A purple petunia at the Wal-Mart store in Mohegan Lake, N.Y., sells for 26 cents. A short drive away, Matterhorn Nursery in Spring Valley, N.Y., sells the same purple petunia for more than triple Wal-Mart’s price — 83 cents.
Yet on Mother’s Day, the unofficial kickoff to gardening season in the area, long lines of customers at Matterhorn waited to pay a premium for their flowers and shrubs. The Wal-Mart nursery was nearly empty.
“I’d rather pay the extra,” said Donna Robbins of Stony Point, N.Y., who purchased so many plants at Matterhorn that she rented a small truck to carry them home. “If you pay half the price, you get half the quality.”
Petunias may seem like a commodity, indistinguishable without their packaging, but Matt Horn, owner of Matterhorn Nursery, has figured out how to produce and merchandise plants and other garden supplies so customers drive miles out of their way to pay higher prices. Even a bag of dirt from Matterhorn is special: It contains composted kelp, shellfish shells and barnyard manure and sells for $12.98. At Wal-Mart, the same amount of humus and manure costs about $4.
“I think of the higher prices as an entry fee, because coming here is like coming to a park,” says Judy Lauster of Westwood, N.J. “It’s all so beautiful.”
Nurseries run by discount stores like Home Depot Inc. or Wal-Mart Stores Inc. keep costs low by stocking a huge volume of a limited number of varieties. Matterhorn offers petunias in miniature, giant, trailing and spreading varieties — all in several colors. “Everything you can think of is here,” says Karen Bell of Stony Point. At large chain stores, employees may not know the difference between floribunda and grandiflora petunias; most of Matterhorn’s 60 staff members are knowledgeable gardeners.
“Most independent garden centers are run by plant people learning about retail,” says Carol Miller, editor of Garden Center Merchandising and Management, a monthly trade publication based in Fort Worth, Texas. “Most mass merchants are business people learning about plants.” Matterhorn’s annual revenue of $3 million puts it in the top 10% of independent garden centers, according to Ms. Miller.
Mr. Horn, 46 years old, and his wife, Ronnie, also 46, started Matterhorn as a wholesale nursery in 1981 but switched to retail in 1996 after noticing that individual gardeners were becoming more educated and less price-conscious than commercial landscapers. But the Horns also knew people wouldn’t make a special trip to Spring Valley, 25 miles north of New York City, unless it offered more than flats of conventional flowers wedged into metal racks.