In early February, Garden Center magazine welcomed IGC professionals from three countries and 25 states to the second annual Garden Center Executive Summit in New Orleans. Over three days, attendees learned from some of the best in the industry and each other through networking roundtables, educational sessions and discussions.
We rounded up a few highlights from three sessions at the event to give you a taste of our time in NOLA:
Redefining Millennials: How to Use Purpose-Driven and Event-Based Marketing to Cater to What 30-Somethings are Really Looking For
Rob Sproule, co-owner and marketing director at Salisbury Greenhouse in Edmonton, Alberta, shared his insights into what the millennial generation is looking for in a brand. The founder of DIG Marketing explained how to move past traditional marketing and reach this generation of customer.
• Millennials are looking at purpose, not price when making their decisions. “The whole idea of us focusing on price as an industry has driven me crazy,” Sproule said. “That’s not what millennials are coming in for. They don’t want to talk about price.”
• Millennials are attracted to businesses that have a why. “Your ‘why’ is independent of your products,” Sproule said. “The products don’t matter. What matters is why you’re in business.” So if different products serve your why better, then offer different products. “If you know your why, you know your purpose.”
• Traditional modes of advertising don’t work on millennials. To reach them, messagaging must be authentic because everyone is trying to sell them something. They’re digital natives; they’re used to having messages coming at them 24-7. They’re immune to it and ads don’t even register with them.
• Speak to millennials in an authentic voice. “We’ve got to unlearn what decades of marketing to boomers has taught us,” Sproule said.
Creating a Plant Community and Authentic Experiences Online and In-Store
Eliza Blank, founder and CEO of The Sill, told attendees about the power of community and how her company has cultivated and benefitted from a loyal group of customers who believe in their message that “Plants make people happy.”
• The Sill also works with members of the community to bundle products and cross-promote. Through events, social media, messaging and marketing, the company has cultivated a strong following. “The community will show up for you,” she said. “They become fanatical and they’ll take to social media. Everyone has an audience now and so it’s not just a one-on-one interaction.”
• The community will want to join your team, too. “We’re attracting a ton of talent just because of our community,” Blank said.
• To build a community, you have to be authentic in your branding and messaging. In order for people to invest in your brand, they need to stand by your purpose. “And being authentic means you have to stand by your values all of the time, whether or not someone is watching,” she said.
• Let members of the community hold their own events and discover new members by co-hosting events with a like minded individual or group. “Even if it isn’t exactly what you would have done, you have to give up that control,” she said. Deepen community-company ties by hosting thoughtful events tailored to customers’ lifestyle, interests and hobbies.
Stop the Race to the Bottom – Smarter Plant Pricing
Dr. Bridget Behe, professor of horticultural marketing at Michigan State University, told attendees that when it comes to pricing, focus on the benefits of your plants. Tell people the why of the plant; don’t just tell them about attributes of the plant.
• Sales make people wonder why the plant is worth more at the beginning of the season than it is at the end. “I do not like sales because the psychology of the sale is that we train customers to wait,” Behe said.
• Don’t be afraid to evaluate your existing plant stock and get rid of plants that aren’t performing well, she said. Giving up a particular cultivar may make a few customers upset but think about the money and labor you’ll be saving.
• Instead of focusing on the features of the plant, focus on the benefits. “People buy the benefit,” she said. “Why isn’t the industry talking about what plants can do for us?”
• Don’t sell by container size when there are so many other factors to consider. “When we price by container, we’re ignoring all of this other value,” Behe said.
The tinkling song of a wind chime is a welcome sound in any garden, and they are great products to stock in your IGC. Consumers can give them as gifts or buy them for their own gardens, decks or patios. Or, like Leslie Halleck mentions in her column, place them in your front yard garden for your neighbors to enjoy.
“Wind chimes don’t change a lot because people like basic wind chimes. We bring in some that have butterflies dangling off the bottom, and they sell OK, but basic wind chimes are what people tend to go to,” says Shannon Fitzgerald, gift store manager at Oakland Nurseries in Columbus, Ohio.
