Focus for faster growth

By concentrating on core strengths, garden centers can cut through the product saturation that exists in today’s retail marketplace.

Offering mostly garden-related hard goods and outdoor living essentials can help IGCs sharpen their focus.

There is one consistent piece of advice I’ve doled out to businesses over the past few years: “You don’t need to be everything to everyone; being everything, or offering everything isn’t always better.” This is neither new nor revolutionary advice, but it does seem to be a concept that’s gotten left behind in a world full of everything-stores and online retailers.

A mass mess

As mass merchants, as well as Amazon, have grown to become the normal shopping experience for most consumers, many independent garden centers have tried to keep pace by getting bigger and offering a wider product assortment. This approach often includes reaching far outside relevant product selection to stretch sales. Many have discovered, however, that this strategy has hurt their profits instead of helping them, and watered down the distinction between the big box and IGC experience.

I want to buy plants

In my opinion, if I buy clothing and jewelry at your garden store, it either means I’m traveling and can’t cart plants around (therefore, I’m neither your target customer nor a regular customer) or your plant selection didn’t inspire me. Too often it’s the latter. And because I came to your store with the intention of buying something I didn’t find, I’m going to darn well buy something. I happen to like clothing and jewelry, so okay, I’ll bite. And while those kind of impulse purchases of non-core product might get you through as a business for a short time, you have to make sure they are part of your core business identity. If they aren’t, then they are simply a short-term distraction.

Define your goals

I’m not saying that attempting to serve a wide audience and offer depth of choice isn’t a viable option for some businesses. I am saying it could slow your growth and profits as a local garden center and as a specialty niche business. More importantly, from a big picture perspective, the unintended consequence of this everything-is-necessary strategy is the commoditization of the IGC shopping experience. When customers have a hard time telling the difference, or justifying a difference, between you and the local big-box garden center or grocery store, you’re most likely going to be the business that loses out.

Defining your business goals, and then focusing on your core strengths with a specialty primary product or service can help you cut through the shopping saturation that exists in today’s marketplace. A tighter focus on a best-fit customer can also help you up your game. When you have a deeply developed target customer profile, it becomes easier to find the right new customers, easier to sell to those customers and easier to be an expert in what you sell. That’s differentiation at its core.


Do not confuse my push for a tighter sales focus with the idea that we have to dumb down gardening or even strictly limit plant selection for the consumer. I don’t see why we need to rob ourselves or future generations of gardeners of a healthy variety of plant options. We are all consumers, and we’re not wishy-washy. We know what we want — it’s just that we each define what we want using a different language. The terms we use inside the industry to communicate and define products are simply different than the lingo our customers use. It’s not their job to speak our technical language, and it’s not our place to act superior to them because they don’t. Essentially, it’s our responsibility and in our own best interest to be business-bilingual.

Diversification is important, especially for IGCs in colder climates, but cutting through the cluttered hard goods market and selecting only items that reflect your brand is also key.
Emphasize and expand product categories you’re known for and that people buy regularly, and narrow your focus on the rest.
Dig deep

So, do we really have to limit our customers’ access to, say, only three fern varieties so they don’t get paralyzed by choice? I’m not convinced that offering too many varieties is the real reason our customers are getting overwhelmed. We could, instead, limit the overall selection of product we sell so we can offer depth of product where it matters most.

If you’re best known for container gardens, you probably don’t need to try and sell 100 different types of trees and landscape shrubs along with 18 different types of mulch. You may be more successful if you focus on a depth of plants better suited to containers, a fantastic selection of pottery and specialty containers, and your own custom house brand indoor and outdoor potting mix — one or two of each. Not only that, but you could accomplish this successfully using less square footage with more inventory turns.

Shrink to fit

Earlier this fall, I read an article on Boulevard Flower Gardens in Virginia and their decision to reduce the size of their plant-selling space to create less of a “big-box type of environment.” They’ve sold part of their property to another local business, and have gone about using their new, smaller space with greater efficiency, and created a more boutique-like shopping experience. They have very specific goals for the type of product they intend to sell in their smaller space and a plan for focused activities to support those products. Essentially, they are getting back to their roots, while at the same time focusing more tightly on evolving customer expectations and a changing marketplace. This is a smart move that will most likely pay off for the business, both financially and emotionally.

Consider leasing less profitable space to freelance landscapers or florists who can also serve your customers.
Together but separate

Let’s say you also want to downsize, but you’ve invested in more square footage, bigger buildings or expanded the retail area in which you are now struggling to turn inventory. What can you do? Physically downsizing may not be an option, as you may not logistically be able to sell off portions of your property or space like Boulevard Flower Gardens did. But that doesn’t mean you can’t repurpose it.

Let’s look at what’s happening to the rest of the marketplace, in terms of how other types of business are addressing evolving staffing and service concerns. Many businesses are outsourcing services as well as space-sharing. Freelancers and subcontractors are doing work for companies that have decided they don’t want to directly manage certain projects or absorb certain types of overhead. As a result, co-working collectives have become much more common.

Who says we can’t do the same in the green industry? Why not clear some of your existing, burdensome slow inventory space and sublet it to allied tradesman? In my local market area, there are a growing number of independent landscape designers, landscape architects, irrigation specialists and small boutique maintenance companies sprouting up, most without the ability to lease or own their own physical office location.

You could potentially create your own “services studio” space using square footage that’s not turning enough inventory. Space sharing takes the responsibility off of your shoulders for providing certain services that aren’t your strength, while at the same time offering your customers the support services they need to be successful with your product. For fees that are less than what an independent professional would pay for a full office, you could grant them a hip workspace with access to a bevy of potential new customers.

You could even offer space to “pop-up” businesses on a rotating basis, such as independent florists. While many IGCs have given up their floral departments, there has been a rise in the growth of small independent florists that operate at markets and pop-up events. Why not rotate them through your store?

Clean break

When it comes to narrowing your focus to do more of what you do best and less of what you don’t, let’s take closer look at your associated services. It’s my observation that if you’re really good at garden center retail, there is a chance your landscaping services leave something to be desired. Conversely, if you’ve got the landscaping services thing down, then your retail operation gets less of your attention. I can usually tell pretty quickly when I visit an IGC which side of the business is responsible for most of the cash flow.

Let’s admit that these are two very different types of businesses that require different management strategies. Perhaps you should consider picking one. We all need to admit what we’re really good at and what we’re not.

Narrowing your focus does not translate to limiting plant selection. Customers like variety.

Ultimately, you need to do you, and do that well. That’s how you make the right customers happy. What you used to do well may not be what you do well now or what your marketplace currently needs from you.

What you used to do in a large space may no longer be appealing to customers looking for a specialty niche experience. Outsource and out-space what you can’t or don’t do well. By narrowing your focus, both in your overall product selection and how you use your physical space, you can dramatically boost your relevancy with target customers and transform their shopping experience with you into one that will turn target customers into regular customers.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business & marketing strategy, product development & branding, and content creation for green industry companies.

November 2016
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