Spotlight on Indie Pioneer Business: Schmidt’s Garden Center
The Schmidt family has provided the following historical information for us.
Walt Schmidt started in business in 1959, when he opened 29th Street Home Supply in Corvallis, Oregon. 52 years later that same business is still going strong as Schmidt's Garden Center, operated by his daughter Susan, literally around the corner from the original location. In that time he's seen the rise of the big box retailers, the movement of retailing away from downtown core areas, the rise of internet marketing – and thrived through it all.
Walt's retail roots go back even further than 1959, because his father bought a grocery store in Corvallis in 1928 when Walt was 5 years old. His father sold the grocery store during World War II, but the retail bug had already bitten Walt and he knew that someday he wanted to start his own store. When he got back from the army at the end of the war and started looking for a job, Walt's father suggested he go talk to Harold Whiteside, who owned Whiteside Hardware store in Corvallis. Pretty soon Walt was working as the floor manager and buyer at Whiteside Hardware, and he started thinking that maybe the hardware business was his future.
It took a few years, but eventually Walt found a way to fulfill his dream. In 1959 he signed a lease on his original location, a 1250 square foot building next door to a grocery store. His monthly rent was a whopping $100! Even back in the beginning Walt was an innovator, because his location was unusual - at that time retail stores tended to be located in the center of town, but Walt opened his store on the edge of town in what would later become a retail corner with several other businesses.
Originally 29th Street Home Supply was strictly a hardware store, but that didn't last even a month. The store opened in May, and that same month a salesman from the Portland Seed Company, Jim Rasmussen, stopped by to introduce himself to Walt. Portland Seed Company was a distributor of garden supplies, which Walt had no experience in other than working the one acre garden in back of his parent's house. So Walt turned Jim down flat. After all, he was a hardware guy, right? But Jim was a good salesman, so he stopped by again two weeks later and made Walt an offer he couldn't refuse: "I'm going to write you up an order, but I'm not going to bill you for it. I'll ship it down here, and we'll see what happens. If it doesn't sell I'll pack it back on a truck, we'll shake hands, and that will be the end of it." Jim came back two weeks later, and looked around while Walt was talking to one of his customers. But he couldn't find any of the merchandise he thought had been shipped down. When he finally managed to corner Walt and asked him whether he had received it, Walt answered with three words: "Double the order." Guess it sold even better than Jim hoped for! Walt's been selling plants and garden supplies ever since.
So even in the beginning Walt was learning and adapting, a pattern that continues to this day. When Walt outgrew his original location 4 years later he eventually settled on a vacant lot around the corner, with plans to build his own building on it. Once again he was ahead of the times, because when he talked to hardware store chains about financing to build the building and open a franchise, he was told that hardware stores would never work out in shopping centers away from the center of town. They had to be downtown with all the other retailers. Undeterred, Walt went to the Small Business Administration, got a loan to build his building, and opened Schmidt's Garden Center out on the edge of town. Since then we all know what's happened to retail businesses in the center of small towns. In fact, the person from the Marshall Wells hardware store chain who turned down Walt because of his location came to see Walt years later (after Marshall Wells had closed its doors, surprise, surprise) and told Walt that all those years ago Walt had been right and he had been wrong about the location.
Another thing Walt lived through was the rise of big box retailers. Walt saw early on that he had to differentiate himself from the box boys, and he saw two ways to do it: Provide customer service the box boys could not, and offer products and brands they could not. Being an old school retailer, customer service was second nature to Walt. He'd been a neighborhood business since the beginning, where his customers were also his friends, and he wasn't about to let go of his reputation of taking excellent care of people. But, he was an innovator in product and brand selection, because he didn't stick with the familiar brands everyone else (including the box boys) carried. In fact, Walt was one of the first retailers in Oregon to join VPG and carry the Fertilome brand, and he's been doing it ever since.
The only predictable thing about Schmidt's Garden Center is that it never stands still. The original building was remodeled about 10 years ago, adding an upstairs office area and increasing the retail space by 50 percent. Five years ago Walt built a fancy new Nexus greenhouse next to the store designed with retailing in mind instead of just keeping off the rain.
The latest innovation is the introduction of a weekly email newsletter - it has become hugely popular, with a mailing list of 4100 email addresses (and growing) for a store with a dozen parking spaces. Every single one of those people signed up in the store, and not a day goes by without at least one customer telling one of the staff how much they enjoy the newsletter. Schmidt's writes the emails themselves, and try to be entertaining as well as very informative. They regularly do email coupon promotions with a response rate of up to 20 percent!
So who knows where Schmidt's Garden Center will be in another 50 years! But you can bet on two things: It will still have the same original wood letters from Walt's father's grocery store spelling out "Schmidt's" over the front door, and it will still be out in front experimenting with new ways to succeed.
CIBA recognizes the important role Walt Schmidt, his father and now his daughter and son-in-law, Susan & Tim Yaukey, have had in Corvallis over the last 83(!) years. We are pleased to honor the Schmidt family for their contributions to their neighborhood and their community over those years. Thank you, Walt, Susan, Tim & your Garden Center staff!
Walt Schmidt and Susan Yaukey will be the “Celebrity Pancake Flippers” at the final 2011 Buy Local First Breakfast on Saturday, July 2, from 7:30-9:30 a.m. at the Odd Fellows Hall downtown. Stop by to say hi and swap stories with Walt – maybe he’ll even bring some of his old photographs!
firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com">jerryheilman, 11:16 AM [link]