Longtime Martin City Business Cultivates Momentum Back to Normalcy.
Despite coronavirus restrictions and all of the operational changes that come with them, The Sharper Edge keeps going and growing. It’s almost like someone forgot to tell the home and garden specialty business and its customers that there’s a pandemic. “People want to get on with their way of life and I think we help them,” says owner Scott Rutledge. “Everyone’s really ready to get past all of this.”
The Sharper Edge takes its name from its ultra-premium concrete edging service that beautifies lawns and gardens across the Kansas City area. The company’s retail center right next to the train tracks in the heart of Martin City also features an elaborate fountain and statuary showcase as well as a wildly successful Garden Center. While pandemic restrictions have been crippling, there are signs of momentum in every corner of The Sharper Edge, and Rutledge is excited about bringing it all back into the sunshine.
“Making improvements around your yard and garden is a vote for the future. It makes you feel optimistic that better days are ahead. My business is feeling demand these days that’s so much bigger than these barriers forced on all of us.”
It’s true. The Sharper Edge is raring to go and that’s not just the view of an anxious business owner weary from pandemic pressures. This is the busiest time of year for the business and customers are engaging with as much enthusiasm as possible under the circumstances. “Our business was really up over last year before this crisis hit,” says Rutledge. “It knocked us down but it in no way knocked us out.”
The Best of Times Inside the Worst of Times
Rutledge’s edging service is the core of his business. The idea of a single, continuous piece of customized concrete attracts customers from all over. It’s designed to appear as individual blocks, bricks or stones, but is actually seamless, keeping out weeds and grass while retaining moisture. The edging calendar typically fills up in the spring and the pandemic didn’t hold things back this year. Rutledge says he’s booked solid into the summer.
“My truck isn’t parked out back and that’s a good thing,” says Rutledge, looking over his shoulder. “It means we’re working. I’m fielding dozens of calls every day.”
You may have heard that the pandemic has renewed interest in victory gardens as people gravitate to self-sufficiency and just getting back to nature. That’s only one reason the Garden Center at The Sharper Edge is in full bloom. There’s also the hydroponics and organics craze that started long before the pandemic, and the surge in demand for specialty equipment supporting at-home cultivation of medical marijuana in Missouri.
“We saw the need for high-quality, premium gardening materials several years ago before the market really took off in different directions,” says Rutledge. “Now we’re known for these materials and customers have developed a trust in our inventory. They’re very loyal.”
Gordon Black’s extraordinary expertise also keeps customers coming back to the Garden Center. He completes the package with experience and know-how that many people won’t garden without.
“If you look really hard, you might find some of our supplies at other stores,” says Black. “But you are very unlikely to find anyone there to help you understand what to do with it. We can get you started and keep you going every step of the way, whether it’s organics, hydroponics, medical cannabis, or most anything else that can take root around here.”
Black says he’s sharing his decades of experience with more and more people these days. “A whole lot more,” he emphasizes. “We’re seeing exponential growth. We’ve built a following over the past several years and people just keep coming.”
“We’ve got such a great reputation as a company and our Garden Center expertise is a big part of that now,” adds Rutledge. “We’ve never done much advertising overall. Word-of-mouth fuels everything we do and the Garden Center only adds to that.”
The relentless demand for ultra-rich gardening organics became the main driver of temporary curbside service at The Sharper Edge. Customers have packed their trunks with soil and other materials but that’s not all. Rutledge says there’s also been a steady stream of fountain orders. The business is, after all, one of the largest fountain dealers in the Kansas City area and offers plenty of associated products like statues and accent planters.
“When I first started, I had maybe a half-dozen fountains on display and didn’t really know if they would sell. Now people are picking them up curbside during a pandemic. Hard to believe.”
High-quality edging, garden supplies and creative decor — demand for The Sharper Edge is there and Rutledge is doing all he can to deliver. Now if we could just get back to something resembling normalcy.
“Things may never fully return to normal,” says Rutledge with a sigh. “But we’ve got to get back to a sense of normalcy. Everybody wants it and patience is running thin. I think I speak for a lot of people, including business owners. Let’s get on with it. We want to stay safe, but let’s get going. It’s time.”
