A Second-Generation Garden Center Struggles to Survive Slow Economy

By Milena Basso

Shopping for flowering plants at Rocco Fischetti Nursery, Lewis Levin examines purple New Guinea impatiens.
Shopping for flowering plants at Rocco Fischetti Nursery, Lewis Levin examines purple New Guinea impatiens.

A profusion of purple petunias, red geraniums and pink begonias are visible from close to a mile down Hemsptead Turnpike from the Rocco Fischetti Nursery, a five-acre spread in West Hempstead, N.Y.

Fischetti, which straddles Hempstead Avenue with wholesale merchandise on one side and a retail business on the other, has been a go-to destination for professional and amateur gardeners in this multi-ethnic working- and middle-class community for two generations. Fischetti sells everything from brightly colored flowers and pond supplies to plant food and decorative pots and stones.

Now, as the business is enjoying its peak spring selling season, Vincent Fischetti, the owner, is hoping that the business will continue pulling out of the deepest trough the gardening center has faced since it was founded by his father Rocco Fischetti 77 years ago. “We lost 33 percent of retail and wholesale sales,” says Fischetti, adding that he had no choice but to lay off 3 of his 11 employees.

Fischetti is hoping to bring in revenues of $650,000 to $750,000 a month in May and June, lower than a monthly high of $900,000 in 2006 but better than $545,000 to $700,000 a month of 2008 and 2009. During a good year, July and August bring in $200,000 a month, with lower revenues during the off season.

The business is recovering, but it also faces growing competition, including Giordano’s Nursery, Westminster Nursery and Home Depot, all within a mile of Fischetti.

Nurseries everywhere were hurt by the recession and are losing business to Home Depot, which offers lower prices, if not comparable quality merchandise. On a recent weekend, a customer who gave her name only as Nancy, stormed out of Fischetti when she noticed that a bag of Scott’s topsoil was selling for $5.99 – nearly 50 percent more than the $3.50 price at Home Depot. Fischetti tried to explain the price difference: Home Depot purchases supplies in much greater bulk. “They also work on consignment so if they don’t sell their merchandise they aren’t stuck with leftover material, ” says Fischetti.

However, the customer wasn’t satisfied. “I’ll just go to Home Depot instead!” she said.

Customers wait in line at the Rocco Fischetti Nursery during Memorial Day weekend.
Customers wait in the cashier’s line at the Rocco Fischetti Nursery during Memorial Day weekend.

Vincent Fischetti, who took over the family business in 1972, expanded the nursery, which had occupied just one side of Hempstead Turnpike when his father ran the business. Fischetti transformed his childhood home into the retail office. He also invested in equipment, installed top-of-the-line security cameras and new cash registers. Fischetti is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, from March to December. The nursery is closed in January and February.

Now Fischetti is counting on its reputation for superior quality and longstanding relationships with customers to survive in the face of growing competition.

While many customers have cut back on purchases, Fischetti still has a loyal following. “It’s important I watch every dollar I spend,” says Mary Cacciatore, a hairdresser who recently bought dahlias and two pink hydrangeas at Fischetti. “However, I do prefer quality over quantity.”

Fischetti’s bread and butter is its wholesale landscaping business, which was hit particularly hard by the recession. Landscapers account for 45 percent of its sales, but demand for their services fell with the real estate market.

To win back wholesale and retail customers, Fischetti focused on lowering prices on certain items, including a wide range of perennials. During June and July, Fischetti trimmed prices on flats of flowers, selling them for $13.99, rather than the peak-season price of $17.

Fischetti’s most popular product is emerald-green abbreviates, a type of shrub used mainly for privacy. The nursery sells up to 5,000 each year, for $45 to $95 and $35 to $80 wholesale. The flats are also popular, and the nursery expects to sell 15,000 of these.

Still Fischetti is struggling to hold on to customers like Vicky Hurley, a bookkeeper and once-frequent customer. At the nursery on a recent May weekend, she returned for the first time since last year and was startled by the increase in prices. “I cannot afford to spend $17 on a flat of impatiens at Rocco Fischetti’s when I could go to Home Depot and spend only $11,” says Hurley. “I am aware of the difference in quality, but this is what I could afford.”

Hurley left without buying anything, but said she would be back for end-of-summer sales.

Although many of his loyal customers are buying less, Fischetti remains confident, saying “I plan to remain open, and keep my customer’s as happy as I can, for as long as I can!”