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Jun. 5, 2020 | Friday
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COVID-19: Garden centres get green light to reopen
Seaway Farms employee Marisa Valla maintains a social distance while helping customers. (Jessica Maxwell)

Curbside pickup could be only option at some nurseries as operators scramble prior to Mother's Day weekend

 

Niagara's garden centres and greenhouses can be fully open for business Friday, after the provincial government lifted COVID-19 restrictions.

While they have been only offering delivery and curbside pickup of late, some stores were also preparing for the anticipated reopening.

Premier Doug Ford announced Wednesday afternoon that nursery businesses can be fully operational as of Friday.

Exactly how the reopening will play out is still being decided by garden centre operators. Some plan to continue focusing on curbside pickups so customers are advised to check with the centres directly. Some may allow shoppers into their retail areas.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, the shopping experience at Mori Gardens has changed from a retail store to almost like a warehouse. Online and phone orders have been available with curbside pickup or delivery, says owner Toni Mori. 

“We have a really good online store so we're happy about that. That's really helping us a lot.” 

All seminars has been delivered online by video and landscape design via Zoom. For landscape design, customers did one-on-one with a designer working from home.  

The designer created the design and would sends it as a PDF to the customer for review and discussion.

“It's really good that all these technical things are available to us,” Mori said. 

“The one thing is keeping organized. We have to be really organized to keep going but it's working.” 

Mori Gardens has been offering free delivery to Niagara-on-the-Lake daily and to Niagara Falls and St. Catharines twice a week. Customers can also order online or by phone for curbside pickup. 

“We are on the road all the time delivering,” Mori said. 

At Sunshine Express, “this time of year is our Christmas," retail sales manager Phil Fluit said. "This is what everything is geared for, so this is our busiest time.” 

“May is the kick-off for planting season, so even in these troubled times people are needing something to keep their spirits high and keep on going.” 

Fluit said sales have been going well and the busiest days are always Friday, Saturday and Monday. The store is closed Sundays.

“Wednesday could be just as busy as a Monday or Friday if the weather is ideal,” he said. 

WIth the restrictions, many new customers are placing orders because of how quickly things have changed and how Sunshine Express has managed to keep up, he said.

"Not everybody can be adapting as quickly as the next person." 

For Sunshine Express, the last four weeks have meant a lot of reinventing of the business, said Fluit. It had an existing website that needed to be adapted to process online orders.  

“We didn't have pictures, pricing, descriptions, any of that. So, it's been a lot of adding more to it,” he said.  

“We are lucky enough that most stuff is in place, just makes it tricky going from a retail business with the customers coming in, to an online shopping experience.” 

Fluit said Sunshine Express is working to make online shopping on its website as easy to navigate as possible.  

Fort Erie resident Elaine Blecher had no problem. “It was really easy to go on to their website and to be able to pull up the hanging baskets and go through each individual basket, know the colours and all that to order,” Blecher said as she picked up an order Monday afternoon. 

Online ordering on www.sunshine-express.ca has been available from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and store hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for curbside pickup. 

After an online order is placed, customers receive a confirmation of purchase. They are then advised to wait for an email notifying them that the order is ready for them and given a two-hour time frame to go get their order through the curbside pickup. 

Fluit said this system allows Sunshine Express to control the flow of customers and maintain social distancing by not having too many people picking up at once. 

Upon arrival at the garden centre, customers are met by an employee who  takes their confirmation number and gives them a numbered parking space. 

“We left the parking lot space in between everybody. Their items get brought out to the driver side for them. We leave it there for them to load up. Once they're done they exit out the back side of our parking lot and head home for their planting,” Fluit said.  

Curbside delivery to customers remain the best option for Sunshine Express right now, Fluit said after the government announcement that restrictions were lifted.

“We’re not going to be changing anything because there’s no way that this is going to run efficiently,” he said.

“We’re going to be doing curbside because it’s the only way to get everybody the product they want the quickest way. Until everything gets settled with getting through this busy time, there’s no real other option,” he said. "Unfortunately, people don’t get to come in and browse and that’s just what it’s going to be.”

Fluit said 460 orders were delivered curb side on Saturday, but if Sunshine Express were to start letting people inside they would be sacrificing the people that are waiting in line and people that are trying to continue with ordering online.

“It's just a different dynamic for us. Usually we're used to just pumping product in and the customers get to take what they want. Now, we're basically the personal shoppers,” he said. 

“People don't get to pick exactly the shape or size that they want but they have to trust that we're doing the growing we are picking the best and getting the right product and information to them.” 

The biggest challenge so far for Horbach’s Greenhouses on Concession 2 Road has been people not understanding they can't come inside during the lockdown, said Jon Horbach, part-owner and operator at the greenhouse. 

“We have people that come to the door that are actually mad at us that we can’t open and we won’t let them in,” he said. 

“It’s definitely easier to let somebody to just go through and pick what they want,” Horbach said. 

Horbach's is still deciding what changes will be made to its services, but for the time being online orders will continue with curbside pick-up.

The company's retail store opened May 1 with curbside pick-up. Orders can be placed online at horbachsgreenhouse.com. 

After hearing the government was lifting restrictions on greenhouses and garden centres, Seaway Farms owner Eileen Pillitteri said she is thrilled – but there is much to be done.

“Now I feel we’re scrambling,” Pillitteri said. “It’s very exciting but we just have to get everything in place now and figure out how we are going to do both,” referring to opening doors to shoppers and continuing curbside pick-up.

“My fear was that it was going to be next week or something, but Mother’s Day is a huge weekend for us so this is really great news,” she said.

“We’re kind of ready. We’re just working on signage and where we’re going to accommodate lineups and that sort of thing.”

Wednesday after closing Seaway planned to prepare the store for reopening with proper signs and floor markings to maintain social distancing and devise a game plan to control the flow of customers, said Pillitteri.

“I feel like I can breathe a little bit now,” she said. “We’re absolutely thrilled and, thank goodness, it’s certainly one bit of good news.”

Under the lockdown restrictions, Pillitteri said it has been hard for some customers to adjust.

“We just keep saying to people – be patient, we're learning too,” she said. “Nobody's done this. We've never done this.” 

“I think with the announcements that Doug Ford made the other day, it was a bit confusing for people,”  Pillitteri said.  

When the announcement was made last week that garden centres could reopen for curbside and delivery, she thinks people assumed they would be able to enter the garden centres and greenhouses. 

“On Monday we had people show up, like lots of people, show up,” she said. “The parking lot was full with people wanting to come in.” 

Seaway Farms has been offering curbside pickup of online and mobile orders. Customers can visit seawayfarms.ca to place an order. Customers arriving without orders still want to do their shopping and she hates turning them away.  

“Turning it into a drive through overnight has been really challenging,” she said. “But we’re making it work.” 

Those without mobile or online orders are asked to wait until existing orders are filled before they are served. It is preferred that customers call or go online to place an order. 

Pillitteri said traffic is “weather dependent. All of a sudden the sun comes out and we get a rush of cars.”  

“Easter was just a write-off and we've kind of looked past that,” she said. “But spring seems to be a bit more promising because the phone is ringing off the hook.” 

 

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