How a family-owned business embraces change and, as a result, has enjoyed 33 years of success—and counting—in a competitive market.
As a farm family, George and Avis Payne and their sons, Don, Doug and Tom, have been in the dairy business, planted crops, raised hogs, and grown corn, wheat, soy and hay. Farm life is hard work, and the Paynes, owners of CountryMax, which has 16 locations in New York state, understand the benefits of taking measured risks, and the power in diversity.
Firmly ensconced in the world of agriculture, George Payne began investigating the retail side of the industry in 1984. At the time, the farm coop Agway Inc. offered a retail franchising program, and the family subsequently purchased property and opened a location in Farmington, N.Y. When George’s son Don returned from college, he stepped in as primary clerk for the endeavor.
“Agway went out of business within a couple of years, and at that point, we were no longer a franchise but a true independent, and we continued from there,” Payne said.
This turn of events necessitated a name change, and in those early years, the company adopted “Farm and Garden,” with each store named for the community in which it resided—Farmington Farm and Garden, for example.
“‘Farm and Garden’ was such a common name, and as we began looking down the road, we wanted to distinguish ourselves with something more unique,” Payne said. “By the time we opened our fourth store, CountryMax had been selected.”
The original Farmington store featured 3,000 feet of retail space, 3,500 square feet of warehouse and a wide array of product. During its 33 years in business, the CountryMax enterprise has taken a slow-growth approach to reach its current number of locations.
“Our store footprint goes back to those early days of offering supplies for the hobby farmer, lawn and garden items, pet and livestock supplies, wild bird product and various other needs, such as clothing, and a little bit of hardware,” Payne said. “So our primary departments were developed initially, and we just followed the path from there.”
Today, new stores measure in at approximately 25,000 square feet and continue to meet a broad range of community needs.
“CountryMax is a feed store to some people, a pet store to others, and to someone else it might be a mulch store,” Payne said. “That’s what brings everything together—it all intertwines—and chances are good that a lawn and garden customer owns a dog.”
The company embraces a do-it-yourself attitude. Land is purchased, and a construction manager, who came on board in 2008, oversees all development, creating a uniform look in each new location.
“We have this farmer mentality of ‘Let’s try to do it all if we can,’” Payne said. “We are able to plan and scheme a lot of different designs, and with our construction manager, we are only limited by our imagination.”
Older facilities are being updated to conform with the appearance and layout of newer stores.
“We have definitely morphed into how we are building today; it’s kind of like an archeological dig as we go back into the stores we initially built,” he said. “That is our challenge with some of the older facilities: to bring them into the more modern fold.”
We Can Do That
Payne noted that developing an atmosphere and environment unique to CountryMax is key, and this goal is realized through the use of interior structures and formats, incorporating designs into fixtures, utilizing colorful photos and signage, and custom-built display cases. This eye-pleasing ambience is conceptualized by the company’s construction team, which uses its own woodshop.
“Our display cases are designed around the product to show it off,” Payne said. “We get together and ask ‘What if?’ or ‘Can we?’ and our team says ‘We can do that.’”
Beginning in 2008, new builds present the farm and country appeal of a barn-front exterior and the warm ambience of rough-cut wood. Shoppers enter the store through a homey, porchlike entrance.
Inside, large photo posts identify specific departments, visible throughout the clean, well-lit and spacious sales floor.
In addition, unique exhibits often reflect the history of each locale. For example, at the location in Henrietta, N.Y., a historic barn on the property once belonging to a prominent farm family was restored to its original splendor.
“The Henrietta community has a very active historical society,” Payne said. “We received an architectural heritage for the barn renovation and have incorporated some of the old farm equipment for use in the store décor.”
Themes in other area stores have paid tribute to early area settlers or centered around local industry.
Newer sites offer self-serve dog-washing facilities, with tubs placed in quiet, cozy rooms within the main store.
Pet boutique departments are another recent addition.
“Boutique products are basically available at every location, but we are able to showcase them in a better way at the newer stores,” Payne said.
The Zoo Factor
“While we don’t sell dogs or cats, we do offer fish, reptiles and small animals, such as hamsters,” Payne said.
To the delight of youngsters and adults alike, the climate-controlled Depot Room is a whimsical space where a colorful replica of a train serves as housing for diminutive mammals. Creatures residing in the engine, cars and caboose are visible through well-placed windows.
Those wishing to browse reptiles and fish do so in a separate room where warmer temperatures are maintained. Bright aquarium displays line the walls alongside a wide variety of neatly shelved supplies.
“It’s crucial to provide the right environment for every animal, and, over time, we developed our room concept,” Payne said.
Each space is decorated with vibrant artwork and other adornments such as a miniature water tower and a railroad crossing sign in the Depot Room.
A live-animal manager oversees caretaking duties, traveling to every location on a regular basis to provide education and mentorship to store personnel.
Payne noted that these offerings form a link to the community, particularly for young families with small children, in what he refers to as the “zoo factor.”
“It’s the overall package that is important to us,” he said. “We get a lot of comments from parents saying things like, ‘My kids are constantly asking to go to CountryMax to look at the animals.’ These folks may not necessarily be in the market for an animal, but that connection has really driven us.”
Field trips from local schools are also welcomed. In addition, involvement with local rescue and shelter organizations are integral, with adoptions days held on a regular basis throughout the organization.
Pet-loving families often participate in store events such as holiday photo days or take advantage of the frequent microchipping and vaccination clinics that take place at varying locations.
There’s plenty going on, and a recent addition, the CountryMax Event Room, provides a venue for all manner of activities, including promotional seminars, adoption days, birthday parties, employee trainings and more.
“These nice post-and-beam rooms with television and internet access are used all across the board,” Payne said.
Dogs, Cats, Gardens and More
Approximately 40 to 45 percent of business at CountryMax comprises dog and cat foods, treats, supplements and supplies, according to Payne. Food selections run the gamut from kibble to frozen raw, freeze dried, canned and dehydrated.
“It’s extremely critical that we do a good job on the pet side of our business,” he said. “When we first started out, had we known the amount of blue poo bags we’d be selling today, I’d have been amazed. It’s just normal now.”
CountryMax associates, or “pet care guides,” undergo training from manufacturers, study internet resources and experience plenty of on-the-job tutelage.
“It’s a process that works for us,” Payne said. “Along with overseeing all of our animals, it’s important to have staff that is capable of answering questions, so our education is ongoing.”
Following right behind pet supplies in volume percentage is the lawn and garden department, where the intrepid gardener will find a diverse selection of plants, seed, soil, tools, pond supplies and more.
“We have four very strong seasons here, and come springtime, lawn and garden commands that time slot,” he said. “It’s like Christmas in July.”
In the frigid winter months, wild bird feed and supplies take a turn in the limelight.
Other offerings include an equine center featuring tack, supplements, riding equipment and other horse needs. The farm and stable center includes myriad livestock supplies, including feed. Fencing, poultry supplies and bedding round out selections.
A clothing center stocks jackets, socks, shoes, gloves and hats. Hardware and specialty foods are also in the mix.
Online ordering services are available, with goods ready and waiting when shoppers arrive for pickup. Additionally, many customers take advantage of the carry-out service.
“Carry out is near and dear to our hearts,” Payne said. “We have so many products, and a lot of them have a little bit of heft. This way, we can get the items right to the car.”
He noted that providing outstanding customer service is a vital differentiator in today’s market.
“The term ‘customer service’ is like white noise, but our push has been to get down to what this really means,” he said. “It’s what every retailer is trying to do, so it’s important that our service be noticeable.”