California Home and Garden Centre is a hidden gem in Lower Hutt, Wellington. With working from home and DIY culture on the rise, California not only survived these challenging times but was able to capitalize growing demand. Today, we are sitting in California’s cosy Glass House cafe with Greg Lowe, whose grandfather and father ran this family business for over 60 years.
Tell us the story behind California Home and Garden, how did it all start?
My grandfather, Keith Lowe, moved to New Zealand when he was only 13 years old. He's always had a passion for plants and become famous in the local bonsai art scene. He opened his first fruit/vege shop on Lambton Quay in Wellington more than 60 years ago. In 1958 he eventually started trading plants and seeds as well, and that was the first time the name came up - California Seeds. At the time, all shops in town were only working on weekdays, which sounds counterintuitive to what we used to these days. In the early 70-ies, Keith made a move to open another plant shop in Miramar and trade on weekends. And that's how the first, as I call it the "original", California branch opened in 1974. We opened a Lower Hutt branch in 1995. It used to be an old hydroponic tomato nursery and garden centre with a huge glass roof. Pretty amazing how the place has changed since then. We ran both stores together until the Miramar land was sold to Sir Peter Jackson. Miramar store closed in 2016 and since then we've moved our entire operations to Lower Hutt
Was it always a family business?
Yes, my whole family has grown up with the garden center.
My father Barry joined my granddad in running the business and started up the Lower Hutt branch. I've always seen them as an ideal combination: my grandfather was a passionate plant-lover and had a lot of knowledge in this field, whereas my father was coming from the business side, looking for efficient ways to set up operations and expand the business.
Where does the name come from? It's pretty unusual.
After the Second World War American names started to be pretty popular in New Zealand, so they chose one that was associated with the bright and sunny state of California. (Laughing). We still get enquiries from people overseas looking for plants in California and asking if we could deliver to them.
How did you get involved in family business?
I used to help around the shop in Miramar a lot during school holidays. I got my Diploma in Civil Engineering and was working in Canada and the UK. When I came back to New Zealand, I was pretty tired of an office job and was happy to help out with our family business where no day is like the other.
What were the early years like compared to now?
Gardening and plants, in general, are in fashion these days, especially among young people. It trend only accelerated after COVID hit. More people are working from home and looking for ways to brighten their surroundings. At some point a few years ago we were almost thinking to stop selling indoor plants, but the demand and sales have skyrocketed and we ended up expanding our range even further.
You now operate an online store. What made you go digital?
Our first website was built by a local Wellington company around 5-10 years ago. It didn't have an e-commerce component, only information about us. We wanted to increase awareness about our Lower Hutt store as back then Miramar was still our flagship branch. Now we see pretty good traffic to it, so it was definitely worth it. When COVID started we added an online shopping component since there was a huge demand post lockdown. But the key challenge we had was that we struggled to get our inventory digitized and listed on the store, simply because we had so much of it. Of course, this is where Fairmart has been a great help. With everyone working from home, everyone finally had time and ability to look after their garden more!
How do you choose which products to sell?
Our stock is very dynamic. We've got more than 60,000 unique products on our books with 5,000-7,000 sold in store. Each of us has an area of interest, and so we get to be responsible for it. For example, my speciality is small pots. I follow market trends to decide what to buy next. Of course, some items I buy because of my personal preference. But my grandfather taught me to pick what I like, but also be balanced because others might like what you hate.
What do you carry that customers cannot find anywhere else?
That would be the range and variety. We've got the largest selection of pots in Wellington. My father Barry personally looks after large outdoor pots and sources the selection directly from suppliers in China, Malaysia and Vietnam, understanding well the local market and windy Wellington climate. Homeware supplies range from immaculate Japanese teapots to locally hand-made cosmetics. Also, we try to go off the beaten track and proudly own a great collection of outdoor statues and water features that you can't find anywhere else.
The highlight of the store is our cosy Glass House cafe where you can have a cup of coffee with a fresh homemade pastry in a real full-size glass house surrounded by the beautiful garden or enjoy some ice cream and sunshine on the terrace next to succulents and lavender trees.
What's the best thing about being a part of the California family?
Seeing customers travelling all the way from Wellington (where an original branch used to be) to our new store in Lower Hutt. Another fascinating experience is to work on the deliveries and to see where all those plants end up in a beautiful ensemble. We are here not just to sell plants but inspire people to be creative and find happiness in doing what they love.
California Home & Garden is located in 316 Waiwhetu Road, Fairfield, Wellington 5011, New Zealand. You can contact them on +64 4-567 4588.