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Reaching a new generation of gardeners

Features - Marketing

Here's a look at how to find, attract and keep millennial customers at your garden center.

Kate Spirgen | October 29, 2012

Baby boomers watch out: there’s a new generation of buying power hitting the market soon. Customers ages 18 to 34, also known as the millennial generation, make up more than 23 percent of the U.S. population, but they’re a tricky customer to find and trickier to understand.

The millennial generation is often characterized as entitled and selfish, but there’s much more to them than that. They care about the environment and social issues; they’re tech-savvy and, most importantly, they’re going to be a key demographic for retail in coming years. But millennials aren’t reached by traditional methods, have little experience in the garden and need a lot of hand-holding in the garden center, and in the dirt, making them a tough customer for IGCs.

But millennials are also a great marketing tool. Members of the younger generation are much more open about sharing their opinions, good and bad, about products and services. They’re much more likely to trust the opinion of a friend or peer than a trained professional, meaning social media is a key avenue into the hearts (and wallets) of millennials.


Go Digital.
Half of all active bloggers are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to The Nielsen Company, which recently renamed the millennial generation “Generation C.” The C stands for connected, but millennials aren’t necessarily connecting in person, or through traditional media.

Five ways to attract millennials to your garden center

Offer growing assistance online. It’s a great way to connect with new, and often trepid, growers. Whether it’s an email service, chat program or even through social media, new gardeners need direction, but they want it at their convenience.

Carry new and unique varieties. Check out what the hot fashion and home design trends are, and see if those trends translate to your plant offerings. If not, try something new!

Offer a DIY container gardening class or a DIY landscape planning class. Millennials love to put personal touches on their projects rather than buy ready-made containers or designs.

Consider a native plant series. Millennials tend to be more concerned about sustainability issues, and love to support a good cause. Plus, native plants are more likely to survive a new gardener’s mistakes than more temperamental plants.

Host social events. Younger customers are still feeling out the garden world, and by bringing their friends for a fun night out, you can get them excited about growing.

A whopping 27 percent of all social network and blog visitors are 18-34, along with 27 percent of online video viewers and 39 percent of smartphone owners, according to Nielsen. Millennials are spending a lot of time online researching products and services, and sharing their opinions and creations with their friends.

“That’s how they’ve been brought up, with technology as part of their everyday life,” says Jennifer Hatalski, a millennial herself who has worked as a garden center manager and is now marketing coordinator at Hort Couture Plants. “They play with growing on Farmville, but they don’t think about it.”

And it’s not just millennials who are going online. The PEW Internet & American Life Project recently reported that 60 percent of all adults look for information on a local business before they try it, and 47 percent of those people rely primarily on the Internet to do so.

“The most important thing is social media,” Hatalski says. “That’s how they communicate. They’re on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and if you’re not there, you’re really missing the boat in a lot of places.”

Photos are the best way to spread your social media reach and go viral, and millennials are the best vehicle for it. “Pinterest is something they know, while garden centers and gardening might not be,” Hatalski says. “They come across a pretty plant on Pinterest and then they have a bunch of pictures they want to try. It’s amazing how one picture will just go like wildfire, and that’s exactly what you want.”


Teach them.
Millennials want to feel special, and they need a lot of guidance when it comes to gardening. Education is one of the most important things to a younger customer, since a successful first-time gardener is much more likely to become a lifelong customer.

Younger customers are fascinated with edible gardening, especially since many have never tried to grow their own food. Since they are often living in studios, apartments and condos, container gardening is also a big trend with younger gardeners.

But if that tomato plant dies before the harvest comes in, a new gardener is likely to get discouraged and quit, or be more conservative the next season. “The newbie gardeners are so scared that they’re spending money on this, and what if it dies?” Hatalski says. “If it dies, they might not ever want to try it again.”

Education can lead to better relationships with your customers as your staff gets to know their growing conditions, and more about them.

Classes are another great way to attract some of those younger customers. A container class in the evening with food and drinks can be promoted through social media, and younger customers can invite their friends to join them for a night at the garden center. Kids’ classes are another great way to attract young families looking to get into gardening.

“If you have a custom potting event with a band and a local winery where they can bring all their friends and have a night out, you show them it can be fun and it’s not work,” Hatalski says. “It’s a fun, swanky thing to do.”


Stay on top of trends.
Hatalski’s younger sister, who also falls within the millennial generation, works at a garden center during the summer, and at the end of the season, she has no interest in plants. But when she visited a trial bed at the end of the season, she found a striking new variety she liked, snapped a photo on Instagram and shared it with all of her friends.

Getting to know millennials

Millennials use the internet about as much as other generations, but they use it differently. Younger web browsers want to share their own opinions and ideas rather than just surf, making them a great online marketing resource.

• They want to improve the world around them whether it’s by supporting a good cause or making sustainable living choices. They tend to care more about a business’s sustainable practices and volunteer efforts than older generations.

• They tend to trust the opinions of their friends over professionals or experts. They often look to social media sites or review sites like Yelp before making large purchases.

• Individualism is key to millennial customers. Rather than adopting traditional ways of doing things, younger customers value the chance to put a personal stamp on what they buy.

• They’re impatient. Millennials grew up in the digital age, where information is available at their fingertips. They want information, but don’t want to have to work for it.

“I would say on the plant side of what’s catching the eye, it’s all about trends and what’s happening and what’s hot right now,” Hatalski says. “If you can hit the different and the unique, and connect it with something they’re familiar with like current fashion trends, it will be a hit. If they’re not gardeners already, they need some other kind of connection there other than this is a plant and you plant it and it grows.”

Millennials often get a bad rap for being self-centered and lazy, but you can make that work for you in your garden center by stocking easy plants like succulents and small containers. Since the younger generation is looking for conversation pieces that show off their personality, container gardening is a great avenue for self-expression.

“They don’t want it to be work,” Hatalski says. “They don’t want to take time out of their day for something like that if it’s work, but if it’s something they can show off and talk about, that’s another story.”


Get the word out.
Get on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest, and make it worth your while. Posting events and specials to Facebook is a great way to advertise for free.

“It does take a lot of time, but it’s the way the younger generation connects and communicates,” Hatalski says.

A weekly email blast or a monthly newsletter with specials and events is a great way to get the word out, and collect contact information for regular customers. If you can get a good collection of customers, you have a customer database, and lots of information on your demographics. Plus, it’s a great way to get to know more about your customers.

“It’s so easy in a garden center nowadays with the POS computers that you can put in someone’s name, address, email address, phone number and it’s all there when they’re in front of you,” Hatalski says.

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