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Marketing Maneuvers

In the world of barbecue grills, accessories not only can take the heat, but can turn up the profits

Although Bucks County, in Southeastern Penn­sylvania, may be best known for its Revolutionary War historic sites and antique shops, one of its most popular destinations is Bucks Country Gardens, a 35-acre nursery and outdoor-living center that boasts a loyal customer following.

Founded in 1961 (as Royer Nurseries and Greenhouses) in the heart of historic Doylestown, Pa., the company originally began as a wholesale nursery. Tom Hebel, a Penn State graduate with a degree in landscape architecture, joined the company in 1981 and helped develop the garden-center and landscape-contracting sides of the business.

Three years later, the company moved to its current rural setting, located about three miles from the center of town. Hebel became a partner in 1986; in 1993, he bought out his partner, and later that year, he changed the company’s name to Bucks Country Gardens.

The Right Mix

For a few years, Bucks Country Gardens continued to operate as a garden center and landscape business while dabbling in the casual-furnishings segment, but according to Hebel, “In 1998, it became apparent that we were going to have to do something major with our facility in order to keep growing.” With the exception of a 3,000–square-foot pole barn that served as a garden shop, the entire site was bulldozed. “We sort of started over,” Hebel says.
The goal of Bucks Country Gardens (in beautiful Southeastern Pennsylvania) is to create an inviting, pleasurable retail experience for every customer.

The renovations were completed in 1999, and with 23,000 square feet consolidated under one roof, Bucks Country Gardens evolved into a full-service outdoor-lifestyle center. Today, it features a nursery and greenhouse filled with thousands of shrubs, flowers, trees, other plants, gardening tools, and supplies; a lifestyle department (encompassing casual furnishings, gifts, and home decor); and a landscape design/build division, with specialists who do everything from planting a single tree to providing the design, construction, and installation of a full-scale outdoor room.

“We created a big enough facility to be capable of selling more than just garden supplies and plants,” Hebel says. “I have always had a keen interest in outdoor living. Being a landscape architect, you spend most of your time drawing plans and putting in outdoor-living spaces for customers. Adding casual furniture just seemed to be a natural for us.”

Hebel notes that Bucks Country Gardens was historically known as a garden center. With the addition of casual-furniture lines, however, it has now become a destination for people who want to create complete outdoor-living areas. Many long-term (and very loyal) garden shoppers make up Bucks Country Gardens’ customer base, while outdoor/casual shoppers are relatively new.

A big plus, Hebel says, is that there is a tremendous amount of crossover buying between the two market segments. Bucks Country Gardens draws customers from a fairly wide area, including Philadelphia (about 40 miles to the south), Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, and the affluent areas of Western New Jersey.

Bucks Country Gardens sells a variety of lines, including Alfresco, Meadowcraft, OW Lee, Summer Classics, Hanamint, Castelle, Casa Casual, Telescope Casual, Chicago Wicker, and Gensun. The lifestyle section also includes an array of unique accessories and accent pieces for the home, from birdhouses, fountains, and statuary to candles, glassware, and jewelry.

A large portion of the showroom is transformed during the holidays for BCG Christmas, which features a dazzling array of collectibles, decorations, prelit trees, wreaths, and fresh greens. “We have a big Christmas business, and we have decided, this year, to be ready by the first of October, rather than the 31st,” Hebel says. “We hear from our customers all the time who say, ‘When are you going to set up Christmas? We can’t wait.’”

Spreading the Word

Bucks Country Gardens’ reputation brings in many repeat customers, as well as first-time visitors. “We have been here a long time, and I think we are well respected,” Hebel says.

Beyond word-of-mouth advertising, traditional marketing focuses on local newspapers, including full-page four-color ads in the daily Doylestown Intelligencer and in a weekly publication that, Hebel says, “celebrates the great things about our community and helps us keep our face out there.” He also occasionally advertises in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s food section, and he uses direct mail targeted to demographically selected areas. All advertising is handled by an in-house graphic designer.

The newest and most exciting of Bucks Country Gardens’ communication tools is its own quarterly magazine: Picket Fences. The publication premiered in spring 2009 and is mailed to 25,000 local addresses. An inviting and colorful 36-page magazine, Picket Fences focuses on topics relating to gardening, lifestyle, and the environment. In addition to increasing the store’s visibility, it provides customers with practical information.

The first issue offered tips on selecting the right casual furniture and plants, creating greater curb appeal, and living a greener life. There is also a question-and-answer column written by a Bucks Country Gardens horticulturalist. The fall 2009 issue is in production now and will include a focus on the holidays, expanding to 52 pages. Coupons that can be redeemed at Bucks Country Gardens are also included in each issue. “We use coupons so we can measure how many people are actually reading the magazine,” Hebel says.

Picket Fences was developed as a cost-effective alternative to traditional advertising. Bucks Country Gardens had been spending big dollars on weekly magazine inserts when a friend (and a local magazine publisher) suggested that Hebel could publish his own magazine at less cost. “He gave me a couple of pointers and off we went,” Hebel says. To reduce the cost of the publication, advertising space was sold to business associates and vendors. The net cost came to approximately half of what BCG was spending on the previous publication. “It just worked out wonderfully well for everybody. We are very happy,” Hebel says.

Throughout the year, Bucks Country Gardens also offers a garden rewards club (featuring rebates on purchases) and a few special events such as a fall festival, a Christmas open house, customer-appreciation days, and educational seminars.

Staying Positive

Hebel says that in the current economy, he is seeing a big increase in customers buying value-priced lines, and he believes that they are postponing high-end purchases right now. He has worked on reducing costs by trimming labor, cutting waste, and working with smaller inventories.

“We are trying to learn from the difficulties that we face,” Hebel says. “Most important, we are networking with our business associates to find out what is working for them. You need to be a little more creative and more open to ideas and how they might work today, even if they didn’t before.”

Hebel is also asking more of his already-hardworking staff. Depending on the season, there are from 20 to 70 employees, many of whom have decades of industry experience, as well as long careers with Bucks Country Gardens. “We probably spend more money on labor than over 75 percent of our industry. We are dedicated to putting good-quality people on the floor at all times, and paying them what they deserve to be paid,” Hebel says.

The staff’s ultimate goal is to provide a positive and welcoming environment for every Bucks Country Gardens customer. “We are all about the experience, and that experience is related to our facility, to our product, and mostly to our staff,” Hebel says.

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