In 2015, with the historic drought in California and heat wave in Missouri, SummerWinds Nursery had to quickly pivot to modify its marketing message and merchandise drought- and heat-tolerant plants in new, more urgent ways. They had to adapt to the climate.
They also continued to adapt to technological changes to remain relevant, and in 2015, they updated their POS system and started developing a new, more user friendly website.
Each year, the business adopts an overarching message that permeates through training sessions, letters and emails to associates, product meetings and “daily huddles,” or quick team meetings led by store managers.
Appropriately, the message of 2015 was “change,” with the focus being: How does the company adapt to changes in the industry, changes in the climate and changes in technology?
The focus of 2016 is absorbing those past changes and improving upon them. This year, SummerWinds Nursery is asking its employees to be better.
The company, which has 13 stores in California, Arizona and Missouri, is encouraging associates to be better with customers, better teammates and better stewards of their communities, says Tim Businda, who oversees all locations as vice president of retail operations.
“Let’s concentrate on what we do well and do it better,” says Businda, who got his start at SummerWinds watering plants nearly two decades ago, and has grown his career with the company. “We ask [managers] to use daily huddles as a training moment, even if it’s just on how to sell this product this week because this is what’s meaningful in our community.”
Creating a theme for the year and repeating that mantra is just one way SummerWinds prepares its associates for the busiest seasons and boosts morale. Most efforts revolve around keeping their people, both associates and customers, happy, so that they stay and return.
“What is true yesterday, true today and what will never go out of style is customer service and company culture,” says Frank Benzing, president and CEO of SummerWinds. “We are a service industry. ... We can take our industry to the next level with a keen focus on service — people, shopping experience and relationships.”
Everything from SummerWinds’ newly redesigned website to its store signage advertises a very simple message: We Guarantee Success!
The slogan isn’t just a promotional tactic. The words have meaning, and the motto is a powerful tool managers and associates are given to help customers succeed in the garden.
“When you come into the store, if you bring a plant back, it doesn’t matter the reason — you killed it or it was a bad plant — we’re going to make you successful and we’re going to take care of it,” Businda says.
What confuses and surprises customers most is that there is no time frame on returns, and they don’t need a receipt.
“The first thing we do is reassure customers that we’re going to take care of them,” he says. “We get into a conversation about what went wrong, or maybe it was just a bad plant. We do have a small disclaimer that we are not responsible for acts of Mother Nature. But even in those cases, we want to make you successful, so it’s up to the discretion of the store manager.”
Even if a hail storm comes through and destroys a garden, or the neighbor’s dog digs up fresh plant beds, store managers are encouraged to find solutions.
“We can’t help that your neighbor’s dog dug up your flowers, but let’s give you 20 or 25 percent off your purchase. Let’s get it all fixed up again and get you growing again,” Businda says. “Our managers are told, ‘There is no one in this industry that can afford to lose a customer, so whatever we can do to make that consumer successful and return, let’s do it.’”
The no-hassle return policy assures customers, especially new, gun-shy gardeners, that they can try and fail, and SummerWinds will be there to help. It also makes managing the volume of hectic seasons that much easier for managers and associates. The return policy is simple and not micromanaged to make the process as easy as possible for all. “Even we, who grow or are around plants all day long, we lose plants ourselves,” Businda says. “We’re supposed to be the experts, and we throw a lot of plants away. We don’t get back nearly that many plants from customers.” Some independent garden centers may be worried they’d lose money on a return policy like that. Sure, maybe some people cheat the system, but the benefits of the guarantee far outweigh the potential scammers, Businda says.
The slogan also serves as the company’s primary promotional message, says Shelly Huelsman, marketing and advertising manager.
“What does distinguish us from others is that not a lot of retailers offer the guarantee that we do,” says Huelsman, who recently celebrated her eighth anniversary with the company. When she first started, each store had its own look and feel. She helped create a more uniform brand company-wide, and she honed in on “We Guarantee Success” for inspiration.
