by Sally Colby
When Echter’s Nursery and Greenhouse opened in 1959, its primary business was growing wholesale carnations. Today, the Arvada, CO, business is a full-service nursery, garden center and patio store.
“We shipped cut flowers all over the country,” said Julie Echter, one of several family members in the business and current manager of the retail store. “My dad and uncle purchased the business in the 1970s and pivoted from carnations to a retail shop.”
The majority of what Echter’s sells is grown on site. A combination of gutter connect greenhouses and hoop houses provides 138,000 square feet of retail and growing space. The front greenhouse also serves as a display area. An ample area surrounding the nursery provides display space to show off what’s in bloom, water features and plants with low water needs.
Julie has found that the business’s POS system has been helpful in tracking annual sales and provides valuable data for the following year. “We look at the numbers for the previous year to predict what we’ll need the next year,” she said. “We look at trends and try to predict.”
Production begins in January when the crew prepares soil mixes and greenhouses are filled with cuttings and new seedings. “Our production manager chooses what we’re going to grow and figures out the numbers,” said Julie. “We start seeding and hanging baskets first.” Supplies for the following season are ordered further ahead than in the past to ensure timely delivery.
The production manager and others on the growing side make decisions about which plants to grow and the colors they predict will be top sellers. Plants for baskets are selected and grown according to lighting needs – low light, part sun and full sun. “We look back and see which plants did well the year before,” said Julie. “We choose plants we know will be reliable, including a lot of petunias and calibrachoa, and we also have begonia and geranium baskets. This year the begonia baskets look amazing and were the first to go. It’s different each year – the best-looking baskets go first, then when we get down to the last ones, people are fine with buying what’s left.”
Customers appreciate the delivery and planting service offered by Echter’s. “A lot of people have never planted anything before, so the idea of planting a tree is terrifying,” said Julie. “We also offer warranties on trees and shrubs. If we plant it for them, they know it was done correctly.” Echter’s provides ample information about each purchase to ensure customer success.
Like many garden centers, Echter’s has seen increased sales over the past several seasons. “This year has been the busiest ever,” said Julie. “The last couple of years have exceeded what we can grow here on site so we keep adding more to keep up with the demand.”
Even prior to COVID, Julie saw a clear increase in people interested in gardening. “The houseplant craze was ramping up,” she said. “Then people were stuck at home, were bored and wanted something to do. Having a plant made them feel better.” In addition to keeping houseplants, many people were interested in becoming more self-reliant and growing food for themselves.
Julie said each successive year prior to COVID was their best year yet, with more customers every year. “For a long time, we didn’t know how long that would maintain itself because it seemed like my grandparents’ generation was the last to be interested in gardening,” she said. “But now there are Millennials who want to have a garden, which is exciting.”
Customer service, education and quality top the list when it comes to keeping customers happy. The Echters are well aware that customers have a choice about whether to shop at a big box store or a family-owned business, and believe customers are attracted to their nursery because helpful employees are willing to spend time helping them find just the right plants.
“We want people to come back to us because they’re enjoying gardening, so education is a big part of what we do,” said Julie, discussing the team approach to customer service. “We have classes to teach people what works in Colorado and how to choose the right plants for their area.” Although some young customers who have never had a garden are hesitant to ask questions, Julie enjoys working with them. “It’s fun to talk with them and give them information to get them excited about how to grow plants,” she said.
Echter’s draws quite a few customers who are new to Colorado and often new to gardening, which means high-quality service is critical. “It takes a lot more time to work with those customers because we have to start from the beginning with them,” said Julie, adding that some shoppers come from areas that have plants completely different from what grows well in Colorado. “We have to explain it’s a lot different here. We spend a lot of time with them to help them learn what they need to know, and we also have lots of handouts.”
When hiring employees, Julie looks for people who are excited to learn and work. “Most of our employees come here without any background knowledge so we train all of them every year,” she said. “We do a lot of training during the pre-season in April and May. We also send them to as many educational events as we can so they can become experts in their department.”
Former experience working in the green industry isn’t always the best predictor of successful employees, and Julie has had success bringing in people with little or no previous knowledge about plants. “It’s fun to work with people new to the industry and excited about it,” she said. “They often turn out to be our best employees who stick around longer because they’re interested and learn faster.”
The Echters have seen family-owned garden centers go out of business over the past few years because no one from the next generation was interested in continuing. Fortunately, two siblings plan to stay with the business. The family is in the process of transitioning the business to Julie and her brother Jeff, who is now the general manager. “They never pressured us to be a part of it,” said Julie. “They wanted us to do what would make us happy. I don’t think I’d have the appreciation for it if I had been forced into it. We’re trying to learn as much as we can from my dad and my uncle so they can start to step back.”
Echter’s is a member of Garden Centers of Colorado, the Colorado Nursery & Greenhouse Association (CNGA), AmericanHort and Home & Garden Showplace. Julie serves on the board of CNGA and Jeff is president of Garden Centers of Colorado. Julie said the organizations are valuable resources and help create a sense of community within the industry.
“We have a unique industry,” said Julie. “We’re close knit, and we’re competing against big box stores and not each other. We collaborate a lot and try to help each other out.”
Visit Echter’s Nursery and Garden Center online at echters.com.