It’s a well-known fact that it’s a bigger investment to recruit a new customer than it is to retain one, so how do you turn a first-time buyer into a loyal customer?
People often act on autopilot, said Bridget Behe, professor of horticultural marketing at the University of Michigan. It takes more cognitive energy to make a change and go to a different retailer than it does to return to a store you know.
"So you have to stop thinking about a transaction as a one-time sale and start thinking about it as a relationship,” Behe said. And once you build the relationship and trust, an indirect benefit is the capacity to make recommendations on plants and placement, which increases their chances of success.
Loyal buyers buy repeatedly but not because there are not other choices. Not because you are the easiest choice, conserving them time and energy. “A loyal customer buys repeatedly but we need to get into the psyche of the consumer to understand that,” Behe said.
There are plenty of choices out there for consumers, but the key to repeat customers is not just making them happy — it’s going a step further to make them delighted. That can be done through anything from signage to new products to freebies.
“Happy customers are satisfied but delighted people are likely to make the purchase again,” Behe said. “Yes, we need satisfied customers, but what we see in the literature is that we need that combination of delight and joy to have loyal customers.”
Emotions like delight, and its opposite, regret, can create intense reactions. And when a transaction leaves a customer with a feeling of regret, they’re likely to make a switch in retailers.
What makes a customer stray?
Competitors can lure customers away with a better proposition (price relative to perceived value). “Customers are not rational,” Behe said. “They will act on what they perceive and what they believe and marketers have a huge capacity to nudge some of those decisions.”
A poor retail experience and/or poor product experience can drive it as well. At the end of the day, a customer’s decision to buy from a competitor comes from that feeling of regret.
In the garden industry, the biggest regrets come from plants that die. That’s why it’s so important to focus on finding a customer the right plant for the right place in their home or garden.
When customers have a great retail experience, they’re much more likely to come back and see you. The best way to do that is to optimize plant performance and give them the best value proposition. In other words, make them feel like they got what they paid for.
The role of guarantees
Plant guarantees increase satisfaction, Behe said. A national study of 517 plant customers showed that consumers who knew a plant guarantee was in place experienced less regret and had a higher likelihood of making another purchase, she shared. The findings also showed that there was a higher sense of satisfaction when a plant guarantee was in place.
The same was found in a 2014 study on bouquets. Customers were willing to pay more for a cut flower arrangement when there was a guarantee of longer life. Plus, the guarantee increased the likelihood a shopper would buy a bouquet. And those who value guarantees appear to be willing to pay more for a 15% premium for that assurance.
As prices on plants increased from $5 to $10 per plant, a 30-day money-back guarantee reduced perceived risk for annual plants.
And when it comes to perennials, the money-back guarantee had an increasingly larger effect on reducing perceived risk for each $10 price increase. So, the longer the plant will live, the more important the money-back guarantee is.
The changing plant purchaser
Dr. Alicia Rihn, assistant professor, University of Tennessee, shared some research on the differences in generations of buyers as well. Her research shows that garden retail shoppers are, on average, 10 years younger and make about $25,000 a year more than those who don’t garden.
Younger gardeners are more internet- and tech-savvy. They’re online shoppers, so those who have successfully figured out how to ship are the ones who are getting these repeat customers.
Gen Z-ers and millennials are more interested in an experience culture than they are in possessions. So garden centers need to find ways to help customers take care of plants when they’re out traveling. But it’s also important to highlight the fact that growing plants is, in itself, an experience.
Another key value in that demographic is sustainability and emotional investment, since many younger customers identify as ‘plant parents.’