Oakland Nurseries’ bestsellers are brass and sterling silver. Fitzgerald says that black chimes and woody bamboo chimes have seen a rise in popularity since last year. Millennial customers gravitate toward colorful chimes, while customers 40 and over stick with basic chimes. They have about 60 chimes in stock, and prices range from $9.99 to $500.
“Woodstock [Chimes] is probably our biggest brand. I have a whole wall dedicated to Woodstock. I have no problem selling that one,” she says. “And then Carson’s is another great wind chime company.”
Fitzgerald says customers prefer deeper toned chimes, and Marcy Plattner, owner of The Garden Spot in Bellingham, Washington, agrees. Plattner says the deeper tones sell better.
The Garden Spot carried several brands of wind chimes over the years, but Plattner favors Music of the Spheres due to the line’s tone quality and customer service. She also stocks Woodstock Chimes. Plattner’s favorite is the Music of the Spheres Quartal Contrabass chime, which sells for $2,000 and is 11.5 feet long.
“The tone on the Contrabass holds for over a minute and when you play, the harmonic tones reach deep in your soul,” she says. “It is a very large chime, that is why we sell only one a year, but having it available to listen to benefits the sale of our other Music of the Spheres chimes.”
The Garden Spot often ships its chimes directly because shoppers can listen to every chime on the website before they buy.
Gail Stroh, buyer for The Bruce Company in Middleton, Wisconsin, has a large stock of chimes for customers to peruse. They carry QMT Corinthian Chimes, Woodstock Chimes, Music of the Spheres, Carson Memorial Chimes, North Country Wind Bells, Cohasset Bamboo chimes and a few others.
“Woodstock Chimes is our largest line, which includes traditional aluminum tube chimes, glass crystal chimes and some bamboo chimes. Our next bestseller would be Corinthian Chimes in various colors and tones. The traditional black always sells well, but the newer blue, red and purple finishes are also great,” she says.
Carson Gift Memorial chimes have poems written on each tube, which are popular for memorial gifts. Most of their aluminum tube chimes are tuned to a musical scale or melody, and the Woodstock chimes are tuned to songs like Amazing Grace and Pachelbel’s Cannon.
A newer chime Stroh stocks is the Moksha line of glass beaded and iron bell chimes. She also stocks glass chimes from Apricot Mint, which include small images of animals or birds with glass beads and stones with bells on the end. Regardless of the trend, chimes remain a popular staple.
“Wind chimes have not died at all. I mean, it is still one of the top things that sell in a garden center,” Fitzgerald says.
Whether they’re seen with the naked eye, through binoculars or heard with listening devices, birds are common in wildlife observation. For decades, observers have gathered in open fields, national parks and special destinations to witness fluttering wings and exotic colors. Garden centers offer customers the same opportunities in their backyards.
For more than 130 years, Russell’s Garden Center has been a botanical resource to the residents of Wayland, Massachusetts. Senior Buyer Suzanne Thatcher has been a part of the team for 30 of those years, and while the perennials department is her main focus, she has also run the bird shop for the past 28 years and has recognized purchase and demographic trends along the way.
“Coming from the perennial side of the business, as lots of our serious perennials customers age, they find that they still want to be connected with nature and outdoors and their yards,” Thatcher says. “I think a lot of them are focusing on the wild bird area for that reason. And then, on the other hand, there’s a lot of young families, first-time homeowners, younger couples moving to the area, and as they’re moving from areas where there’s not much space around, they want to connect their children and family with a yard. I think [birdwatching] is one way of doing it.”
Because Russell’s is open year-round, the bird shop receives business throughout the year. Thatcher says purchase trends are contingent upon the season. The “nasty and cold” winter encourages people to supply heavy duty feeds, and when migratory birds reappear in spring, there’s a huge emphasis on hummingbird and oriole seeding. In the heat of summer, people set up bird baths and around Christmas, shoppers buy bird houses and feeders as gifts. A few years ago, they introduced pollinator boxes, butterfly coddlers, bee boxes and bat boxes.
