Everyone knows how most stores depend on the Christmas shopping season — weeks of hectic sales that can spell success or failure for a retailer’s entire year.
Your local home and garden stores are braced for their own version of that high-stakes business sprint. Their rite of spring is all about selling enough flowers, bushes, and gardening supplies in a relatively short period to call the year a success.
“The spring season is the most important for anyone in our line of business,” said Jon Napoli, owner of the Boston Gardener on Washington Street. “There are about two and a half months that you really have to kill it.”
In a good year, sales from April to June can account for more than half of a home and garden store’s total revenue. Yet spring comes with risks beyond mere competition. Unpredictable weather can damage or even spoil inventory ordered months in advance.
Big box retailers such as the Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Companies Inc. have put local home and garden stores under increasing pressure. US households spent $29.5 billion on their lawns and gardens in 2012, according to the National Gardening Association’s most recent annual survey. Nearly half of those sales were recorded at home improvement centers, including Home Depot or Lowe’s, or at other mass merchants such as Walmart.
‘It’s been like the endless winter for us in Boston.’
Walmart has been pushing aggressively into the outdoor category. Last week, it trumpeted Black-Friday-like discounts on everything from barbecues to flowers. Home Depot’s home page called for customers to “Spring into Savings” with deals on Weed-B-Gone and mulch.
“It’s extremely risky whenever you’re dealing with perishable merchandise,” said Elizabeth Russell-Skehan, president of Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland. “Now with all the big discounters and grocery stores jumping into the market, it becomes ever more risky.”
Although the calendar says spring began 12 days ago, it still hasn’t sprung for retailers.
The outdoor and garden section at Walmart in Braintree is still mostly indoors as the store waits for warmer weather to start displaying flowers and vegetables. The aisles are stocked with hundreds of garden tools and decorations from 97-cent Westinghouse solar LED lights to $144 Murray 20-inch push lawnmowers. The outdoor section is mostly barren with the exception of a few wet pallets of garden soil and weather resistant shrubs.
Ricky’s Flower Market in Somerville was a bit more colorful, displaying a small section of Sorbet Yellow Violas for $3.95 and Mammoth Viva la Violet Pansies priced at $2.98. Last week employees kept busy pricing goods and organizing pots, decorations, and bags of soil in preparation for spring crowds.
Owner Ricky DiGiovanni said that last spring his flowers were already in bloom by the end of March. But this year, as the threat of frost still lingers, just a small fraction of his inventory is safe to display.
“Usually in the spring it’s a blaze of color out here, but so far nada, nothing,” DiGiovanni said. “It’s been like the endless winter for us in Boston.”
Russell-Skehan of Russell’s begins ordering spring plants in September to receive the best deal from growers. That early investment backfired in 2010 when the farm flooded twice in two weeks during the spring, filling up the bottom floor of the store. Route 20, a key access road to the business, closed and traffic ground to a halt.
Due to the time sensitive nature of gardening, customers went elsewhere, Russell-Skehan said.
Flooding isn’t the only potential problem. Rain on Saturday before Mother’s Day can be detrimental to business. A particularly warm spring may cause inventory to bloom early. And some fear that cold temperatures could shift to summer heat too quickly this year, altering growth patterns.
But DiGiovanni and others remain hopeful that the late arrival of spring weather will simply delay purchases and have little impact on their bottom line.
They also believe there is a silver lining to the competition from big box stores that run splashy advertisements boasting low prices on plants and gardening tools.
Big chains typically stock a small variety of plants in large quantities to appeal to a broad consumer base. But as consumers’ interest in gardening grows, some want a greater variety of plants and vegetables and turn to niche garden stores.
“If they are looking for something else that they can’t find there, the chances are that we can fill that void,” DiGiovanni said
While a big box store might offer a dozen varieties of tomatoes, DiGiovanni offers more than 50. Russell-Skehan sells 110 different tomatoes. DiGiovanni also carries an array of window boxes and pots to appeal to a budding class of urban gardeners.
Now all local garden retailers can do is wait and see.
“The worse the winter the more excited people are to get outside and get into their yards and garden,” Napoli said.“We expect it to be a healthy spring season.”