Where sales and service come naturally
More than 250,000 people walk by the door of the 500-square-foot Growing Gifts shop at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wis., every year, and when they step inside, they immediately know they’re in a nature-centric garden gift store.
Located right inside the front door of the visitor center, hanging bird houses and feeders, garden sculptures and stakes, a carefully selected collection of garden-related books for kids and adults and a collection of plants that varies with the season spill out into the entry hallway. The space may be limited, but the selection is not.
“What we offer is an eclectic mix of products, many locally sourced,” said Cindy Sullivan, gift shop manager. “We also mix in many plants that Olbrich’s Conservatory staff has sourced or grown for us. These change seasonally and are sometimes hardy plants, sometimes tropical. Then we bring in antiques and some vintage items that add a flavor not found in your typical gift shops. I think customers today have seen so much ‘stuff’ that anything to add interest or to spark conversation creates more appeal.”
“We’ve spilled out into the lobby a little to try and offer even more items,” Sullivan said, “but we’re always asking ourselves, ‘That’s cool, but where would we put it?'”
Space isn’t an issue for the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in general, as 16 outdoor acres are designed and tended by a world-class horticulture team, with the outdoor gardens free and open to the public.
The American Public Garden Association recognized the gardens in 2005 as a Garden of Excellence, which is the equivalent of winning an Oscar for a botanical garden, and Horticulture magazine named Olbrich one of the 10 most inspiring gardens in North America. They have a two-acre, Midwest-hardy Rose Garden, the only Thai Pavilion and Garden in the continental United States, a Perennial Garden, Herb Garden and a 10,000-square-foot tropical conservatory.
“It’s a glass pyramid filled with exotic plants, waterfalls, free-flying birds and a koi fishpond,” Sullivan said. “It has the warmth and high humidity of the rainforest, a welcome relief during Wisconsin’s winters.”
Sullivan said the store completely supports both the vision and the mission of Olbrich Botanical Gardens, which is to be a locally treasured and globally renowned source of beauty and education celebrating the importance of plants in a sustainable world. They’re dedicated to the creation, conservation and interpretation of gardens and plant collections hardy to the American Midwest or native to the world’s tropical forests for study, enjoyment and public benefit.
“We have educational materials about sustainability for kids and adults; we have items made of recycled materials demonstrating the concept,” she said. “We have books to learn about gardening; we have plants and terrariums to get you started. All of the profits made from Growing Gifts stay here, and support the Gardens.”
Apparel, jewelry, fashion accessories, garden stakes and sculpture, toys and greeting cards sell the best, and Sullivan credits the popularity of their apparel to the fact that they sell carefully chosen lines that aren’t available in most stores.
“There is a large demand for locally made items,” Sullivan said. “It takes more time to source these items, and it’s a challenge because these items are usually more expensive than imported items. So there needs to be a balance between getting local items and keeping my prices affordable. I’m always trying to do both.”
The Olbrich greeting cards are photographs of Olbrich Gardens taken by staff members and a couple of local professional photographers. They work with a local printer and they’re sold by the box of 24 online and also are available individually in the gift shop.
“I use them as other museum shops use postcards,” Sullivan said. “Customers buy them to use as a greeting card, or as a remembrance of their visit to the Gardens.”
Growing Gifts also proudly sells a variety of other locally made products that includes everything from soaps and lotions made from locally harvested honey and wood bowls made from trees of the Oblrich Gardens to wooden bird ornaments tagged with information about the local birds/habitats and dragonfly and butterfly garden stakes made out of recycled stainless steel flatware. They also have locally made scarves, hats, and jewelry and a number of books from local authors.
Offering something for everyone of every age is a challenge, especially given the size of the shop.
“I think the hardest group is boys in the 8 to 14 age group,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes the answer is to offer family based activity items. These span the age groups and get families playing and learning together. These kinds of interactions can extend the fun and memories of a visit to the Gardens.”
Sullivan shops anywhere she can get ideas and find new products, whether it’s art shows and other unusual retail stores, antique and salvage stores or the Internet. She’s also attended the Independent Garden Center (IGC) show in Chicago and said that sometimes sales reps are helpful with small, undiscovered lines of products that relate to the Gardens and their mission.
Certain times of the year require certain kinds of products, as special events bring in additional crowds. The first is in mid-July to mid-August for Olbrich’s Blooming Butterflies exhibit. Live butterflies are released into the tropical Conservatory with related activities, and attendance during that event is typically around 20,000 people.
“The attendees are all ages, but we particularly have a lot of families and younger kids,” Sullivan said. “We stock up and sell lots of butterfly related merchandise at lower price points.”
The other large event is Olbrich’s Holiday Express in December. The entry and lobby are decorated with real trees, real garland and poinsettias grown in their greenhouses and the “Express” refers to the elaborate
model train show that accompanies the trees and plants.
“The lights make it really magical,” she said. “Typically, this event brings in more than 20,000 people during the month of December, so we stock merchandise that’s holiday and train related. It’s a big sales month for us.”
Smaller, but important, events are the Fall Quilt Show, Herb Fair and appearances by garden authors and experts. They bring in books and related items to support each event. When things aren’t quite as busy, Sullivan recommends looking for inspiration in unusual spots, and always sticking close to the mission of your museum.
“Bring in the highest quality, most unusual products,” she said. “You don’t want to compete with other stores that can buy lower, but you want the kind of merchandise you can’t get anywhere else.”
That guarantees that the vision of the Gardens to be a locally treasured and globally renowned source of beauty and education will be reflected in every product purchased, bringing things full circle.
By Abby Heugel