Katie Cantrell, Lead Merchandiser & Gift Dept. Head
Martin's Home & Garden, Murfreesboro, TN
Nashville-Area Indie 'Where Beauty & Quality Meet' Wins the Hearts - And Sales - of the Community
More than three decades ago, John and Helen Martin opened a roadside stand that sold seasonal produce and bedding plants. Since then, Martin’s Home & Garden has grown into an award-winning gardening supplier, nursery and hardscaping company for the Murfreesboro community.
Martin’s is the area’s full-service resource for annuals, bedding plants, herbs, perennials, shrubs, outdoor living and much more - bringing to life the tagline, “Where Beauty & Quality Meet,” which independent garden retailers will get to experience in person this June, as the store is a featured destination on the 2019 GCA Summer Tour Nashville.
The store’s annuals are their best-sellers and the pride of the business, according to Katie Cantrell, Lead Merchandiser and Head of the Gift Department. Annual hanging baskets and mums come in a close second. The greenhouse is a profit house for Martin’s, generating one-third of sales, she says.
The Martin family grows some of its own plant material for the business on their farm, which is located about 30 miles away in Woodbury, TN. In the spring, they grow vinca baskets and 3,000 Wave petunia baskets. Mums are grown in the fall – and they’re easily some of the largest mums offered in the area.
On top of their quality plant material, Martin’s stands out from the competition by offering fresh produce locally grown by Amish farmers and other grocery items in the store’s newly revamped Market, which also carries gifts, wind chimes, local honey, personal care items made with farm-fresh ingredients and more.
Over the course of three months last year, Katie turned Martin’s gift shop from a dark, drab space into a profitable category for the retailer. She repainted the area in a neutral gray with blue undertones, added new product lines and decluttered the space to open it up more.
During The Market’s renovation, Katie made sure to create a new space for houseplants, dedicating a quarter-size larger footprint and bringing in more unique varieties.
Since then, houseplants have taken off, with sales up 80 percent. “We’ve definitely noticed more interest in houseplants, especially from Millennials,” Katie says. “But they really don’t know what they’re doing with houseplants, so we brought in some books about them, and we also have a houseplant specialist in the gift shop for advice – she has been crucial.”
Martin’s is all about creating that unique in-store experience to encourage repeat visits. Katie believes the basis of all exceptional shopping experiences begin with customer service.
“It’s just so important to have employees who want to help the customers and don’t have that fake customer service attitude,” she says. “They genuinely want to talk to people about the plants they’re buying and give suggestions. It’s huge that our employees have a passion for this, which translates to the customers, making for a good customer service experience.”
The retailer also takes care of its customers, offering them samples of their produce, coffees, apple cider and other goodies. “We’ve found if shoppers are walking around with a cup of coffee, they’re going to spend longer in the store,” says Katie.
Unlike other independent garden centers, Martin’s has the ability to create unique, custom, one-of-a-kind displays and fixtures that cater to their store layout. The Martin family has several masons and carpenters, who are able to build any fixture that Katie dreams up.
In fact, the garden center has plans to build a permanent pergola in the perennials area, as well as fix up the storefront by planting raised beds to showcase the entrance. They plan on converting a large barn at the back of the property into a new classroom space, too.
While these short-term updates help improve the store and shopping experience, the retailer has its eyes set on the future and how it can better serve its customer base. Within the next five to 10 years, second-generation Owner Lester Martin wants to expand to a second location.
Keeping an eye on the industry has helped Martin’s stay updated and on top of consumer gardening trends – but it’s the GCA Summer Tour that motivated the retailer to see what they could improve and jumpstart the store renovations.
“I took 700 photos on last year’s GCA Summer Tour Seattle,” Katie says. “Seattle is just beautiful, and the garden centers were breathtaking.”
As the Lead Merchandiser and Head of the Gift Department, Katie was focused on each stop’s interior, so she took a lot of ideas away on signage and displays. “Sky Nursery was my favorite for signage.”
She continues, “It was nice to meet and talk to a lot of the merchandisers. I’m the only merchandiser for our store, so it’s been a little overwhelming at times for me to manage. Being able to talk to other merchandisers who have been doing it for a while was really huge for me.
“Plus, it helps show the owner examples of what they were doing and what we could be doing. Instead of the same old rows of flats, they were doing a lot more dynamic displays. Getting the full experience of walking through those garden centers really helped me figure out what our direction should be here.”
In just a couple of months, the GCA Summer Tour buses will be heading to the Nashville area, stopping by Martin’s, and Katie will get to see what it’s like on the other side of the tour.
“It will be nice to get outsider perspectives on the flow of our store,” she says. “I’ve kind of struggled with the way the store is set up. It’s going to be really nice to hear others’ opinions.”
Beyond offering affordable discounts on the GCA Summer Tours, being a part of America’s only association dedicated solely to the needs of independent garden centers, Garden Centers of America, has helped Katie and other staff members garner ideas for their own projects back at the store.
“Honestly, it kick-started our whole renovation on everything, and I think that’s going to be really profitable for us, because we’re going to have better displays, space and store layout,” she says. “It all comes down to the membership.”
Katie wasn’t always a part of the garden center industry, and she admits the opportunity to join it “fell into her lap.”
“It was meant to be,” she says. “I came from a lot of corporate backgrounds. I spent a few years in large corporate retail, and sitting inside a cubicle was just so depressing to me. I’ve always loved being outside.”
Katie started her merchandising career as a visual advisor for Kirkland’s before moving on to be a distribution analyst. Then, she took a position as a space planner for Tractor Supply. “That was a little bit more fun, but I didn’t get to physically set the product, which is what I most enjoy.”
She continues, “But it really worked out very well, because all the experiences I gained working there have helped significantly here at Martin’s.”
Her experiences in corporate retail have helped improve store practices at Martin’s, as well as modified the way department managers ran their categories so that they were more efficient.
Now that she’s situated in the independent garden center industry, Katie isn’t going anywhere.
“This job opened up, and I took a leap of faith and just dove right into it,” she says. “I love it. When we went on the GCA Summer Tour Seattle last year, I fell in love with it even more. I love everything about this industry, and I’ll probably stay here for the rest of my career.”