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Into the Garden: Monrovia-Lowe's deal troubles independents

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When you buy plants for your garden, do you buy them because they are a certain brand or because of the label on the pot?

Recently, independent garden centers are up in arms about a new deal between the large plant grower Monrovia and big-box chain Lowe's.

Monrovia formerly sold only to independents -- and they have now entered into an agreement with the big-box retailer Lowe's to sell their plants at the popular stores across the country.

Bill Mills, who ran the retail side of TerraSalis for years and who still continues to manage their landscape design business, told me they have not purchased from Monrovia in a decade.

"I would rather sell our name [TerraSalis] than theirs. Independents always need to be updating, securing the best of purveyors. We try to buy local as much as possible, and that can have us sourcing from West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio. We know these growers and their staff on a personal basis. They represent their product honestly with quick delivery and low minimums," Mills said.

He added that Monrovia is under severe pressure from their creditors because of their quantity of inventory.

"To stay solvent, they have no other choice than to sell volume, to Lowe's," Mills added.

Retailers and growers responded quickly to this former independent-exclusive brand being sold at a mass merchant. Opinions are on the strong side.

TodaysGardenCenter.com saw responses that were both angry and philosophical. Monrovia representatives James Szadek and Tim Barthel answered many of the questions posed by the retailers.

Here's a sampling of comments:

"The question here is whether Monrovia agreed to pay-by-scan. If so, then will that be my terms as well," asked David Jackson.

The scan-and-pay idea means the grower does not get paid until the plant is sold to the end customer by the big box. If the box store does not sell the plants, they are returned to the grower and not paid for, which often has been the death knell for many growers.

Szadek answered the question about scan-and-pay:

"Thanks David. ... And to answer your question, the Lowe's agreement is not pay-by-scan."

A comment from another independent seller, Justin Scheiteman, echoes Mills.

"It does worry me quite a bit that the box stores are getting the same product we have at independents. But on the independent garden center end, we need to make sure we can differentiate ourselves with better service, product and shopability. Recently I went to a few other independents and some box stores. The box stores were organized a lot better, product looked nicer, and the staff was much friendlier. If I was a plant grower, I would want my plants where they are going to be showcased the best and I will sell more. Our challenge as independents is to go into these box stores and honestly compare ourselves to them. Then go out and beat the pants off of them in service and quality!" he said.

Kevin Wilson wasn't very positive about the Monrovia-Lowe's deal.

"Monrovia has decided to partner with the box stores at the expense of the independent garden center customers who built them. As they find that more independent garden centers drop them, they will be more and more tied to the big-box pricing structure. Eventually quality will suffer and Monrovia having placed too many eggs in the big-box basket will die off with a whimper. RIP Monrovia," he said.

Barthel replied:

"Kevin, for 16 years we have had all of our eggs in the independent garden center basket and were hoping for many more years in the future. The eggs are getting less and less, we all need to diversify or die. Most consumers do not walk into a store asking for a brand, they purchase it when they see the brand on the shelf and relate it towards a good thing. Monrovia has been a strong partner for our industry for 87 years to show consumers that plants are special and different. Many garden centers still carry Scotts, Proven Winners and Endless Summer because these brands sell, and at the end of the day we all want empty shelves!"

Independent Jim Schroer said, "Unless Monrovia has some hands-on control of how their product is taken care of, this will tarnish their reputation with the consumer and cheapen their brand to the independent garden center."

In response, Barthel said, "I went to the Apple store to buy my iPad for the experience at their great retail store. I still love Apple, even though I could have bought the iPad at Best Buy or Walmart. Endless Summer Hydrangea is everywhere; people buy it from the places they like the most."

Finally, several independents believe this move to sell at Lowe's will be the end of Monrovia.

"Once a brand hits the chain stores, it's the beginning of the decline of the brand," said Jack Crawford. "Look at Martha Stewart, Proven Winners, etc. Independent garden centers have to work harder at creating their own branding in the future."

"Bottom line, though, is that the Monrovia name will be in the discounters," said Curtis Jones, "thus diminishing the uniqueness of the independent garden center."

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com.


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