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Science teacher-turned-inventor revamps flower market

It started with an experiment in Clark Plihal’s 20-by-20-foot greenhouse in Shelton.

“I said to my wife, ‘Let’s grow some flowers and see if we can sell them,’ ” said Plihal, who taught high school science for more than 20 years.

Now, 25 years later, Plihal and his wife, Kelli, make 90 percent of their yearly income during the 40-day flower selling season.

But it hasn’t been a proverbial ‘bed of roses.’  In fact, Plihal would have been out of business if he hadn’t made a few innovative changes.

Ten years into the flower business, Plihal noticed something was wrong. His flowers weren’t selling, and the market had dramatically changed.

He observed that the annual bedding plant market was being taken over by container flowers.

“(It) was about a three-year shift, where the annual bedding business was just dead,” he said. “When you throw away $40,00 worth of product you stop dead in your tracks.”

So Plihal started thinking. He shut down his business for a year to avoid hemorrhaging money and find a different direction.

As he talked with customers and took a close look at trends, Plihal noticed that people weren’t buying flower bed plants for one major reason: it was a hassle.

“The concept was very simple. The ladies who we were buying and selling flowers to didn’t want to learn about the flowers … all they wanted was pretty flowers on their deck,” he said.

Plihal’s observation spurred his idea for the Bump Up Pot – a removable bottom pot that allows user to easily remove the pre-mixed flower combination and transplant it in a different container or landscape design.

It takes the guesswork out of determining what plants to pair together, Plihal said. He carries 120 plant combinations for varying degrees of sunlight at his locations in Shelton, Crete and Aurora.

Plihal and his family have put together 6,000 Bump Up Pots each year for the last seven years. They’ve been successful in Shelton, but are hoping to expand the business in the coming years.

“The idea is to take the niche product and try and go into remote locations,” he said. “The problem is always with seasonal help … By the time I find staff and train them the season is half over.”

So, Plihal went into problem-solving mode again and concluded that technology could be the key to expanding his business.

He joked about the irony of an “old guy” using technology, but he quickly turned his Crete shop into a pilot location for the technology. Now, the test site is tricked out with six cameras, two Skype accounts and an employee-free checkout station that utilizes an iPad.

“The technology is getting cheaper and cheaper and you don’t even have to be in the location to control everything,” he said.

When customers have questions or want to purchase a Bump Up Pot, they can use the Skype account to contact the Shelton home store.

Plihal said he hopes to operate the Crete shop remotely one day a week next year, but for now he’s still in the testing phase.

Julie Tompkins has worked at the Crete shop since it opened in April and said it’s been fun to watch customers react to the new technological add-ons.

“People that are into the workmanship of the place come in and talk about what a great idea it is,” she said.

For some people there’s a “creepy factor” to the technology, Tompkins added, but others find it useful because it allows them to talk with the business owners from their base in Shelton.

As far as Plihal is concerned, there are no other remotely controlled shops in the United States. According to a story in the Lincoln Journal Star, the senior director of media relations for the National Retail Federation said she had never heard of a business using this technology, although the representative said there was no way to confirm that.

“I really think the tech piece is very doable. It’s more reliable than I ever anticipated it to be when I started this project,” Plihal said.

But he also knows that any technology is not without its glitches. For this reason, Plihal said he’ll rarely leave a shop completely free of employees, but it’s an idea he’s looking forward to exploring.

“I’m very excited. I think he is way ahead of his time and I love working for someone who is always thinking,” Tompkins said. “I call him Clark Nye the Science Guy… He’s a shaker and a do-er and that’s refreshing.”