Sue Klein, Owner
Klein's Floral & Greenhouses, Madison, WI
Third-Generation Leader Continues to Strengthen Family’s Strong Legacy in Garden Center Business
Selling home and garden supplies for 106 years has shaped a positive reputation for Klein’s Floral & Greenhouses in the Madison, WI, community – one that encouraged their customers to name them as the No. 1 Garden Store in Madison by Isthmus readers, in addition to being selected as No. 2 Florist and No. 3 in the Lawn, Garden & Landscape category in the Best of Madison contest from Madison Magazine.
A lot has changed since 1913, when the business was founded by Frederick and Susan Klein, who established two greenhouses, a barn and a chicken coop on the same property Klein's currently resides on. The family's operation sold lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and other fresh produce.
As the area around Klein's started expanding, so did the greenhouse, and they began to grow carnations and sweet peas, as well as fresh arrangements that they delivered with a 1929 Ford Model T truck.
Oscar and Joyce Klein purchased the operation in 1955, continuing the expansion of services by adding a full-service floral business that provides arrangements for birthdays, weddings, prom, funerals and other occasions, as well as bedding plants.
"Our floral department is my favorite part of the business – that was started by my mom," Owner Sue Klein says. "That was her thing."
Sue's affinity toward floral started at the young age of 2, when she helped her parents make carnation corsages. "My mom and dad never sent me off to daycare or summer camp. I was with them all the time, so I grew up in the greenhouse."
She always knew she wanted to be involved with her family's garden center, so when an opportunity presented itself after she graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison, she purchased the venture from her parents in 1990. The full-service garden center offers everything from seeds to supplies and custom containers and houseplants. They even started contract growing this year.
Their annual selection is quite large, and they grow most of their annuals and perennials on-site, according to Sue.
The home-grown annuals are a huge differentiator for Klein's – they are the No. 1 bestseller – especially since the unique varieties and quality are unlike anything that the big boxes and other local garden stores carry.
Not only has the retailer's selection grown since Sue took over, the community around Klein's has continuously expanded, too. "Back in the day, my dad talked about how 10 cars total would drive by in a day, and now, it's almost 60,000 cars that travel by every day," she says. "It's a great location, and it has changed a lot over the 106 years."
Sue has noticed that more and more young shoppers between the ages of 25 and 34 have become their biggest customer group. They've been careful not to intimidate them with larger gardening projects, as they notice these customers flock to houseplants and custom containers. "They want plants to purify their space, and they call them their 'plant babies.'"
That's why they've been keen on bringing in more houseplants to cater to this customer base. Houseplant sales alone have increased 50 percent year-over-year, counting as their No. 2 bestseller.
Klein's has also started to carry more pre-planted container gardens for the time-starved shopper, and it is a huge upcoming category that they've hosted special events around. Sue, who attended the GCA Summer Tour Nashville, noticed a lot of retailers on the tour featured these container gardens and saw huge success with them.
Judy Sharpton held a container planting class at Klein's this year, which attracted a lot of people who had never put together a pot before, according to Sue. "I noticed people were intimidated to do it, but once we showed them how, they were so excited and proud of themselves. They would take selfies with their creation," she says. "And we sold a lot more containers that week of the event than we did previously."
To draw more of these "do-it-for-me" customers, Klein's has offered a container planting service for free, if they purchase an indoor plant and pot at the store. "That's just an added service that the big box stores don’t get or aren't able to do," says Sue.
After more than 100 years in the area, Klein's has become a powerhouse name and pillar in the community. Many of their customers have shopped there for generations, and even some of the staff have 20 years' experience working for the Klein family.
But even with a well-established reputation, Sue recognizes that in order for her family garden center business to remain successful and continue well into the future, they need to continue evolving with the times. "It's important that as each year passes, you follow what's new and adapt it for your business."
This is where the GCA Summer Tour Nashville was extremely helpful in pointing out the next consumer gardening trends and how they work for other garden retailers.
"It was great going to Nashville – I had never been and it was a fun city," she says. "I enjoyed seeing other garden centers and chatting with people in the industry. We came back with so many ideas, which I put on our to-do list for January when things slow down."
Updating and making more signage will be a big priority for Klein's, as well as setting up more displays to show off their merchandise and maximize their square footage as much as possible.
"I connected with so many people and learned a lot from other independent garden centers across the country," Sue says. "Sometimes, you think you're the only one in the world going through this issue, but you're not. There are other people who can relate to your situation and have some suggestions to help you through it."
She continues, "I'm already looking forward to the GCA Summer Tour Boston next year."
A few years ago, Sue made some big updates to the business that would help Klein's better navigate the future of retailing. They demolished the original greenhouses and built a 23,000-square-foot energy-efficient Nexus atrium greenhouse that is people- and plant-friendly. Their new retail structure allows them to bring all the gift items, birding supplies and floral department out front for easy shopability.
Sue saved some pieces from the original greenhouses to repurpose and incorporate that history into the new space. In addition to the list of updates she wants to make in January, Sue is already eyeing their production houses and how they can make them more efficient.
The state-of-the-art retail space has also allowed them to offer more events, since they have a large space where customers can comfortably gather. To showcase their floral designs, Klein's hosts a "wine and design" planting class, where ladies come in with friends to create an arrangement over a glass of wine. Their other planting classes, focused on succulents, kokedama and miniature gardens, are also very well-received. These events are a huge draw for the younger shoppers, who crave fun and creative experiences.
Stepping up their social media interaction, Klein's started a printed Instagram wall in-store to showcase all the customers who have visited and tagged the store on the social platform, and to encourage others to do the same. "Some of the photos are from high school kids going to prom, some are shopping in the store, some are families," Sue says. "Last winter, I noticed a lot of photographers reached out to take photos in our greenhouse."
Sue continues, "That was heartwarming to see how many people want to take photos in my store."