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Beautiful flowers, lush greenery, a bubbling fountain. This may sound like a stroll through a botanical garden, but it's really a quick trip through the expanding garden centers now found at many supermarkets and supercenters across the country.Today's purveyors of plants and petals are striving to provide options for novices and green thumbs alike. Some garden centers offer educational materials

Beautiful flowers, lush greenery, a bubbling fountain. This may sound like a stroll through a botanical garden, but it's really a quick trip through the expanding garden centers now found at many supermarkets and supercenters across the country.

Today's purveyors of plants and petals are striving to provide options for novices and green thumbs alike. Some garden centers offer educational materials for consumers to take home and others rely on their employees to do the educating, but all have one thing in common -- they offer solutions for gardens, the size of a ball park or planted in a bathtub.

Stew Leonard's Garden Shop in Norwalk, Conn., has been expanding since its beginning 16 years ago.

The greenhouse, located across the street from the Stew Leonard's supermarket, serves as store and nursery. It operates from mid-March through the end of October and then reopens the week before Thanksgiving for the winter holiday season.

Employees of the Garden Shop work year-round, assigned to other departments during the off-season. According to Tom Anrico, executive director of sales for the Garden Shop, all major suppliers come in to speak to the staff and explain their products so employees can give educated responses to consumer inquiries.

Anrico said many customers come to the greenhouse with a landscaping scheme in mind, but others know only that they want to plant a garden.

"We get some customers who come in with a specific plan and others who come in looking for ideas," Anrico said. "This is why keeping our employees up to date on the latest products is so important. They need to assist everyone from the experienced gardener to the beginner."

The Garden Shop provides educational materials for its customers to take home. In the spring, fliers explaining how to start a garden are mailed and are available at the greenhouse. The shop works with another nursery to publish Landscape Solution Theories -- a booklet that offers answers to commonly asked gardening questions, such as how to create a butterfly garden, sun and watering instructions for a multitude of plants and flowers and, considering Stew Leonard's seaside proximity, how to create and care for a shore garden.

The addition of a delivery service a few years ago opened up a garden of variety for the greenhouse. Now, larger cargo vehicles have allowed Stew Leonard's to carry full-grown items, which Anrico said have great appeal for their customers.

"When choosing what to carry, we used to have to take into consideration whether or not the product would fit in the back of a car," he said. "The delivery service has allowed us to expand our variety and offer larger items."

He explained this helped boost profits because the typical customer isn't looking to buy and nurture a seedling. "[They want instant gratification. They want to buy a grown tree, plant it and have that be the end of it," he said.

Perhaps for the same reason, the greenhouse's most popular sellers consistently have been flowering annuals.

"Our No. 1 selling items are by far the annuals," said Anrico. "It's amazing how many of them we sell."

Anrico attributed this success in part to consumers' love of colorful gardens.

"With the annuals, you've got color from the time you put them in the ground until the first frost," he added. "The customers just love that."

The Garden Shop also stocks lawn and garden tools, pesticides, cement planters, bird baths and benches.

The inventory is extensive, ranging from a 50-pound bag of pulverized lawn lime at $1.49 to four cubic feet of peat moss for $7.99 to premium Jackson & Perkins roses for $12.99.

Anrico said service is also a essential to the Garden Shop's success.

"It's just impossible for us to carry everything," Anrico said. "But it is our policy to fill any special requests from the customers."

The store also cross-merchandises outdoor items like grills by Coleman and Weber and a variety of lawn furniture. Anrico said just last year, it began carrying wooden Adirondack outdoor furniture and followed its great success this year with the classic aluminum furniture, already a strong seller.

"All our customers have shopped around and come back to us because of our great products and services," he said. "It's all about providing what the customer wants."

Another retailer who has responded to customer interest with growth and expansion is Jewel-Osco, based in Melrose Park, Ill.

According to Cindy Rapshus, floral merchandising director for the food-and-drug combination retailer, the floral department took over the operation of the garden centers about three years ago and currently all but six of the combination stores contain the departments.

The centers feature everything from garden plants to evergreens and roses, and stock ornamental landscape stones and fixtures as well.

A big draw at selected Jewel-Osco locations are the temporary greenhouses constructed in the stores' parking lots each year. The greenhouses -- open for 10 weeks from mid-April to mid-June -- are an extension of the retailer's garden centers. The structures vary in size, depending on available space, from 40 by 30 square feet to 100 by 30 square feet. Rapshus said the greenhouses create a high-profile, "in-your-face" merchandising opportunity.

"The customers enjoy seeing the quality and service involved in maintaining the greenhouse," she said. "The program is tremendous, but a lot of fun."

The garden centers and greenhouses stock a variety of horticultural species. There are two-gallon pots of rhododendrons or azaleas for $14.99, flowering annual hanging baskets for $9.99 and varieties of perennials for only $4.99.

A recent preferred customer booklet dedicated a fold-out page to the garden center and its offerings. The spread carried the headline "Our Garden Center Gives You the Best Selection Under the Sun!" and included a special VIP coupon for $1-off flowering or vegetable flats to help customers start their summer gardens.

Besides advertising in customer mailers, Jewel-Osco touts the garden centers and greenhouses on its promotional radio spots.

"Our garden centers do a great business," said Rapshus. "We provide a large variety and the customers appreciate that."

Big Save supermarkets, based in Eleele, Hawaii, has found that incorporating garden items into its floral department works best.

Zena Dizol, floral buyer for Big Save, said she makes her selections based on what her vendors bring to her, and while some items are staples, she adds new items to keep the department fresh, interesting and educational.

"The most popular items we carry are floral plants, particularly mums and roses," Dizol said. "The customers seem to love the color they bring to their gardens."

While the store does carry garden hoses and other tools, these items are stocked in other departments. Dizol said her department's employees, trained specifically for floral, can direct customers to the proper department for other products to complete their gardens.

Since Hawaii's climate allows for year-round growing, garden items are stocked all year. Dizol said she tried to bring in something a little different, possibly even from the mainland, to coincide with a holiday or special occasion.

"Customers respond to the new products and the old," she added. "They appreciate the variety we provide."

The retailers agreed that the majority of their business is with individuals rather than professional landscapers. For this reason, personal service and informed employees rank high with them all.

"Our customers rely on us for information and for ideas," said Rapshus, "and we do everything we can to accommodate them."

Dizol agreed. "I think the customers come to our department looking for ideas," she said. "We need to be able to provide them with solutions."