During the Garden Center Success program at New England Grows earlier this year, facilitator Jon Hockman challenged retailers at the outset of the seminar to answer a simple question:
Are you a plant person who does business, or are you a business person who does plants?
Hockman then asked for a show of hands. “How many of you,” he wondered aloud, “belong to that first group, the plant people who do business?” About 70 percent of the some 500 in attendance extended arms into the air.
Hockman could have taken his question from Boston and re-posed it again in San Diego—or Portland/ Dallas/Chicago/Miami, you name it …
The percentage of card-carrying plant people would have remained roughly the same, regardless of venue.
Alas, as beautiful as plants are, and as smart about them as you no doubt are, recent history has rendered a conclusion we didn’t think we’d reach about half a decade ago: Ours is not a recession-proof industry. What it is, instead—what we called it in our January issue—is an industry “in flux.”
This month, we’re offering directions out of flux, a 10-step map, as it were, to a better place.
Oh, and for the record, these strategies should work regardless of how you answer Jon Hockman’s question.
Step 1. Get in touch with your feminine side
Thomas Birt “gets it.” Actually, the owner of Mesquite Valley Growers Nursery in Tucson, Ariz., does a lot of things right. He travels the world to find plants and unusual items that his competitors won’t carry. He shops trade shows—often those not of the hort variety. He visits retail stores that have absolutely nothing to do with the garden but that have tried innovative marketing and merchandising ideas he can bring back to his garden center. Why? Because the “other guys” don’t do all those things—and because his customers notice that he does.
But all that isn’t why Thomas Birt “gets it.” He gets it because he gets out of the way—and asks a woman to do the buying for the retail shop—all the “fru fru,” anyway, as he puts it.
Cathy Bishop has been the sales manager at Mesquite Valley since 1991, and Birt said that hiring her was the smartest business decision he ever made. “She has that woman’s perspective that is so important,” Birt said. “Without her we wouldn’t be half what we are today. She has a real sense for the female shopper. I can make structures happen, but she gives the nursery emotion. She makes it a more fun place to shop.”
And fun shopping almost always boosts the bottom line.
Step 2. Whatever customer service you offer, offer more
Most independent retailers wave the “customer service” banner proudly, but Navlet’s Garden Centers in Concord, Calif. (www.navletsgardens.com), take the practice to a whole new level.
Ferinstance ... Navlet’s “Planscaper” service provides customers with detailed, personalized design input from a professional. With this service, Navlet’s staff supplies a detailed plot plan to follow as customers landscape their yards.
Ferinstance ... If a customer buys sod or grass seed and soil amendments at any of the four Navlet’s locations, the stores’ staff will loan him/her spreaders and rollers for the landscapingproject.
Ferinstance ... Navlet’s offers delivery for all products and installation for fountains, statuary and sod. Customers can place an order at any Navlet’s location and have it delivered right to the spot they plan to use it at home.
Ferinstance ... If a customer is unsure of what’s ailing her plants or even what she’s growing in the garden, she can bring in an insect in a sealed container, or a small branch from her plant, and the Navlet’s staff will help her find a solution-based answer to her questions.
This is a store that takes “above and beyond” ... well, above and beyond. And for that, there’s an “above and beyond” opportunity for boosting the bottom line.
Step 3. Expand the market
McDonald Garden Center (www.mcdonaldgardencenter.com) has made a habit of winning awards, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Hampton, Va., retail operation has come up with a nearly fool-proof way to hook up with customers.
Every year from mid-March through mid-July, McDonald Garden Center opens garden markets throughout the area, complete with great plants AND accessories. These mini garden centers, in essence, change the paradigm from having the customers come to the store to having the stores go to the customers.
Does this idea work? Hey, we said McDonald Garden Center has made a habit of winning awards. It also has made a habit of boosting the bottom line in the process.
Step 4. Remember: One for all is all for one
Bachman’s, with seven locations in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. (www.bachmans.com), offers a couple of great examples of fundraising projects that are good for both the community and the store. In an era when the “buy local” mantra is getting louder by the day, things that are good for the community are almost always good for the store.
At Bachman’s, the Winter Blooms & Valentine’s Day Fundraiser Program has the garden center selling to fundraising organizations store products at a discounted rate so the organization can sell them to patrons at a higher price point in fundraising drives.
The winter program offers popular assortments of seasonal blooms, including Watch ‘em Grow bulb gardens, blooming plants, roses and Valentine’s Day flowers.
Then there’s the Gift Card Fundraising project. This easy, year-round opportunity lets a group raise money by selling Bachman’s gift cards in amounts from $5 to $500. This program is set up in a similar fashion, in that the organization pays a discount rate and then sells the cards for face value.