“We had various styles throughout the different locations, and my first project, really my biggest project, was to get some consistent signage and branding out there in all of the locations. When I realized how important ‘We Guarantee Success’ is and what that really means, that drove the branding piece, and we tried to make it more personable,” she says. “We tried to impress [upon customers] that gardening isn’t always a challenge, it’s fun and easy.”
Planning for the busy season isn’t easy when you work in three states and regions with very different climates. However, California, Arizona and Missouri all have different peaks, so seasonal staffing and training can be staggered, too.
“We are fortunate that each region is spread 30 to 45 days apart as far as the beginnings of their seasons,” says Businda, who bounces around from region to region to help with training and preparing for spring. “I’m one of the few people in the company who doesn’t have an office. My office is the store, and working with the associates, mangers and regional managers.”
They also stagger their hiring process so that the entire seasonal staff isn’t recruited and interviewed all at once.
“You always have applicants coming through the door, so our managers are asked to go through those applications and do at least two to three sit-down interviews every single month, so we’re recruiting throughout the year,” he says. “Sometimes you’re not looking for anybody, but good people come in the door, so we want to make sure we can grab those people when they arrive.”
Instead of hiring more seasonal staff, especially in the Arizona and California stores, they’ve expanded their core full-time and part-time associates by about 25 people. SummerWinds adds about 50 to 75 seasonal staff, mostly in Missouri, where they can triple their core staff in a season, he says.
“[Seasonal staff,] they really have a love for gardening and plants. They want to come back, and plus they get a 30 percent employee discount, which doesn’t hurt,” he says. “[Some staff] already have a full-time job, but they want to work on the weekends to get extra money to help out. And you also have high school kids, who aren’t as hard to find.”
But a love of gardening isn’t the first qualification they look for.
“Smiles and personality, that would be No 1. We can teach you how to water a plant, we can teach you how to carry something out to the car, or even teach you about plants,” he says. “Over the last three to five years, a lot of people who come into the nursery and apply already have a love of plants. They’re not just putting in an application because they want a job. People who come into the garden center to apply actually do want to work here. They find some interest in it.”
Another important relationship to maintain in the spring season is the one with vendors. Businda attributes much of the company’s success to those relationships with suppliers.
“They know our business just as well as we do, better sometimes,” he says. “They know how to react, and they know how quickly we need to react.”
Playing to strengths
Since the economic downturn of 2008, some companies have tried to do more with less people, burning out their best employees.
Businda avoids this at SummerWinds by putting employees in areas where they have interest and can be successful.
“We’ve got some really strong, remarkable people. A couple of years ago, we started focusing on what people’s dreams were,” he says. “We started focusing on what people know how to do, and not trying to make superheroes out of every store manager or buyer, or every associate in the store.”
Businda and his operating, buying, marketing and POS team check in with one another every six weeks and discuss what they refer to as a “Road Map” to find out what’s ahead in the coming weeks to see if anyone needs help.
“That Road Map, that’s how we get ready for spring. Everybody knows if they need help from another department, they can ask for help on that call,” Businda says.
Huelsman shares marketing ideas during the call, for example, how to adapt to weather changes using promotional materials and appeal to younger generations.
“We’re trying to change our message for the Millennial generation, who shop and think very differently than Gen X and older,” she says, adding that while every store has consistent branding, each still has its own relevant regional and local merchandise. “We take a look at trends, what our signage looks like, ask if we need to update it, and keep that generation in mind when we make any changes.”
Businda says despite the weather extremes seen last year, especially in California and Missouri, they are expecting a good, strong year for 2016.
“We’ve had some positive rains in California, and we have some good snow pack,” he says. “The drought is never going to go away. People have the thought process now that they want to be conscious of the water they do use, and they’ve got to be smarter at gardening. Our plant palettes have changed.”
SummerWinds is also in a “saturated retail environment, fighting for the all mighty discretionary dollar,” Benzing says, and they must do more than provide great products to compete.
“We must go beyond price, selection and convenience. Being relevant goes far outside having great plants available to sell,” Benzing says. “We must design ‘the experience’ around our great plants and beautiful accessories.”
Explore the February 2016 Issue
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