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Successful Operator Profile: The Go-To People

Cobblestone’s focus on quality and expertise, extensive plant expertise and love of community

Written by Colleen Cross   
If you go to Calgary, look for the red barn. John and Tricia Ingram, owners of Cobblestone Home and Garden Centre, are pleased that, as planned, this big, colourful building has become a beacon to gardeners in the area. But it also represents high-quality plants, mostly grown in the Ingrams’ greenhouses, the staff’s extensive knowledge of what makes plants grow in Alberta and a solid commitment to the community.

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The husband-and-wife team came to their love of plants naturally – and that enthusiasm brought them to each other. Twenty years ago, John, who worked in the golf industry in Ontario, moved to Calgary, tried working at a small garden centre, and liked it. Armed with language degrees, and experiencing a similar change of heart, Tricia discovered that working in an office was not her cup of tea. John decided to start his own business, and the two met when he hired Tricia to sell flowers. After operating a series of seasonal “pop-up” greenhouses at various locations – and with three children – in 2003 they put down roots in an underserved part of east Calgary. Despite concerns they wouldn’t be able to make a go of it, the garden centre and nursery has prospered in an area of the city where, as it turns out, many homes are paid for, and people are left with disposable income to spend on beautifying their homes and gardens.

First-hand plant knowledge
Cobblestone Home and Garden Centre is located on 4.5 acres just off a major highway and surrounded by land slated for extensive residential development next year. The store covers 7,000 square feet, the greenhouses just over 10,000, and the rest of the property is given over to bulk items such as aggregate, concrete, trees and shrubs.

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The Ingrams grow much of what they sell. That close connection to the land and local growing conditions fosters an awareness of what it takes to grow successfully in their variable chinook climate. 
 
Cobblestone’s plant inventory includes perennials, annuals, potted trees and shrubs, seeds and bulbs, house plants, water plants and edibles. An equally wide variety of giftware and home décor items on offer includes fountains, weathervanes, statuary, candles, pottery, kids’ toys and garden projects, gardeners’ salves, hats and footwear.

The Ingrams grow much of what they sell in production greenhouses on a 27-acre farm about 25 minutes from their garden centre. That close connection to the land and local growing conditions fosters an awareness of what it takes to grow successfully in their variable chinook climate. A lot of the plants are “tried, tested and true,” says Tricia. This is what makes Cobblestone unique, she suggests: “We are grower/retailers, and you don’t see that a lot in our neck of the woods.”

Tricia says customers view Cobblestone as the go-to place for information about legislation related to outdoor living, including the new weed acts, pesticide regulations, setback rules and architectural guidelines.

Experience in growing in a challenging climate makes for superior product the family stands behind. The high level of care and pride, or heart, of this family operation shines through in all aspects of the business, including staff.

‘Hire attitude’
The centre operates year-round, but closes in January for two weeks for inventory, and a break. January through most of April, hours are 9:30 to 6. Beginning in late April/early May, and depending on the weather, hours are 9-9, with Sundays and holidays 9-7. The longer hours continue until September, at which time they return to the shorter hours. In December, the centre is open 9-9. Cobblestone employs up to 50 people during the peak season, about 35 of those full time. At the slowest times in winter, staff is down to five to seven people.

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attendees get hands-on at a build-a-pond event. The centre offers a variety of events, classes and seminar

 
Tricia says she and John make a good tag team, with her managing the operations, and him handling much of the physical development of the business, including co-ordination of shipping and receiving, and new construction. Their aim is to create a fun, family environment for employees.

“Human input,” or employee turnover, she notes, is their biggest challenge. “Retail, whether it’s selling shoes or selling snapdragons, is never the highest-paying industry, so to get skilled labour at the retail level can be challenging.”

For a garden centre employee to be successful, certain qualities need to be married, suggests Tricia. You have to know how to be a retailer and how to be a farmer. “We are retailing farmers,” she tells new employees. “We have to be able to operate our garden centre on the May weekend with the same proficiency that another retailer like the Bay, as an example, might operate. The consumer expects that.”

