July 9, 2009

Did Terrain kill Smith & Hawken?

Smith & Hawken RIP
Here is the sign on the Smith and Hawkin website, right now.

Scott's Miracle Grow Company announced today that they are shutting down their high-end gardening retail business Smith & Hawken this week. ( I know! Scott's Miracle grow!! They bought the company in 2004...interesting.). I suppose it is not surprising that the brand was headed in this direction, after all, the signs were all there. My favorite location, on West Broadway in New York started carrying less and less merchandise that was unique and stylish, opting for more mass market brands and items, with less creative uniqueness that the brand was originally known for, and then Smith & Hawken started licensing the brand to Target Stores with a low-end line. All nails in the coffin, in many ways, of course, along with the economy and the competition. Yes....the competition.

Look....as a designer and a creative trend hunter, I can't help but apply my filters to my hobbies, too. For those of us interested in plants, things are changing fast. For most people, growing plants has become a lifestyle hobby, a place where they can express themselves, and self expression is rare today. Have you ever wondered how we ever lived without Michael's Craft Stores, the D.I.Y channel and Home Depot? Do it yourself is certainly self expression, as well as the recent rise of the craft movement, and cuisine. The fact that Americans now know what Arugula is, as well as Mesclun, is a testament to out new found passion of self expression and experience. Entertainment has moved the line of appreciation higher for some, such as foodies, and lower for others, such as plant folk. For now, anyway. But maybe things are changing.

Sure, we live in a sound-bite world with 900 TV channels and still nothing to watch. Sure, we want more and more information but less time to consume it all. Forget newspapers, we get our news from other sources now. Forget about no going out on a Friday night for dinner because our fav gardening program is on, we can just Tivo it and watch it at 6:00 am Sunday morning. And forget about taking three hours on a Saturday to go to a Pelargonium Society meeting, when I can just go to their website at my lunch hour at work and upload some photos I took on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when I had a spare hour. Yes, modern life is even changing the way we enjoy our past time, gardening. I don't know if it is all that bad?

I still love to get plant society journals and quarterlies in the mail, I read them in bed, on a plane, even outside on the deck with a glass of wine. But I also like the convenience of the Internet. Seeing other peoples photos, read about their successes and failures in gardening. I particularly love to waste time multitasking on my laptop ordering bulbs while the TV provides it's mindless background noise. I admit it. I'm OK with it.

So, why did Smith & Hawken fail as a business? One can only speculate. One reason certainly is the economy, surely, but I also have a personal theory, even I have even stopped buying product from them. OK, that shouldn't shut down any business, well, maybe a couple of rare plant nurseries! I think it was that the William Sonoma 'experience' changed, for me, at least it did in the end. Shopping there just felt different, less exciting, less unique. When I went inside one of their stores, I became less excited to buy anything. Increasingly, I would leave empty handed. There was a time that I would be in NYC for International Toy Fair on business, and take my truck so that I could hail home some large wrought iron urns, or some giant Guy Wolff pots. I used to discover things that I could not find anywhere else, things that we're authentic. Then, Smith & Hawken started carrying their own line of faux Guy Wolff, for nearly the same price, but with none of the cache or authenticity. Why would I buy that, When I could go directly to Guy himself to buy the pots at less cost. Or a craft show at RISD to buy a tin planter.

In 2004 when Scott's purchased Smith & Hawken, they hired David Palacek to design their retail experience. Not a bad move, after all, he has already recrafted WIlliams and Sonoma and Pottery Barn. As someone in the design business for a living, I can only speculate that too many cooks we're in this kitchen, and the cooks were not chefs. Maybe he left because he could not change them more, who knows. But ultimately, it is the chef, the designer, the buyer, the retail designer, together, who create the experience.

