After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, Tommy Heath returned to Portsmouth in 1971 to help his father run the family feed store. But he had two conditions: “No more live chicks, and no more Christmas trees!” Heath was recalling the frigid holiday seasons he’d spent as a boy manning his post on the store’s corner lot selling trees to customers.
Heath smiles, “It was a Charlie Brown-esque situation back then. Happily, we don’t sell live chicks anymore, but we’re back to selling Christmas trees. The autumn and winter holidays are very special times for us, our families and for our customers.”
And that holiday spirit is in full swing at Norfolk County Feed & Seed, a Portsmouth institution that’s been helping customers navigate the gardening and animal care landscape since 1947.
While Heath and staff field questions about plant pests, mulch and fertilizer, dozens of pumpkins, corn stalks and hay bales are being snapped up for seasonal displays, and regular customers will be ordering poinsettias and fresh bows for wreaths, doors and swags.
Around Thanksgiving, they’ll open their second annual “A Walk Through Christmas” display in a building adjacent to the store—complete with a model train, holiday music and brightly trimmed trees. Visitors can sip hot chocolate while savoring an experience that, on a small scale, brings to mind the beloved Coleman’s Nursery displays of yore.
It’s a new tradition established by Norfolk County Feed & Seed associates as a gift to the community at large. It boosts holiday spirit and generates feelings of goodwill. If it’s 80 degrees outside, Heath will even turn on the air conditioning to replicate suitable winter temps. This kind of open-hearted community engagement exemplifies the qualities that have made the business successful for more than seven decades.
During his tenure, Heath has seen the business evolve to meet changing customer needs, and he’s shepherded the store through periods of economic decline: the stagflation and energy crisis of the 1970s, the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and most recently, the COVID-19 economic downturn. Through it all, the business has demonstrated a kind of elasticity that has helped it survive and thrive despite increasing competition from big box discount stores.
“My father came from a rural sharecropping background, and my mother was brought up in West Virginia coal country, and we started small,” Heath explains. “When the store opened, it measured 15 feet by 30 feet. Now there’s a warehouse, a nursery and greenhouse, and the main store has expanded over time to accommodate new stock, a plant-wrapping and custom bow-making station, and a popular bird and small animal-feed section.
“Back in the day, we saw competition from discount stores like W.T. Grant at Mid-City. Then came K-Mart, Walmart, Tractor Supply and online shopping. Pricewise, the big box stores could eat us and spit us out, but we’re still here while many of the old school feed and general stores have long since closed.”
We sat down with Heath to learn more about how the business has managed to adapt to changing customer needs and why the store remains such a popular destination in the face of pricing competition and the tightened purse strings of shoppers.
“A lot of our success comes from the way we treat people. You’ll notice that the door to my office is open,” Heath points out. “I want to make myself available to people, and I genuinely regard our customers as neighbors and friends. They bring us examples of garden and lawn pests to identify, they want help diagnosing a fungal or viral disease that’s plaguing their tomatoes, or they have questions about the effectiveness and purity of a specific grass seed.
“Though I find myself spending more time at my computer sourcing goods because we’re still emerging from COVID shortages and the freight situation, if it comes down to pricing, or having a product in stock for customers, I’ll choose to have it in stock for them. We’re customer-driven.”
Heath and staff stay abreast of what’s happening in the gardening world. They identify trends so they can anticipate what products home gardeners will need. “Active listening is a dying art,” Heath explains. “We want to uncover what our customers really want and need, not what we think they need. We try to give everyone personalized attention, and we treat everyone with courtesy and respect.”
Heath says that he feels humbled and blessed to be able to run the kind of business that engenders multigenerational loyalty. How do Heath and his staff stay so cheerfully motivated?
“Every day is a fresh start,” Heath relates. “Every day brings the opportunity to do something right. The time to help a person is when they need help—not when you feel you’re ready to give that help. It’s a great feeling.”
Words & Photos By Beth Hester