The coronavirus pandemic could not have come at a more inopportune time for local garden centers like Echter’s in Arvada. “Colorado has a short growing season so we do about 80% of our yearly sales in three months (April – June). We spend the entire rest of the year preparing for those three months,” explained Julie Echter, assistant store manager. For that reason, completely closing the 50-year-old business was nearly impossible for the Echter family. Shuttering during these key months would mean missing out on nearly the whole year’s revenue. Their only choice, like so many businesses, was to adapt — and fast.
Luckily for Echter’s and other garden centers like them, Colorado deemed them an essential business since they grow and sell food. Many in Arvada would likely agree with their importance — as the business has been supported by the community since 1959. Originally founded by Robert Echter as a wholesale carnation greenhouse, it now has a much wider range of goods and services and is even one of the largest retail plant nursery and garden centers in the state. But what hasn’t changed are the people behind it.
Both Julie and her brother Jeff Echter run their grandfather’s shop as an assistant and general manager, respectively. When the siblings realized how detrimental the coronavirus pandemic would be to their business their first thought was how to best support their staff, while also keeping them safe.
“Our staff is like family to us, some of our employees have worked here for over 30 years (longer than I’ve been alive). Keeping our staff and customers safe became one of our biggest concerns. We struggled to decide on the best course of action for weeks but eventually decided that closing the store to walk-in business was the best way to keep everyone safe and do our part in protecting the community,” said Julie.
With the store closed and busy season looming, they had to make a drastic shift to online. But for many businesses, building an e-commerce site, complete with a large inventory, can take months. Echter’s was able to pull it off within a matter of weeks.
“We initially started with offering phone ordering and curbside pickup but I knew that we would have to go beyond that. I began researching platforms for an online store and quickly started building our new site shopechters.com. It would be next to impossible to get all of our product up on the site so we started with the items we felt would be most important to our customers. Each day we add more product to the website and have more options available for shoppers,” explained Julie.
However, getting the site up and running was only half the job. With some employees that have worked there for several decades, teaching everyone a whole new system with a short time frame must have been a challenge. But as Julie explained, they jumped in with both feet.
“We basically scrapped everyone’s job titles and departments and merged into one big team. Everyone had to learn how to pull orders, enter orders in our system, and run orders out to cars. We came up with a system for the parking lot so we could keep track of when customers arrived and where they were located. We tore apart the store to create new holding areas for orders waiting to be picked up,” she explained.
Now with their new system, customers can buy all their goods online then arrive at Echter’s at a pre-determined time to have their goods loaded into their trunk by mask clad staffers. The entire process is completely contactless and there’s little to no risk of coming within six feet of anyone.
However, even with all of their impressive efforts, no one really knows what the future holds for any small business. It’s a tough pill many of us are having to swallow but Julie pointed out that there’s always a silver lining.
“I think the most difficult times bring out the real beauty in life. It is situations like these that real kindness emerges and communities come together. People step up and become leaders and friends. We are able to stop and appreciate the people and things that really matter,” she said.
In the meantime, you can find her and her team working tirelessly to update their website and fine-tune their process. As she puts it, they are just happy to be open.
“Colorado is a very special place with a strong community and positive spirit. We are so thankful to be able to continue providing our community with essential plants and supplies and so thankful for the continued support from our customers.”
Echter’s Nursery & Garden Center is located at 5150 Garrison Street, Arvada. You can shop their online store here.
All photography by Brittany Werges.