The Journey Back to Normalcy
The last time Rutledge saw anything resembling normalcy was March just before the restrictions hit. Since then he’s gone through the stages familiar to many of us. “It started as a scare and quickly sank into shock. Then you looked around in disbelief. The roads were empty and everything appeared different. You’re thinking, what am I going to do?”
The first thing he did was close down for a few days to get a grip on what was happening and make a plan. The Sharper Edge was deemed ‘essential’ mainly because it sells materials that help people grow food and offers landscaping support. That was a relief, but the business was still hurting under severe restrictions. Rutledge found inspiration in takeout signs that popped up along 135th Street outside Jess & Jim’s and other businesses.
“I saw Debbi and Mike’s sign out front and it got me going on the idea of curbside service,” says Rutledge. “I needed to make money but more importantly I just needed to take a step toward normalcy. I had to do something. No one wanted to sit at home and just get depressed waiting.”
Rutledge only opened for a few hours that first week, but customers insisted on more. He was taking so many orders over the phone by the second week that he shifted back to regular hours, even with his property still being off-limits to retail shoppers. “I looked out and saw people walking along our fences, pointing things out and emailing questions on the spot about purchasing. It was so surprising!”
These days the fountain displays are flowing again at The Sharper Edge, creating their usual Martin City spectacle, and orders are coming in waves as people working from home think more and more about opportunities in their garden. “My phone sounds like a pinball machine,” says Rutledge. “It’s non-stop.”
History Offers Lessons.
If anyone is familiar with that burst of optimism that pulls you through the back side of a crisis, it’s Scott Rutledge. He symbolizes the anxious urge we’re all feeling to engage again after all of this isolation. Two decades of navigating his business through hard times have left him with good instincts for detecting the light at the end of the tunnel, at least for now.
“Things have shifted, you can feel it. Now is the time. People want to get back to normal and that’s what we’re going to do, or at least come really close to it. As restrictions loosen, I’ll gauge my customers’ feelings about what they’re comfortable with and make adjustments as necessary. But I’m like them. I’m ready to move on.”
The Sharper Edge went into business at the turn of the century just before the September Attacks in New York City that launched a war and strangled the economy. Rutledge ran scared through the early 2000s but survived. Then the Great Recession hit in 2008 just as he opened his retail store in Martin City. It slowed his momentum, but again, he powered through. And now, a pandemic.
“I think all of that history prepared me for the pandemic,” says Rutledge. “It kept me conservative in my spending and focused me on slow and steady growth. It taught me how to survive.”
Rutledge says another thing he’s learned is that people are naturally good. We tend to take care of each other when a crisis strikes and it brings out the best in us. He says we all should pause now to reflect on the value of human connection.
“You know I usually work with edging customers in person in my showroom and in their yards. The pandemic forced me to suddenly convert all of that one-on-one time to PowerPoint presentations and even a YouTube video. I really didn’t like that. What would normally be a simple conversation face-to-face became a challenge involving web links, pictures, emails and videos. It worked well enough but that’s just not my style.”
Like many small business owners, Rutledge thrives on knowing his customers personally and that makes distancing especially painful. He misses the chit-chat around the fountains, at customer homes, and on the street in Martin City.
“I miss the handshakes most of all. You know handshakes are the way deals are made. We’re still making deals but I’m walking away without a handshake and that’s rough for me. Handshakes are meaningful and I miss the meaning.”
Who knows if a return to handshake culture lies ahead, but Rutledge is confident in silver linings and a happier future that’s already here in some ways.
“All of us enjoy a new appreciation of what we had before. We’re more grateful for things like having the ability to work and having a job to do. I think people have slowed down a bit and that’s okay. We’re going to figure this out and get going again better than ever. We will, I’m sure of it. All of us.”
We believe you, Scott, and we thrive on the enthusiasm that drives your entrepreneurial spirit. Thanks for all you’ve done to move your corner of Martin City forward. We’re grateful for your perseverance and devotion to our community and we wish you all the best as The Sharper Edge pushes past the pandemic.