But these items aren’t the only common purchases. Squirrel deterrents rank high as well. “People always ask me, ‘What can I do to stop the squirrels?’” Thatcher says.
What is slowly becoming the new normal however, are water accessories. “I think people are beginning to realize the importance of water, especially throughout winter,” Thatcher says. “It hasn’t been a bad winter this year, but some winters — when it’s cold and the natural water resources are frozen for a long period of time — I think people want to have heated bird baths or deicers in their existing bird baths.”
Although Russell’s has always carried them, Thatcher says that for the past two years, shoppers have inquired about water wigglers and drippers — things that add motion to water. “People are getting a little more interested or at least aware of not having stagnant water in their bird baths. Some people also use solar bubblers or solar-powered drippers that move water because it draws in more birds, and also helps keep the water fresh, which stops mosquitoes from laying,” she says.
While the garden center isn’t currently looking to make modifications, Thatcher says they built a “critter resistant birdseed saleroom” about five or six years ago. Since the store isn’t completely “critter-proof,” birds, squirrels and nature’s bandits — raccoons — invade at night.
At Native Nurseries in Tallahassee, Florida, Joe Walthall, co-owner, bird store buyer and son of the original founders, says they are always redesigning the shop.
“The shop drives a lot of repeat customers, people who come in for 5 to 10 pounds of birdseed each week,” he says.
When buying, Walthall typically orders off inventory and occasionally buys items he’s seen at trade shows in Atlanta and Chicago.
While Native Nurseries offers a wide range of products, much like Russell’s, Walthall says purchases fluctuate depending on weather and bird appearance.
“The last time we had a heavy goldfinch or pine siskin year was probably five years ago. We just don’t see that many of them here anymore, so people don’t really buy Niger [seed] in the winter, which used to be a big seller here. Depending on the seasonality, [bird shop purchases] definitely change, but I’d say
it’s consistently 15-20% of our sales,” he says. Walthall says they also sell field guides and backyard feeder guides, which are popular with older customers. And because the palm trees produce a lot of fruit in Tallahassee, Walthall shares how native plants interact with wildlife and encourages customers to garden for birds too. A lot of their customers have planted plants like Elliot’s blueberry, yaupon holly and max myrtles.
As far as bird interest, Walthall says the experienced birders feed “everybody in their backyard stations.” However, some customers come in and say, “red bird” or “blue bird” and he has to determine if they’re referring to a cardinal, blue jay or actual blue bird.
To emphasize bird care and other gardening education, Native Nurseries holds classes and workshops almost every weekend. They focus on vegetable gardening, birding, bird gardening and more. Russell’s holds workshops as well but focuses on the birding aspect with owl presentations and bird photo contests.
In the future, Walthall wants to become more sustainable in its birdseed options in order to cater to the concerns of a younger demographic.
“Tallahassee is a pretty small town in North Florida, pretty progressive, and a lot of people here are looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact … I think you see that the younger people are more concerned about [packaging] and buying plastic bags all the time.”
As for the future of birding itself, Walthall is hopeful and thinks the hobby will remain strong.
“I think, as long as we’re able to protect our environment from global warming … and as people my age get more secure in homes and jobs, I think that they’ll probably get into it. You can definitely tell that the older crowd is gaining a lot of enjoyment out of the birds and I don’t think that really changes. So as we get a little bit older, people are going to be doing more and more bird feeding and birdwatching. It seems to be something that’s pretty consistent.”
“Basically, our customers are spending as much time choosing what they will feature in the garden as they do with what is inside the house,” Huston says. “Gone are the days when you just pick up the least expensive plastic pot to stick a tomato plant in by the back door; it’s much more design-oriented and intentional these days.”
The definition of what constitutes garden décor has broadened as well. Jim Stinson, assistant manager at Canadale Nurseries, is also the garden décor buyer for the St. Thomas, Ontario, garden center. He also has noticed a shift toward the outdoor living category.
“Outdoor garden décor has also become more closely tied to outdoor living and decorating as opposed to just for outdoor garden décor,” Stinson says. “I would say that most people would consider their outdoor patio furniture, accent cushions, umbrellas and patio rugs as their new garden décor. Our decks and patios are just another room in our homes that need to be decorated.”
