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August 25, 2010   Email to Friend 

OYFF: Odds Keep Wrights Guessing What Customers Want
By Darryal Ray

Wrights at home in greenhouse are Davy and Heather, Abby and Noah.
"In my next life, I want to be a weatherman," Davy Wright is saying. "A weatherman can screw up bad, and nobody gives a flip."

It was that kind of spring in Plantersville, where Wrights Nursery & Greenhouse has been dealing with the unpredictability of weather since 1967.

"If a weatherman says it's going to rain on the weekend but it turns out pretty, that weekend is already messed up," Davy says, explaining that plant sales can suffer at even a suggestion of anything but less-than-perfect gardening weather. "If it rains, it's messed up. If it's cool, it's messed up. If it's too hot, it's messed up. When the weathermen give that 20 percent chance of rain everyday, nobody wants to go do anything, and the sales just stop."

The odds, Wright says, are always stacked against you in the plant business. If it's not the weather, then it's just trying to carry a family enterprise into another generation or trying to figure out what customers want.

Yet, somehow, Davy and wife Heather, along with daughter Abby (7) and son Noah (4), have not only survived those odds but flourished enough to win the Greenhouse, Nursery & Sod Division of the Alabama Farmers Federation's annual Outstanding Young Farm Family contest.

"All businesses have a failure rate, but that failure rate increases with every generation," says Davy, whose grandfather launched the business when Davy's dad lost an arm in a farming accident. "Most businesses can't get past that second or third generation because of a lack of interest from family members, but hopefully, I've got the interest that's needed to keep this business going."

Theirs is truly a family operation with Davy, Heather, Abby and Noah pitching in right alongside his parents, her mother and his grandmother. It's an effort that has seen the business grow to about two acres of greenhouse space, another 20,000 square feet outside and about two million perennials, annuals, vegetables and herbs along with 20,000 hanging baskets.

Their 30-35 regular clients and 50 or so other customers are all independent garden centers in Florence, Muscle Shoals, Huntsville, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Montgomery.

"No chain stores," says Heather, whose main responsibility is the bookkeeping duties. "When you go into a chain store, you're not getting the same quality product and you're not getting the same flats that you are when you get it from an independent. When you buy from an independent garden center, you are getting somebody who derives their livelihood from selling and maintaining plants. They have the knowledge, and can answer questions. If you go to a chain store, you get Joe Blow off the street who doesn't know anything about that plant."

In the meantime, the Wrights' "Alabama Grown" brand continues to build recognition. "The only thing we don't put the 'Alabama Grown' tag on is something that we're not yet sure is a good product for Alabama -- it's stuff we are experimenting with. This year we tried some Peruvian lilies, and they are blooming their little heads off," said Davy.

But knowing what customers want is about as tricky as ... well, predicting the weather.

"We're already planning for 2011 -- we know exactly what you're going to buy in 2011," Davy said sarcastically. "The best seller is whatever the customers are ordering, not necessarily what we plan it to be. We can plan on it being blue impatiens, and the next thing you know, they're buying up all the red ones you've got. ... This year, for some reason, people love Cherokee Purple tomato. Can't keep 'em, but next year, we probably can't give them away.

"Sometimes, it's got to do with which football team is doing better," he added. "Some years blue-and-orange sells like crazy, but the next year, you can't give it away. Same thing with red-and-white. You just never know what to expect."

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