Penny and Frank Burkard, of Burkard Nurseries, in Pasadena, Calif., nurture sales as carefully as they tend their perennials, roses, and Japanese maple saplings. In 1992, like many retailers, they depended on a handful of full-time employees. "We discovered our sales staff was stale," says Penny Burkard. "They didn't communicate a passion for gardening to our customers." To solve the problem, the Burkards decided to use a larger pool of talented and enthusiastic part-timers.

The benefits that the Burkards derive from this strategy far outweigh the scheduling headaches of working with 30 part-timers. "They are wonderful employees; I'll take them when I can get them," says Burkard. If someone calls in sick, it's much easier to find a replacement. The store isn't left short-handed, and employees can work out schedule changes among themselves to accommodate their personal needs. The strategy also allows the nursery to hire horticultural students. They can infect customers with their enthusiasm and are better able to answer a serious collector's questions than a less educated but more available person. The downside? Employees must clean up unfinished projects when they leave.

One student has taken on the project of cataloguing the nursery's formidable collection of more than 600 varieties of roses and thousands of perennials, so that plants can be labeled. "You can't get that kind of dedication from someone who is just showing up for a paycheck," says Burkard. "Now we'll have another sales tool to help customers choose their plants." Freshening up the staff has helped keep sales growing by about 20% annually since 1992; they reached nearly $2 million in 1997.

Copyright 1998 G+J USA Publishing