by Sally Colby
Sprague’s Nursery and Garden Center has seen plenty of changes since it was established in the 1940s. Melissa Higgins, who operated the retail portion of the Bangor, Maine, business for 10 years before making a switch to the wholesale division, said the original owners of the garden center began by offering lawn mowing and landscape installations.
“Installations eventually became a large part of the business and the need for landscaping materials grew,” said Higgins. “The garden center became a byproduct of the landscaping, then over the years, the garden center grew. Now, in addition to the retail garden center, we started in the wholesale market, selling to the landscape installation trade. That’s been booming.”
Sprague’s includes 10,000 square feet of retail and growing space under glass along with 15 40-by-80-foot hoop houses. Customers can select from a wide variety of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees suitable for the region’s growing conditions.
Last season’s COVID-19 closures forced Sprague’s to rethink some aspects of the business. “We were out of our element,” said Higgins. “All of the annuals had been planted when COVID hit. We didn’t know whether we’d be shut down, and we couldn’t just leave it all. We were among the last to get going up here because it’s so cold, but we heard some other garden centers were deemed essential because they were selling vegetable plants.”
As the Sprague’s crew reevaluated their plan for the season, the concern became “Would there be enough?” Higgins said as other garden centers cancelled their orders, Sprague’s bought all the cancellations they could, and it still wasn’t enough.
What they grow will typically be ample inventory well through July, and by then, plants are on sale. “Last year we couldn’t buy enough of anything,” Higgins said. “We bought everything we could and kept selling it. There were no more annuals to buy because everyone only grows a certain amount of those, so we were buying perennials, trees and shrubs. People didn’t care what they were buying as long as they were buying something. We had a positive attitude and kept things rolling as best we could.”
This year, the outlook is better, with more optimism among customers about life returning to normal. “Sales were great last year, but this year we’re finding we’ve already tripled where we were last year,” said Higgins. “In Maine, we’re generally cold through April, but this year the melt off happened early. People were already antsy and know they could be competing with others for product, and they were coming in early to get what they wanted.”
It’s estimated the pandemic resulted in 30 million new gardeners, many of them young people. “This year, it’s all about keeping gardeners who were new last year,” Higgins said. “We have a lot of staff who come back year after year, and they understand we have to keep those people coming back.”
Both long-time and new customers appreciate the special events hosted by Sprague’s. For several years, the Sprague’s crew landscaped the entire inside of the main greenhouse in early spring to provide guests with an experience that would increase anticipation for the coming season. Although the event was popular, Higgins said they didn’t want to repeat the same events year after year.
“We don’t like things to get stale,” she said, adding that repeated events lead to customers expecting “bigger and better” in subsequent years. “We’re constantly reinventing workshops. This year we did a small-scale spring garden social. Every year we try to think of something that hasn’t been done.”
This autumn will feature a fall family festival with entertainment and educational demonstrations. Higgins said Sprague’s annual Christmas open house brings back customers who purchased seasonal plants earlier in the year. “We have a full design center where people can request custom ribbons, decorations and mixed containers,” she said. “The event helps build loyalty and trust. We have a lot of repeat customers … That helps us know what to buy.”
Since Sprague’s advertising is based on lifestyle, they concentrated on customers who wanted to start growing their own food. “Grocery stores ran out of stock, so people came in for fruit trees, berries and vegetable plants,” said Higgins. “This is a new type of sustainable gardening, and that’s what younger Millennials are into. We’ve made sure we have all of that key stuff nailed down so if customers missed it last year or if what they grew did well last year, we have it. We want people to come here because we’re the experts.”
Higgins and the Sprague’s crew are well aware that gardeners have choices, so they’re mindful to ensure customers receive personal attention and accurate advice. “It’s about quality and customer service,” said Higgins. “We sell customer service even more than we sell plants. If someone going to a garden center isn’t a plant person, it’s intimidating. We try to keep things as simple as possible, telling people everything they need to know but nothing they don’t need.”
Selecting varieties and colors for the next season is a team effort. “We keep records on what we grew last year,” said Higgins. “The grower, retail manager and I make notes throughout the summer about what sold well or not, then we meet and decide what to grow. There’s only so much greenhouse space, so we want to grow what people want and we won’t have to put on sale.” Higgins remains aware of being stuck with inventory, but she’s optimistic that many of last season’s new gardeners will continue to garden.
Higgins said the renewed interest in houseplants helped them remain afloat last winter. “Houseplants are definitely the new thing to have,” she said. “When I was running the retail store, we’d get houseplants in once a month. Now we’re getting them in weekly and bi-weekly when we can. I never thought I’d sell that many spider plants.”
Although succulents remain top sellers, Higgins has seen interest waning slightly. Containers continue to gain popularity, but Higgins said pottery was tough to obtain this year. “Some people don’t want the hassle of potting at home so we have a planting service,” she said. “Customers buy the pot and plants, and we put everything together for no charge. It doesn’t take long, and they love to watch us do it.”
At one time, Sprague’s number one customer base was Baby Boomers, but many Boomers are now downgrading and moving to smaller places. “It’s important to look for new customers and be willing to change,” said Higgins. “Our owner Harvey Sprague is wise – he understands that we have to change or we’ll be left in the dust.”
Sprague’s has evolved over the years but remains focused on helping customers garden successfully. Higgins credits the staff, many of whom have worked at Sprague’s for more than 15 years, with helping customers work through gardening problems. “We hear the same questions over and over,” said Higgins. “We have to think about how to help people solve those issues. We’re proud to have the staff we have – we couldn’t do it without them.”
Visit Sprague’s Nursery and Garden Center at SpraguesNursery.com.