Village Green: Roots in the Past, Eyes on the Future

This Rockford garden center and furniture showroom has come a long way since its modest beginnings in the 1960s, and it’s no accident that it’s now a leader in its field. How’d it get there? It starts with meeting the customer’s needs.

When Village Green’s founders, the late Laurence Smith and William Swadley, opened a second Rockford location at 6101 E. Riverside Blvd. in the early 1980s, they had only an inkling of how strategic that location would be.

“At the time there was nothing here but cornfields,” says Jessica Salisbury, CEO and creative director of Village Green. “The two partners were arguing about where to expand, and they decided to buy here. It was a really smart decision.”

When the purchase was made, Smith and Swadley already had several years under their belts as garden center owners. The two started out as journalists before Smith’s father, who owned a seed store, passed away. Smith returned to Rockford to run the store, then decided to pay tribute to his late father by opening a garden center in 1964. He was joined by his best friend, Swadley, and the seeds of Village Green were planted.

“The first store was a tiny shop on Center Terrace Drive,” says Salisbury. “Then they purchased and developed our North Main property in the late 1970s.”

That location, at 2640 N. Main St., is still going today, with greenhouses and nurseries filled with potted plants, hanging baskets, exotic tropicals and one of the region’s largest selections of vegetables and herbs.

At the Riverside store, the garden center has everything a green thumb needs to get a garden started, keep it going and make it glamorous with plants, seeds, fertilizers, pest and weed products, tools and accessories. Village Green uses both locations to grow the vast majority of its own product, making it the largest supplier of annuals in the area.

The Riverside location is also where shoppers can stroll through vast showrooms filled with top-of-the-line brands of interior and exterior furniture, grills and grilling accessories. It was the addition of these product lines that helped Village Green stay competitive when the retail landscape changed.

“In the 1980s, big-box stores started popping up,” says Salisbury. “They needed to make a big move, so that’s when we started selling indoor and outdoor furniture.”

It was another strategy that paid off and paved the way for Village Green to showcase its 80,000-square-foot furniture showroom, one of the largest in the country.

“Our focus is premium products,” says Salisbury. “Whether it’s the plant material that we sell – the majority of which we proudly grow ourselves – or it’s the outdoor and indoor furniture, we work really hard to find great brands that manufacture really great products.”

Village Green’s atrium showroom is bathed in natural light with furniture sitting on cobblestoned walkways. It helps shoppers to get an idea of what it will look like in their own backyard. VG Home, Village Green’s interior furniture showroom, encourages customers to wander through the ambient space browsing a huge selection of upholstery and leather furniture, unique home decor and sophisticated accent pieces. Almost every design aesthetic is represented in VG Home. If shoppers don’t find what they’re looking for, a team member will happily help them explore custom options.

“During the summer, patio furniture takes on the bulk of our sales,” says Salisbury. “Then, when it gets colder, the interior furniture starts to pick up.”

Another section of the store that heats up during the warmer months is the outdoor cooking section, where grill masters of all levels can find brand-name grills, smokers, flat tops and pizza ovens from the likes of Weber, Big Green Egg, Napoleon, Camp Chef and Ooni, along with enough accessories, sauces and rubs for a year’s worth of Father’s Days.

“We expanded our outdoor cooking center this winter,” says Salisbury. “It’s like heaven for people who want to cook outside.”

For Salisbury and her team, the best way to keep customers returning to the store is making sure the level of service matches the merchandise.

“If we’re going to offer premium-quality products, we’d better be able to back it up with premium-quality service,” says Salisbury. “Our huge focus over the past 30 years has been fine-tuning every single thing we do.”

That starts with training. Village Green employees go through extensive product knowledge training every year to stay on top of new offerings, trends and changes. The focus on staffing a store full of experts who can answer tough questions is paying off, not just in customer service, but also in employee retention.

“We’re very fortunate to have incredible people who have worked here for a long time,” says Salisbury who has been with Village Green for 25 years. “Our service manager has been here for 37 years. Our former nursery manager retired after 40 years, and our interior furniture manager has been here for 28 years. It’s a great group of people. And now we’re welcoming a whole new generation.”

Village Green is also welcoming a new generation of customers who, thanks to the internet and social media, are armed with better information about what they want. For Salisbury, the quality product and quality knowledge approach are more important than ever.

“Our motto at Village Green has always been ‘If we build it, they will come,’” she says. “We have to keep making changes around the stores and we have to keep making them a place that customers want to drive to. If you have a lot of variety and things to look at, people are going to want to come to you.”

To keep interest alive, the team at Village Green is constantly searching for, and trying, new ideas. One of those ideas, a plant bar, was discovered by a team member on vacation in Texas.

“It’s a repotting station where customers can select their own plants and pot them in trendy containers,” says Salisbury. “We’ve hosted baby showers and birthday parties, and it’s a great way to get kids interested in gardening. It’s also an awesome thing to do in the middle of winter, when everyone’s got the winter blues.”

Other ways that Village Green supports green thumbery is through YouTube videos and through an education center at the North Main location.

“We do tons of classes and DIY workshops,” says Salisbury. “That’s been a great way to bring people into the store during the cold months.”

It isn’t all about education, though. Village Green is also known for holding public events like Grillapolooza, a popular outdoor cooking event that just took place on June 3 at the Riverside location.

“We love to throw big parties for our customers to be a part of,” says Salisbury.

As Salisbury and her team look toward the future, the main focus is growth. One way is in the literal sense. The ability for Village Green to continue to grow its own plant material gives the company both self-reliance and control over its own destiny.

“Our new nursery manager and our greenhouse manager are wildly talented in terms of production,” says Salisbury. “Their skill set will take us to the next level, giving us an opportunity to produce more merchandise which, in turn, lets us offer better prices.”

Future growth also means more attractions and store sections. Salisbury has a number of ideas she looks forward to implementing, including food trucks, beverage service, larger events and cooking classes where customers can test-drive grills and grilling accessories.

“The most important thing to any retailer is adapting to change,” says Salisbury. “It’s our people that make our success possible. Taking care of them has been part of our blueprint from the very beginning.”