During slower winter months, any project that can improve sales is a good one, and Bachman’s fundraising programs are a great way to boost the bottom line.
Step 5. All kidding aside, you need to appeal to children
Calloway’s Nursery, with 17 locations in the Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston areas, does a stellar job marketing to children. Throughout the year little gardeners ages 5 to 10 can join the Calloway’s staff for free children’s events to learn more about nature and gardening.
With this program Calloway’s gets a chance to plant a seed, as it were, with a new generation of potential customers, while marketing to the current one in the process.
Here are the projects the garden center has on tap for 2012. Mom and Dad (and the kids, for that matter) can click on a link on the company website (www.calloways.com) to find out more about each event, and the promo copy is written in a way to encourage that very action.
- Plant Some Love - Callie’s Kids, 2012 Happy Valentine’s Day!
- The Prince/Princess and the Pea - Callie’s Kids, 2012 Grow a Plant; Grow a Mind!
- Tin Can Planting - Callie’s Kids, 2012 Tin Can Planting!
- Beautiful Butterflies - Callie’s Kids, 2012 Beautiful Butterflies!
- Fall Harvest Festival - Callie’s Kids, 2012 It’s Fall Y’all!
History shows these programs do very well at the garden center locations—and that’s a “very well” that boosts the bottom line.
Step 6. Go Web, young man!
Hastings Nature & Garden Center in Peachtree Corners, Ga. (www.hastingsgardencenter.com), markets more than 20,000 plants and decorative items—and for many of those, all a customer has to do to obtain them is point and click.
3 ‘other’ ways you can become more profitable
1. Create a scene … Austin Bryant with Heart of Florida Greenhouses in in Zolfo Springs, Fla. (www.heartplants.com), frequently visits his retail customers to see how foliage plants are faring. Indeed, there are top-quality, well-cared-for plants on the benches. But that’s the problem. They’re sitting on benches, sequestered in the greenhouse.
“It floors me that garden centers have a houseplant ‘section,’” Bryant said. “Garden centers spend so much time to make the store feel ‘homey’ and inviting—nice colors throughout, a small eating area—so many things to make the place feel like a home. Then they outcast the interior foliage in a greenhouse. Why not bring those plants into the cafe area? Around the register? By the front doors? Try to create situations with different plants in different containers?”
2. Put it in the basket … Gallery Flowers is, technically, more parts florist than garden center. But it provides a service that could prove very valuable for enterprising garden center operators.
The Houston-based retailer (www.houstongalleryflowers.com) offers a wide range of baskets that contain a virtual gamut—plants, fruit, candy, chips ... you name it. These gift items are very easy to assemble, and they represent the ultimate “sum is bigger than parts” impulse item, one that has appeal in a display and in the home.
To further add to the allure, the staff at Gallery Flowers offers most basket packages in three sizes, so practically every customer can find what she wants—even if she didn’t come into the store wanting a gift basket.
3. The $10,000 question: Will it sell? … Chris Berg, director of marketing at EuroAmerican Propagators in Bonsall, Calif. (www.pweuro.com), has a simple litmus test for marketing plants—one that probably should be applied by anyone who markets green goods.
“I recall a conversation I had with one of my mentors very early in my career,” Berg said. “Walking through some plant trials with PanAmerican Seed breeder Blair Winner, he was showing me his latest creations, including some rather odd ones.”
Blair asked Berg if he liked a particular plant. Berg said he did. Blair then asked Berg if he would buy it. After pausing a moment, Berg answered that he probably wouldn’t.
“That was a pivotal conversation during which I realized that as a plant geek it’s fun to grow some of the novelty plants in my own garden,” Berg said. “However, it’s my professional role to find fun plants that will have commercial acceptance.”
Hastings-to-Go! is the company’s online store, and it offers practically every decorative or hard good a gardener needs to be successful/content, from the lifestyle “must haves” such as trellises, arbors and furniture to the tools it takes to craft the ideal garden retreat. And the decoratives? They run the gamut, as well, from garden art and unique decorative accessories to classic ironwork planters and holiday accents.
Bullet-point product info, images and prices are listed (along with more detailed data should a customer be interested). Then, when she finds something she likes, the customer can add the item to her shopping cart, fill said cart until she’s ready to ‘e-buy,” then push the pay button. In a few days she’ll have what she ordered delivered to her home.
The e-commerce element is just one way Hastings sets its self apart from the competition. But considering its ease of use and vast assortment of products, it’s definitely a branding element that holds big potential as a boost to the bottom line.
Step 7. Add a line or two dozen
The management team at Moana Nursery, which has worn many different hats as a garden center, nursery and outdoor landscaper, has decided to stay indoors this spring. OK, not totally.
