As retailers prepare for spring, many are finding the opportunities buried throughout the chaos of the coming year. The old saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” wholly rings true to the industry’s perseverance. So as 2022 brings new and continued challenges — overseas supply chain delays, labor shortages and unpredictable weather — these garden centers are embracing the curveballs with a revitalized focal point: opportunity.
Coventry, Rhode Island
- As IGCs contend with limited supply and delays, meeting new vendors can be a blessing in disguise.
Ethan Hattoy, general manager, says supply chain struggles are nothing new. Specialty tools and items like containers, rakes, hand pruners and pots are hard to come by due to soaring overseas freight prices and high demand. While the garden center has been able to source the majority of its green goods, there are still limited varieties of trees and shrubs. However, Hattoy chooses to look on the bright side. “One opportunity that we can take as garden centers is to really revisit the relationships with all of our vendors and start to expand our horizons a little bit,” he says.
He’s quick to point out that while Hattoy’s has made great relationships over the years, now is a prime opportunity to make new contacts. He suggests retailers attend trade shows to network and foster connections between regional vendors. For Hattoy’s, doing so has helped broaden their reach, and he says having new contact information can be a great backup in case orders fall through.
“For things like trees and shrubs, we’ve spread those orders out amongst all of them, rather than having our eggs in one basket with a few growers on certain things,” Hattoy says. As a result, he estimates they’ve added 30-40% growth by expanding their vendor list.
“It gave us the opportunity to find out that certain people were growing things that were beautiful, and we’ll continually buy from those suppliers and have that relationship that we’ve started,” he says.
The jump to new vendors required trust and communication on both sides, but stressing an “every day counts” attitude with managers and vendors helped both parties stay on track.
“We really stress that to all of our staff and all our people, on how we can be our best to get the most out of the season. Because that season is sometimes what pays for some of the slower seasons,” he says.
- Punch up your marketing campaign to bring customers in the door, rain or shine (or snow).
While COVID surges and supply shortages are specific challenges to the last few years, dealing with weather is a constant challenge year in and year out. Hattoy says snow can linger a little longer in late winter or early spring, dampening spring sales. However, he says that it’s important not to get discouraged when inclement weather strikes. Instead, Hattoy’s learned to ramp up its marketing for consistent, year-round sales. The IGC is active on social media and airs TV and radio advertisements.
“We doubled down on our social media so that we’re just reaching more and more people in our backyard and are still finding that we’re getting tons of new customers. Sales have gratefully been going up in the past few years, regardless of those weather or supply chain events,” he says.
- When it comes to staffing, commitment goes both ways.
One of the most important things employers can do is keep staff members focused and happy — avoiding burnout is essential. “It’s a tough grind in the spring to really push through it,” Hattoy says.
At the end of the day, the behind-the-scenes work sets the team up for success. For example, Hattoy says they’re constantly trying to get more out of their employees by offering license opportunities, bringing them to trade shows and helping them receive pesticide credits. That way, when customers interact with staff, they usually have the answers customers are seeking.
“We always want hire the right person, not just any person, because it's really hard to train people and this stuff, it takes time,” he says. “So, it’s a little bit of a commitment to us when we take on a person. We know we’re going to be teaching them a lot and spending a lot of time with them before they really, really know the ins and outs of what they need to know.”
- Customers realize the opportunities in the real estate market and they’re coming back in droves to beautify their yards and living spaces.
The last few springs have been a chaotic affair for Culver’s, but they’ve also set current trends in motion. Katie Culver, marketing manager, believes one of the most significant opportunities for the Midwest garden center is its appeal for hobbyists, as well as its status as a destination garden center.
After opening in the spring of 2020, the IGC couldn’t keep up with demand. “People were hoarding plants just like they were hoarding toilet paper, quite honestly,” Culver says. “We actually saw a huge growth at that time because people were home more and they finally decided to start investing in their yards and their homes, and do a lot of home projects and gardening. So COVID started it, but it’s an ongoing thing.”
While the panic-buying slowed down, customers’ attitudes toward gardening had not. Instead, as most garden centers experienced, there was a surge of interest — and then some. She says that customers realize just how valuable plants, trees and shrubs are.
“We are very connected to the real estate market, as with any garden center or greenhouse, but people are finally starting to realize the real estate market is booming right now. And when your landscape looks better, your house is going to be worth more. Even if you put in one shade tree, it increases your home value a ton,” Culver says.
- Appeal to the plant-based, work-from-home crowds.
Another behavior Culver has noticed is people are less inclined to worry about plant prices. Instead, she observes that they’ll usually buy it if they want it without thinking twice.
“I think that’s kind of an opportunity too, because obviously we’re trying to keep our prices realistic. And even with the cost going up, we want to make it attainable for people,” she says.
In the past, customers were more price-focused and they’d run the gamut of questions. Inquiries like “How much is this?” or “Do you have any cheaper options?” were deciding factors.
“This year I posted a porch pot on Facebook and said, ‘We have porch pots. Come pick one out!’ And I had about five people comment ‘I want it’ on that post — I hadn’t even posted the price. So, I messaged one of them and told them it was $130. They said, ‘OK, give me a call,’” Culver says. “We’re kind of getting to the point where a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s pretty. Let’s get it.’”
- Customers seek a return to old- fashioned outings and experiences at destination garden centers.
At Spruce It Up Garden Centre, Meryl Coombs, president, says customers are seeking a return to experiences, and destination garden centers are on their list. In fact, the retailer has eliminated almost 90% of its online shopping platform as part of its new strategy.
“We’re focusing on the experience and the service. When you come into a garden center, you’re coming here for an experience — to get away from the online stuff, to get away from your computer. And we’re going to really strive to give people that experience,” Coombs says.
While customers can still order products online, it’s pretty “bare bones,” according to Coombs. Customers can purchase deliverables such as bulk goods, firewood, soil and loam. Coombs says the garden center removed everything else off the website “because it’s really hard to try to do both efficiently.”
“We’re going to concentrate on what we do best, and what we do best is giving people the garden center experience. So that’s what we’re going to do,” he says.
Over the last year, Coombs says business has increased nearly 45%, and staff members are concentrating on looking after customers who make the trek to come into the store. He says this also helps Spruce It Up stand out from the big-box stores.
“If you’re going to come here, you’re going to get service, knowledge and a way better product,” Coombs says.
- IGCs can help families build and accessorize their outdoor living spaces.
As COVID-19 ebbs and flows, the world continues to adapt and garden centers can offer customers the tools to create their own spacious, safe havens. “I think what we’re seeing here is just a continuation of people wanting to create more at home. People are wanting to create those outdoor rooms or even outdoor living spaces like those small patios or little bistro set areas,” Coombs says.
Coombs also sees more container plantings and hanging baskets in the spring forecast, and garden centers have the edge over big box stores when it comes to supplying these goods because they can offer bigger sizes (dependent on the supply chain).
When it comes down it, people are willing to spend more on their yards and their houseplants — which has been an upside to the pandemic, he says.
“They’re willing to invest in that barbecue now, or they’re trying to create that outdoor structure to spend time with their family,” he says. “Family time has been big.”
So when the ice thaws and spring finally arrives, lace up your comfiest pair of work shoes (a highly rated pro-tip from Culver) and start blasting Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” over the break room speakers. After all, what doesn’t kill your garden center certainly makes it stronger, and these opportunities are a great way to kick off the season.