> Published Date: 5/21/2012
In a very unscientific poll conducted in Green Profit’s buZZ! e-newsletter, on a three-point scale of the state of garden centers’ water gardening departments more than 75% of respondents said their sales have been “dismal” over the past few years. In fact, many had dropped the category altogether.

Perhaps the survey prompted only the naysayers to respond. Water gardening sales can’t be all that bad, can they?
Green Profit contacted three garden centers that are known to have strong product offerings, a reputation for expertise, and a loyal customer base—all in the water gardening category. We talked about how they sell water gardening and whether there’s potential for growth. Read on—you might be surprised by their optimism.

Consistent Customers
The down economy of recent years has been apparent at garden retail, perhaps most visibly in sales of big-
ticket items such as large ponds and water features. “I think we’ve probably been through periods where we saw the big growth and now we’re leveling off,” says Mark Landa of Boulevard Gardens in South Chesterfield, Virginia, referring to the heydays of the early 2000s. Homeowners are being careful with their money and are holding off on new installations.

On the bright side, Mark says those who have existing ponds are not terminating them, but continue to maintain and expand. That means a necessary filter or pump upgrade here, a new waterfall there.
“We are seeing that as our bread and butter right now,” Mark says.

According to Mike Preston of Hyannis Country Garden, Hyannis, Massachusetts, existing customers are mainstays. He estimates of the ponds they sell in one year, 85% will be changed in some way, upgraded even, over the next year. “Even if it’s adding another waterfall,” he says. “I tell people that right up front, because when you’re sitting next to the pond you’ll think, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if …’”

Fishing for Sales
And it’s not just pumps and waterfalls that existing customers are coming in to purchase. Fish have become a big portion of water garden-related sales. “The people who have had ponds for a while, they’re the ones who are progressing and getting into better fish, the named varieties,” says Mark. For someone who told himself he’d never carry fish, Mark now carries premium koi imported from Japan, some costing upward of $1,000 or more. He’s found that certain weekends are the best times to carry the premium fish, mainly in early spring as folks open their ponds for the season, as well as around Father’s Day. “We brought in 10 really nice imported koi last weekend [late April] that were $200 fish and sold all 10 that weekend,” Mark says. “So for Father’s Day we’ll do the same thing, let customers know through our email list that these fish will be arriving and if Dad has something special he’s been looking for, that’ll be the time to get them.”

Fish aficionados will also open their wallets for premium fish food. Boulevard Flower Gardens buys in bulks of one of the highest quality fish foods and brands under their own label. That fish food and the wider selection of pond products brings customers into the store past June, when flower sales drop off. “People will come in for the fish food and they’ll buy something else while they’re here,” Mark says. “When they come through the gift area where the checkouts are, they browse all that stuff—whether it’s jams or jellies or a bottle of wine, they’ll pick up something else most of the time.”

Being the Experts
Mike and the folks at Hyannis Country Garden specialize in the “non-sexy” side of ponds—the water filters, pumps, tubing and so on. They’re experts in this respect and field calls from all over the country about pond problems. “The homeowner can dig a hole, put a flexible liner in, put rocks around it and fill it with water, but then the hardest part about water garden installation is flow rates, tubing size, filter and pump size,” Mike says. “Every single pond is different, so we custom build with the customer a pond they envision. We bring it to reality by listening to what they want, where it’s going, how big it’s going to be—we build it right on the spot.”

Hyannis Country Garden doesn’t do the install, however. They work closely with installers in the area who know Country Garden’s specifications and attention to detail. “In 27 years of doing this in the real world, that’s why people come here or call us—because they know they’re going to get the correct answer the first time,” Mike says.
If you ask Mark, he’ll say he appreciates a large discount store putting pre-formed pond kits on sale. “It gives [customers] a taste that they found they like, but it’s not functional,” Mark says. “Then we have to sell them something that makes [the pond kits] functional. The people who really want to continue will spend the money and start upgrading. We’ve had some very good pond customers because they started with those kits at the box store.”

Being the expert means customers will come long distances for selection, quality and service. The folks at Boulevard Flower Gardens have customers come from as far as two hours away “because there’s nothing close that has the selection,” Mark says. “I have two guys that make what they call their ‘water garden run.’ They came this past weekend and bought two large koi, 20 lbs. of fish food, plants, salt for the pond—any supplies they need for opening up their pond. I think they spent $600-$700 just on pond stuff.” And according to Mark, they’ll be back several times this season.

Night Vision
Picking up sales also requires thinking of new ways to sell water garden-related products. A common refrain about people with water gardens is that they enjoy the relaxation of sitting pond-side after work. To sell more of the landscape and pond lighting items, Fairfield Garden Center in Fairfield, New Jersey, converted a room within the garden center into a nighttime version of a water garden. Fairfield’s Jim Fernicola says the idea to create the blacklit room was passed on to him from a salesperson. “Once we did that, it shows what the pond would look like at night in the back yard,” Jim says. “At night we are closed, so customers can appreciate what the pond’s going to look like at night with lighting around it.” Now in it’s fifth year, Jim says, “It definitely shows customers what they do with lighting and what their pond will look like in their back yard at night.” Is it successful? “I’ve gotten a number of people who have said, ‘I want that pond. I want that pond now.’”

Forecast Ahead
If we’re concerned about the up-and-coming generations getting involved in gardening, what are the prospects for these younger generations taking on water gardening? Mark hasn’t seen it spark with younger people yet. “Unless it was a parent that had a pond or they’d been exposed to it, I’m not seeing our younger generations [getting into water gardening] because it’s work, it’s maintenance and they don’t want that.”

Jim at Fairfield, however, has seen the purchase of a pre-existing home—complete with empty pond—spur first-time homebuyers to come into the store in search of solutions. “So what we do is we hook them up for the Ponds 101 class. From there we walk them through any problems or questions that they may have,” says Jim. (For more on Fairfield’s water garden department, turn to “Commitment to the Category” on page 26.)

The best thing ponds and water gardening in general have going for them is the relaxation these garden features bring to homeowners. “I think the biggest selling point is what it brings—peace of mind,” says Mike. “You’re sitting next to your pond, listening to the waterfall, seeing the colorful koi—you’re elevated to a different place and you forget about the worries of the day.” Who’s not in the market for some of that nowadays? GP

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