As people increasingly see their outdoor space as an extension of their homes, they are also becoming more deliberate with their choices of garden décor. As a result, the garden décor IGCs have available in their stores needs to mimic interiors more than ever before.
To fill that need, Birdsall & Co. offers a spectrum of styles from traditional to ultra-modern, tons of furniture options for outdoor living space configurations, sustainable and refined materials, and products that exhibit high levels of craftsmanship.
Huston isn’t concerned about the cost of those sustainable materials because her customers don’t mind paying extra. Like the farm-to-table movement, the craft beer boom and many other similar trends, consumers want to purchase the work of an artisan, not something that feels mass-produced that can be bought cheaply in a superstore.
“We are seeing customers become increasingly interested in the origin of the products they’re purchasing and are willing to spend a little more up front for products that are going to last a very long time,” she says.
Huston believes that this trend is not going away anytime soon. To that end, she encourages retailers to keep in mind that the environmental impact of a product is going to become a major factor in purchasing garden décor. IGC owners or décor buyers have several options ready for the consumers that are following this trend. From considering the carbon footprint of plastic production, ethical labor conditions abroad, sustainable tree plantations, there are opportunities for companies all along the supply chain to not only do what’s right for the environment but to distinguish themselves as environmentally conscious in the eyes of the consumer.
Another trend that has affected the garden décor market is the impact of technology. At Canadale Nurseries, Stinson has seen increased consumer interest in what technology makes possible for those outdoor living spaces.
“LED lighting and improvements in solar technology has allowed anyone to add outdoor lighting to their garden without all the wiring and hassle,” Stinson says. “Also, Bluetooth technology has allowed people to bring their music outdoors with water-proof speakers.
Stinson says garden décor sales have remained consistent and show steady growth. Purchases in that category have increased in the past few years but not at an overly fast rate, he says. Anything related to outdoor living and decorating has been selling well.
“If the category has shrunk, it is because the category has changed,” Stinson says. “It is no longer just garden décor — it is more about creating an outdoor living experience with more of an emphasis on outdoor living and entertaining.”
Stinson says there haven’t been any revolutionary changes in the décor market, but there have been smaller changes. The big, heavy items are on the downswing and smaller, lighter items have become more popular.
“Years ago, we sold concrete décor like birdbaths, statues, fountains and lanterns,” he says. “Now we sell smaller décor pieces like metal garden art, wall décor, garden stakes or smaller accent pieces.”
Outdoor furniture and accessory items like accent cushions, outdoor mats and entertaining items like dishes and tableware have seen increases. Metal wall art and garden accent stakes remain very popular, especially if they have LED solar lights.
For a boutique like Birdsall & Co., garden décor is the bread and butter. Fountains and containers are by far its largest departments and have had healthy growth year over year.
The Colorado business does exceptionally well with glazed ceramic containers. Huston chooses to carry high-fired containers because they stand up to freeze-thaw cycles for decades without special treatment, which is a major selling point.
“High-quality glazed ceramic manufacturers are really stretching themselves to offer a huge spectrum of colors, so it’s almost impossible for a customer not to find the perfect pots for their gardens,” she says. “Blues are always popular, but we’ve been finding that olive greens, metallic greys and textured containers are having a big moment.”
Fountains and containers are the engine that drives the business, but smaller décor items like wind chimes, wall art and statuary are key to Birdsall’s success. And as long as consumers continue to value quality, there will be a niche for Huston’s business to fill.
“It’s a constant struggle to stay afloat as a brick and mortar business in the internet age, but by maintaining a large inventory of containers and fountains, staying on top of the trends, and having high turnover in our smaller decor items, we have created an enthusiastic and ever-expanding customer base,” Huston says. “I see customers making garden décor choices based on quality, timelessness both in material and style, and lifestyle needs. It’s not a rush to buy run of the mill, mass-produced plastic decor; instead, people are increasingly making a choice to buy unique products that sincerely have a practical or aesthetic purpose.”