Actually, the Reno, Nevada-based company (www.moananursery.com) is now offering services to complement the greenhouse at Moana. The launch of the company’s new Interior Plant Services business, featuring design, clean-air plants, maintenance and a host of other helpful activities, will be led by Vicky Ross, who will help paying customers run the gamut on indoor plant care.
With 23 years of indoor plant and interior design experience, Ross qualifies as the area’s premier “plant whisperer.”
Meanwhile, in Bay City, Mich., there won’t be much whispering going on, now that Begick Nursery & Garden Center (www.begicknursery.com) has added a heavy equipment department. Company President Paul Begick and his team decided that diversification is the key to driving repeat business and getting people to buy multiple items in the store— including the mainstay plants for which the business is known.
“Products like edgers, blowers, chainsaws and cordless power tools all involve the great outdoors and help Begick’s become a one-stop shop for customers,” the company president said. “Instead of us saying, ‘Your landscape job is done, see you in 20 years,’ they can visit our store for whatever they might need to keep their plants looking good.”
To that end, Begick also has carries another product line not often found at a garden center: beer- and wine-making supplies. Begick’s has been a source for both for several years—to the point that it’s a destination spot in many customers’ minds.
That’s fine with Paul Begick, because beer- and wine-making supplies are big on margins. There is a trick to making it work at your store, though.
“It’s a niche market, and you have to have somebody who knows about it who’s able to answer questions about it,” Begick said. “To make it really successful, any one of these departments needs someone to take ownership of it.”
Once he/she does, however, you’ll likely take ownership of a boosted bottom line.
Step 8. Adapt to the market
When dealing with the “Next Generation” customer, you’ve no doubt found that she’s not as concerned with the “journey” as the “destination.” She wants something quick, attractive and (maybe most of all) low-maintenance. In other words …
She wants one of the items in the “Containers To Go” program from the Garden Shop of Homewood in Homewood, Ala. (www.gardenshopofhomewood.net). The program allows the customer to choose a planter and select the items she wants to go in it. The store’s staff does the rest.
Garden Shop of Homewood will design and prepare unique, creative combinations of containers, including pots and baskets or window boxes with hardy colorful flowers and foliage. The designers employ interesting contrast and textures that last all season—and that comprise the ideal “quick pick up and go” solution for this new breed of consumer.
In the process, the staff also strives to educate customers on how to keep their container gardens looking good, making the service a way to bond with shoppers and to ensure that they return when they want something else “quick, attractive and low-maintenance.”
And that return visit is what boosting the bottom line is all about.
Step 9. Find new ways to celebrate the holidays
Feeney’s Nursery (www.feeneys.com) doesn’t just dabble in holiday sales; it goes full-bore. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Feasterville, Pa., garden center has turned the Christmas season into more of a science experiment than an art exhibit.
The store’s staff uses a sophisticated POS system to track buying behavior, and the management team quizzes front line staffers to see what items are drawing the most eyes. Then it orders appropriately. Even the ordering process has a time-tested order to it. First dibs go to historically significant products; then, if the store wants to test new holiday items, it orders small, just to make sure there’s demand.
Meanwhile, over at Countryside Gardens in Hampton, Va. (www.countrysidegardens.biz), owner Tish Llaneza loves to try new things during the holidays. Consequently, she puts a premium on finding growers that will work with her to create a “buzz” among her customers.
Case in point: “Last year I was determined to have what I called ‘poinsettias in the snow’ for Christmas,” Llaneza said. “I had my grower grow 4-inch pots of Breathless White euphorbia for Nov. 5th. I planted them around the edges of a 14-inch pot with an empty 8-inch pot in the middle. When the poinsettias arrived Nov. 15th, I dropped one in the middle and sold them all in two weeks before I had a chance to put them in my e-newsletter. So, by thinking a little outside the box, we—the grower and myself—took the ordinary and made it something special.”
That’s special, as in the special feeling a retailer gets when she sees a boost to the bottom line.
Step10. Go do that voodoo that you do (and others don’t do)
Garden center operators are constantly looking for the “Next Big Thing” that will entice customers to come into the store—and to leave after having deposited a lot of money at the checkout stand.
For Gale’s Westlake Garden Center in Westlake, Ohio (www.galeswestlake.com) , that NBT is women’s apparel. “Adding our ladies’ clothing and accessories category to our gift shop was the best recent move we’ve made, hands down,” said Pam Donzelli, vice president. “The revenue potential here is amazing and will thrive in an appropriate setting.”
Note Donzelli’s use of the term “revenue potential here is amazing.” There’s another term that expresses the same result. Yep, you guessed it: Boosting the bottom line.