Their solution is to “hire attitude.” Skills can be taught, but you can’t teach a positive attitude, she points out, adding they would rather hire someone with “a desire to learn and to please” than someone who has a lot of knowledge but is unwilling to share that knowledge and work hard as part of a team.

‘Changing, or changed’ marketplace
A great reputation takes a lot of work to maintain. “It’s really an old and antiquated idea that you’re going to put a store up and people are going to come without some kind of social commitment,” says Tricia. In her opinion, it’s a changing, or a changed, marketplace: “We have to be socially relevant in an industry that is a feel-good industry. People don’t have to buy petunias, so we’d better give them a reason for coming to our store to buy them.”

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Cobblestone groups its home décor products in themes, among them Home Elegance, Cowboy Country and Pamper Yourself.
 
Cobblestone’s average client is female, 35 to 50 years old, and married with kids. The centre works at retaining those customers, but makes a concerted effort to reach out to young people by embracing social networking and by presenting products in ways that speak to gen-Y priorities. As an example, tomatoes: for baby boomers, they would list varieties available and their characteristics, but for the younger generation, they might say, “Forget the grocery store – grow your own huge tomatoes!”

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 Cobblestone’s store covers 7,000 square feet, and its greenhouses just over 10,000.
 
To advertise they use all traditional means, including classified and banner ads in newspapers and magazines, flyers, direct mail, and radio, but to this mix they add a company website, Facebook, YouTube, garden club promotion through newsletters and e-mails to target markets.

Word of mouth, however, is their strongest, if most time-consuming, method of promotion. “Once you establish yourself in the community as honest and fair and really garner that trust, all the while trying to lead the trend of your market, that’s where your freest dollars come from.”

After that, she cites the Internet (via a website or Yellow Pages listing), along with targeted e-mails to existing customers in their database, as the top means of bringing in customers. Young customers readily give out their e-mail addresses when they want information sent to them. “Just reminding people that you’re there” is sometimes all that’s required.

Positive impact on the community
Tricia describes Cobblestone as an anchor of the community, but is quick to emphasize the importance of actively promoting the business by offering staff time and expertise. The Ingrams are solidly rooted in the community, but don’t wait for customers to come to them. They vigorously promote Cobblestone through a Facebook page and YouTube videos. With social networking, Tricia emphasizes that, “you don’t see the results immediately” but the effort pays off.

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Caring for perishable products is a challenge that calls for technical expertise, notes co-owner Tricia Ingram.
 
Striving to have a positive impact on others, they teach courses at local high schools about gardening and how to run a business. They offer free soil test days, seminars for seniors and the general public on such popular topics as container gardening, making birdhouses and building ponds. They host play-group tours, allow garden clubs to hold their meetings at the centre, landscape parks and public buildings, and assist local organizations with fundraising by, for example, lending out plants for charity functions.

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Drawing customers into your store with appealing signage and product arrangements is important. “You want people to walk your entire store,” says Tricia.
 
Although Cobblestone has been recognized by the Calgary Horticultural Society and the municipalities for its high level of service and generosity to the community, Tricia says the real reward is believing you are “having an impact on the quality of life of the community that supports you.”

Cobblestone’s trademarked logos – “Alberta’s Best Plants” and “Dream and Grow” – further sum up the Ingrams’ focus on quality and allude to their own story of success. “That’s really what we did. We dreamt that we were going to have a business and kept working on it and grew with it, and that’s what you’re doing with your garden. You dream about it, then you grow it.”

Five Ways to Reach Out
One of Cobblestone Home and Garden Centre’s biggest strengths is its ability to connect with the community
on a continual basis. Here are some methods you can use:
  1. Teach courses on gardening and running a business at local schools.
  2. Offer seminars on popular topics such as container gardening.
  3. Allow local garden clubs to host their meetings at your centre.
  4. Offer to landscape parks and public buildings.
  5. Assist local organizations with fundraising by, for example, lending out plants for charity functions.

 At a Glance:

Company Name:
Cobblestone Home and Garden Centre
Location: Calgary, Alta.
Owner: Tricia and John Ingram
Years in Operation: 8
Website: www.cobblestonegarden.ca
 
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