museums&MORE Summer 2015
Greens & Gifts: Tower Hill Botanic Garden a horticultural paradise

As buyer and manager of the gift shop at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts, Judy Coughlin knows that in New England, flowers and lush green plants are easy to come by in the spring and summer. In the depths of winter, however, they are rare and precious commodities.

It’s a time when visitors particularly appreciate Tower Hill’s offerings. All year-round, even in peak ski season, guests can escape to this horticultural paradise through the garden’s many offerings, which are separated into distinct sections to encourage exploration. Of note is The Orangerie, a 4,000-square foot, 18th century-style greenhouse that is home outstanding plants for winter display. The Cottage Garden, the Apple Orchard, the Field of Daffodils and more combine to transport visitors seamlessly and New England has taken notice: Tower Hill won a spot in Yankee Magazine’s Best Public Gardens” in 2014.

Gifts with a mission

The botanical garden’s overarching mission is education as underscored in its statement: “for the purpose of advancing the science and encouraging and improving the practice of horticulture,” and Coughlin said the shop underscores this mission effectively. She pointed out that one of the objectives is to also place the practice of horticulture in relation to wildlife, ecology and other aspects of the natural environment. So it is that the gift shop sells garden tools not easily found at Home Depot, such as soil scoops and artisan-crafted long wooden-handled, heirloom quality tools, in addition to heirloom seeds from companies like Hudson Valley Seeds and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.

The shop sells many books tied in with the mission of horticultural education and emphasizes natural and organic sourcing in food, including jams. Teas are always popular and the shop includes a strong selection: organic herbal teas from Flying Bird Botanicals and herbal teas, jams, jellies and more from Cheshire Garden in Winchester, New Hampshire. Gift items, such as jewelry and stationery, all with a natural or botanical theme, are also popular.

Horticulture enthusiasts come in for the flower-arranging components that they can’t find easily. “They do a lot of floral shows where arrangements are to be shown, so they come and pick up items such as floral frogs and cups and tapes and wire,” Coughlin said.

The shop is 1,300 square feet, which Coughlin describes as “a good size, but not huge.” She is the only full-timer on staff, but there are five part-time employees and a few volunteers to help manage inventory, paperwork and sales. Coughlin, who studied retail management in college, has been in the field for 20 years. That includes the last 15 at Tower Hill. She has worked a variety of positions there, including as events manager and coordinator before leading the gift shop.

Gifts galore

beeswaxlineAlong with the teas, Coughlin says “gifty” items appeal the most to visitors. Earrings and tea towels are always a hit as are unusual greeting cards from companies like Compendium, Rifle and Driscoll Design. T-shirts always sell well, including a popular one depicting a graphic of tomatoes with the saying: “Gardening Cheaper Than Therapy And Gets You Tomatoes.” A poster of the history of life told on an evolutionary scale has been very popular, as are items for the garden such as copper garden spinners and rain chains.

Kids love the plush items the shop offers and the little notebooks with pencils that look like branches. Fairy gardens, which have been enjoying resurgence, are especially popular among families with children. Jane and Jenni buttons serve as little pick-me-ups with flair. Natural skin care lines, such as S Formulators’ Bee Line, are sought after, as are products for the kitchen such as the Bee’s Wrap, a sustainable, reusable storage packaging intended to replace plastic wrap.

Coughlin sources the shop’s products from some national shows, such as NY NOW, which she attends twice a year, as well as local and regional ones such as New England Made Show and the Atlantic Craft Trade Show in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Merchandising matters

Two staff members make sure the merchandise is displayed effectively. Recently, a statuary display was created on pallets and crates and with wood shavings and was a hit. The challenge at Tower Hill, with respect to displays, is to make sure products are highlighted but also that all soak the attention in equally. “We like the focus to be more on highlighting the merchandise rather than make a contrived display,” Coughlin says. Because of the large variety of products sold in a relatively small amount of space, the driver is to keep everything updated and fresh. “I guess it’s more merchandise-driven than lifestyle-driven,” Coughlin says.

Eventful sales

shop8stationeryTower Hill hosts a series of signature events throughout the year: Flora in Winter, Spring Plant Sale, Season of Harvest and Holly Days. Tie-ins with these events are subtle and planned well in advance. For example, when seeds are being sold, the shop will host a show featuring vintage artwork from the seed packets.

Each year’s Holly Days event has a special theme. In 2014, the focus was on recycling, so Coughlin brought in ornaments made out of corrugated cardboard and other recycled materials. “We definitely try and tie in with what’s going on, while staying true to our basic overall core,” she said. Local vendors whose products are sold at the shop also get to set up trunk sales often coordinated with garden events. Case in point: When the gardens hosted its annual Camellia Show in February and March 2015, Patti Powers of Cheshire Gardens presented a “Tea with Jam and Bread” trunk show hosted by the gift shop.

Coughlin says one of the most popular marketing events the store has hosted has been the holiday “shop and stroll,” where the shop and cafe are open and additional vendors and artisans brought in. The first such event was held in November 2013 and was a huge success. “The people poured in, customers had fun, we had fun, the music was beautiful, the artisans were happy and it all really came together,” Coughlin said.

Mission possible

Coughlin’s personal goal is to never let the garden’s mission get out of sight. “I would say the shop’s purpose is to extend the guest’s visit to the garden. We want folks to appreciate the world of horticulture through the items we sell in our shop,” she said. “It could be something functional like a tool or educational, such as a book or a gift that makes them appreciate the beauty of a flower or vegetable and reminds them of their place in nature.”

She has learned many lessons from working at the shop but one of the biggest is realizing just how dependent the shop is on the workings of other departments, and even the guests and visitors. “We are all intrinsic to the experience at Tower Hill. Everyone is a cog in the wheel. My goal is for the shop to become a destination and it is humbling to know that I can’t do it on my own.”

Coughlin’s advice to fellow retailers and store managers is this: listen. “It’s really important to come out of the office (to) observe the floor and meet the customers and listen to what they have to say,” she said. “People are so smart, they have so many hobbies (and) oftentimes you can get really good ideas from them.”

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