Chefs as gardeners?
I use this analogy a lot with gardens and gardeners, since I believe that cooking, design, and even gardening, are all creative arts, and, quite similar when you consider that they all rely upon creativity. The world of cuisine had suffered for years in the USA until a few star chefs, emerged, then became stars, brands even. Then things began to change. Emeril,( the brand) is now owned my Martha Stewart ( the brand), not surprising perhaps, but they both represent clear, authentic expressions, and I can only assume that the smart people at MSLO will manage this correctly.Target behaves in the same way. They fostered once garden designer and nursery owner turned TV celeb Sean Conway, who lives near me in Rhode Island, into one of their awesome brands ( the Sean Conway line), and then he moved his brand on to cable TV, PBS and a now a great book with an apparantly successful lifestyle program that I wish I could get in the Boston area, called Cultivating Life ( also a book).

Then comes...TERRAIN..

But then there is TERRAIN, perhaps the best expression of how a gardening brand can evolve is what specialty retailer Urban Outfitters has created. As one of the premiere design-driven companies around, Urban Outfitters has exercised it's creative muscle in some very new and authentic ways. This Philadelphia based fashion and lifestyle company has opened, or shall I say, redesigned a Philadelphia area nursery, into what many feel is the new garden center. Youthful, design centric and stunning, Terrain is catching everyones eye, from publishers to garden geeks like me. Watch how this store will change everything. At least it has for Phily shoppers. Here is the press release from a year ago.

"The traditional atmosphere, the horticultural and land design expertise, and the wide range of plants in the region are enhanced by a new sense of style from Terrain – the people who brought you the design innovation of the Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People stores… Drawing on the work of contemporary designers and traditional style from around the world, Terrain at Styer’s integrates home and garden into a personal living space enhanced by a connection to nature, and respect for our environment and our community.”

This should have been a kick in the butt, to Scott's Miracle Grow, that perhaps the needed a makeover fasssst.

Yes, some Styer;s shoppers complained, and others felt that this was just another Starbuckification scheme taking over the world, but many feel that the store is quite nice. Many bloggers like hiddeninfrance and Oh Joy have posted on the store, and many picks can be seen on Flickr, just search terrain.

From the TERRAIN web site.

SO how successful is Terrain? Well, time will tell, but at the Philadelphia Flower Show, their garden display won Best of Show, and people popularity vote.


  1. Matt, I had no idea they closed...you have a great insight to the retail market, as you should!I think every brand has a life expectancy in it's original form, change or die.Have you ever read The Findhorn Garden?(Paul Hawken from the seventies I think?)...just curious. Brian

  2. Anonymous6:02 AM

    You have sooooo many errors in your writing. Don't you bother to reread your writing to correct typos? "One best of show" rather than "won best of show." It undermines any possible credibility your site should have.

  3. Sure, I admit my spelling is poor, I am, I suppose, in too much of a hurry, and a little lazy at times, and constantly in a rush to post a blog posting during my lunch hour, or quickly before dinner after driving home. I think it's amazing that I can get done what I get done. But you are right, there should be no excuses.
    I am sorry that typo's bother you so much, however, I am not certain how it undermines my credibility in a blog, since this isn't journalism, a book or a magazine * more on that later) , or why it angers you so much. I will try to take more time to edit in the future, thanks for being so supportive, and for still continuing to visit my blog now and then. So....why anonymous? Unless you are Martha, ( who I know would be on my case about spelling, and she would be right....why not fess up if I can?

  4. Anonymous1:01 AM

    Hi Matt. Nice to see so many pics of your lovely plants lately. I used to like going into Smith and Hawken in the early days, cause it was pretty inside and felt garden-ish, but over time I found very little of practical use or reasonably priced. I used them a few times for gifts (Christmas ornaments), and I think I got Felcos there before they were more commonly available.

    You're right about this being the era for doing it yourself. Then again, we are also in an era of conspicuous consumption for the few still spending compulsively after the crash. I'm surprised to see another purveyor of fashionable lifestyle accessories like Terrain opening in these times, but they must feel there are still people with money to burn on doo-dads. Don't you think this is a shrinking demographic? Kim

  5. danielle jackson1:58 PM

    Sooooo spelt correctly is SO...those of us creative and passionate miss some details, but oh how lovely the final results. Great feedback on a diverse industry!!


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