There should be no doubt in the garden center industry that online sales heavily compete with brick-and-mortar businesses these days. Amazon is the retail site of the masses; hydroponics retailers have also been aggressive about their digital presence and online sales capabilities. Garden centers, in general, never got in front of the online sales movement, but there is still time and space in which IGCs can compete and even thrive. Don’t assume that Amazon or hydro-store competitors have it all right when it comes to meeting the specific needs of your IGC’s target customers. Just because these types of retailers sell something, it’s not a given that they sell it well.
In addition to a massive outdoor gardening addiction, I also do a lot of indoor gardening. As such, I often purchase hard goods such as lighting gear — equipment that is easily broken if it is not packaged correctly or is mishandled during shipping. I’ve tried to purchase certain types of grow lights on numerous occasions via Amazon, which arrived broken, poorly packaged or just plain non-functional. I was left with no real customer service options to address my problems. And if you’ve ever visited your local hydro-store, you may have found that, as a mainstream gardening customer, these retailers are not particularly interested in creating a good experience for you.
After terrible customer experiences with both types of retailers and the inability to get what I needed locally, I returned to the internet to track down an independent garden supply retailer with helpful customer service and good online ordering and shipping options. It wasn’t easy and it took a little hard Googling, but I finally found a brick-and-mortar retailer in Green Bay, Wis., (I live in Texas) that had an easy-to-use online store. The website was complete with real-time inventory availability information and the store was stocked with exactly what I needed. The store, called Garden Supply Guys, ended up being highly communicative and attentive to my orders and needs. It was a refreshing surprise.
Jesse Nelson, owner of Garden Supply Guys, says that instead of giving in to the “I can’t compete with Amazon” attitude, they acknowledged where their business was falling behind the times and made a commitment last year to catch up. Nelson said that he knows the way customers are shopping is changing quickly. After watching customers in his store compare his products and pricing against online vendors on their smart phones, Nelson installed a new POS system and built a responsive website with an online store. Both systems have access to the same real-time inventory data, so customers online know exactly what’s in stock. They also answer emails and questions quickly and with care.
“If this is how customers like to shop,” says Nelson, “then I am going to give that experience to them, but with expert advice and great customer service built in.”
Beyond digital technology, there’s also an opportunity to recapture some brick and mortar sales by fine-tuning your in-person customer experience. Sometimes, customers will choose to buy online simply because they’ve found the in-person shopping experience to be inconvenient or unpleasant. If your lines are long and you’re understaffed, or your staff isn’t interested in good retail manners, you’ll make buying online a far more attractive option to your customers. Perhaps your customers haven’t found what they needed on their last few trips and don’t want to waste the time to visit again only to leave empty-handed. I must say, that’s a big reason I buy a lot of plants online these days. If you’re understaffed, understocked, and you don’t offer your customers any online options, you’re making it too easy for online retailers to take away your business.
“I can’t compete with Amazon, so I don’t bother with online sales.” “My customers don’t want to shop online, they only want to see our plants in person.” “Shipping product is too hard.” If you’ve uttered any or all of these phrases, I’d venture to say you’re missing the big picture.
Trust me, pretty much none of your customers enjoy spending 15 to 20 minutes on hold, waiting for you to try and find out how many purple petunias you do or don’t have in stock. That is why online ordering isn’t just for customers outside of your zip code. Your local customers want and need good online ordering options from you as well, but they still want access to experts and customer-focused service when they visit your store in person. Even if you don’t want to painstakingly box and ship products to non-local customers, you can offer online ordering with in-store pick up, or provide in-house delivery for local customers. That alone would be a huge benefit to regular shoppers like me. If I could jump online to check product availability before visiting, order while online, and then make a quick store visit for pick up, I’d buy a lot more plants and product locally.
The trick for IGCs, as I see it, isn’t to replace the in-person experience with online sales, but to enhance it. By blending the two together, you expand your customers’ options and opportunities to engage with you. It’s time to put modern POS systems and responsive websites to work in the green industry, so our customers don’t have to work so hard to spend money.