Foretelling your garden center’s future has everything to do with good financial planning and budgeting. Creating a budget and learning how to grow with it as your company grows is key to IGC success. That said, the numbers don’t mean much if you haven’t set any intentions for what you plan to do and how you plan to use the profits you earn. So, we can talk all day about budgeting and the distinct types of budgeting styles. But the challenge I’d like to put forth to you today is one of intention. Why are you setting the budget and profit goals you are, and what will you do with them if you hit your numbers?
Why am I asking this question? If you happened to read Garden Center’s September piece on “The cost of business,” you may have noticed that the garden centers highlighted — as well as many like them across the country — have seen serious gains over the last couple of years. To me, these gains represent a huge opportunity for IGCs to rectify a few of our failings over the last 20 years.
Failings? Bear with me a moment. It’s no secret that IGCs have collectively fallen behind the times a bit when it comes to infrastructure, technology and staffing. Change is hard, and when it feels like you might lose a piece of the identity you feel is important to you and your business, big shifts can seem either overwhelming or unnecessary. Regardless, our customers have changed, and so has commerce. Substantial changes are what most independent garden centers need if they are going to thrive and grow after the influence of the pandemic settles out. Changes in attitudes about customer experience, ease of access and the qualified staff we desperately need and how we value them, should be front and center.
Let’s talk a bit about the nitty-gritty of budgeting, and then I’ll circle back to intention. Forecasting, forecasting, forecasting ... it’s what a budget is for, right? When it comes down to how your budget can help you plan your future, it’s tough to spend wisely unless you have a clear plan. And it’s hard to have a clear plan when you don’t have good numbers to build a clear plan. If your books are a mess (we’ve all been there), now is the time to get them sorted, as painful as it may be. Only then can you reliably integrate your POS data and generate good reports that help you both build and follow a meaningful budget.
Spend or save?
Obviously, one of the primary goals of a budget is to manage your business’ cash flow. In terms of helping your business in the future, the purpose of your budget is to help you plan for future spending. Be it short term or long term, be it carefully or boldly. Unfortunately, I often see this budgetary intention twisted into a hardcore mentality of future keeping. End stop. I think we’ve seen this play out big time with big wealthy corporations, especially during the pandemic. Billionaires who were already billionaires are now much bigger billionaires and they don’t seem to have any plan to spread the wealth their employees earned for them. Greed plays the biggest part in such big corporate saving. When it comes to small IGC “saving” (if there has been anything to save), I would say it’s fear that’s motivating you to hang on to everything you gain at the macro level, even if it doesn’t make sense to do so.
Saving it all can also hurt you at the micro level when it comes to inventory management. If you’re never willing to spend enough on inventory, you’ll never make enough. This is a keeping mentality I’ve experienced across the green industry that manifests in an unwillingness to deviate from the budget in any way, even when it makes financial sense to do so. Pandemic-related product shortages may be tying your buying hands right now, but I encourage you to evaluate if you still have lingering commitment issues you could rectify when it comes to inventory spending.
Go with the flow
Given how fluid garden centers’ sales can be, I learned during my tenure to get extremely comfortable with treating my budget as more of a fluid guideline than a hard rulebook. It’s a tool to help you know where you are now and where you want to go, but it can’t predict forks in the road. Your budget is also there to help you decide what to buy and what not to buy in terms of inventory. But opportunities constantly present themselves and taking advantage of them might mean bucking the budget, be it the overall budget or department-level buying budgets. Sometimes that means taking bold risks.
Fear is, of course, a powerful emotion and motivator — and paralyzer — when it comes to building and managing your budget. The fear is understandable, but it can be wholly destructive to your business and cause you to miss big opportunities. Given that most IGCs won’t indefinitely sustain the type of exponential gains we’ve seen over the last couple of years, investments in infrastructure — physical and digital — and staff should be at the forefront of our immediate intentions.
Budget with intention
Let’s jump back to intentions for a second. Just as with any type of goal you set, if you aren’t decisive about it, say it aloud, write it down, then shout it to the universe — not to mention build it into your budget — what’s the likelihood of you achieving it?
So, what are your biggest goals and intentions for your garden center in 2021 and beyond?
Getting the budget profit numbers right is great. However, manifesting your profit intentions using your budget is the greatest.
Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com
If ever there is time for an IGC to make new plans or shake things up, it’s in January. Some have kept a “when we have time this winter …” list to bring out once Christmas is cleared and packed away. But in addition to the wish list you’ve kept during the busy season, it can be helpful to look to multiple fields for motivation and brainstorming.
Green industry events and publications are great to get the creative juices flowing, but don’t overlook stimulation from other sources. Our customers are influenced by trends in fashion, interior design, art and business, and we should be too. Changing styles in those areas can help us look at our signage, architecture, communications and events with new eyes. Here are a few suggestions to stimulate ideas for your IGC in 2022.
Look to interiors
Interior design forecasts offer several suggestions for garden centers. First, bold colors and the use of multiple patterns in a room are on the horizon. Thinking about courageous color combinations, might you want to paint your faded wooden benches or shade frames in shades of chartreuse or deep purple this season? Or maybe a mix of rich cornflower blues and sage greens would change things up without jarring your sensibilities. If your benches or framing have been colorful in the past, how about painting the benches black or charcoal gray, and the building trims a rich chocolate brown? In other words, how can you use color to give your customers something to open their eyes and talk about?
Interior style experts predict that there will be an even greater investment in outdoor rooms in 2022. As a result, our customers are likely interested in weather-resistant furnishings, plant stands and porch-floor coverings. Where might you find space in your store to show ever-changing combinations of plants or products that can inspire people when they come in?
One of the trends in graphics for the coming year is paying attention to inclusive visuals. Look at your posts, ads and website for the past year, and take notice if your followers tend to be a certain type. Think about using diverse ages, races, body types and genders to attract a greater range of potential customers.
Another trend in graphics is the use of bold icons and bright colors. This is an easy one to carry into our signage, social posts and websites. A number of apps instantly convert a closeup of a flower or leaf, for example, into a comic, icon or art. If your region has a favorite flower or iconic plant, consider transforming that image for eye-catching displays.
You can have photographs printed on everything from flags and banners to mugs and throw pillows, so there is no limit to how you can promote plants and your IGC with images taken on a cell phone.
Some buzzwords seem to enter the language quickly; suddenly, you’ll notice everyone using them. You’ve undoubtedly heard, for example, that no one changes, transforms or adapts anymore. Starting in 2020, suddenly everyone was pivoting. Using the jargon of the day at our IGCs is another way to shake things up for the coming year and attract people who might not have plants on their radar. You might offer to do a seminar that takes people on a deep dive into pruning or offer a class on startup vegetable gardens.
A popular business term in business lingo is hyperlocal. This refers to subjects that are important to a specific community or area. Businesses may use this term to illustrate the importance of focusing on a niche or pinpointed market. Still, those in the green industry have long known that all gardening is regional. IGCs can remind their customers that they have a hyperlocal mission. We might offer Hyperlocal Collections of plants or products that address our customers’ desire for success and interest in sustainability.
Thanks to the internet, people are exposed to more cross-disciplinary information than ever before. We are seeing cooks collaborate with chemists, writers with athletes and artists with scientists. So how can IGCs take advantage of such cross-cutting? We might ask a local geologist to write a blog post about the rock formations in our region and tie that into what types of plants flourish there. We could work with a local restaurant to plan and serve a special meal using edible flowers or ask artists to display their garden-themed art among the plants after the spring crush is over. Even better, we can ask our customers to tell us what their passions are and how those might relate to plants and gardens.
Finally, look to social media posts for information about how others see plants as 2021 turns into 2022. A simple search on Google Images for “top garden influencers on Instagram” or “most popular plant posts on TikTok” will give you hundreds of photos that will inform you about how average people, many younger than you are, are looking at plants. From greenery walls and ceilings to the top plants people are searching for on social networks (Cactus: 1.1 billion TikTok views in July 2021!), you’ll come away with a new perspective that can fuel dozens of ideas.
Inspiration is everywhere, and winter is the perfect time to connect trends and ideas that will attract customers to your garden center in 2022.
C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at www.GardenLady.com
In the hustle and bustle of busy times like the holidays, it’s easy to let little things slide. Sometimes it seems like it’s a race to the finish line, whether that’s the end of the day, the end of the year or the end of the holiday season.
It’s times like the holiday rush or the busy spring season when the proper processes and fail-safes are so important. It’s so easy for things to fall apart when a longtime employee leaves, someone calls off sick or an important shipment is delayed. In the retail business, so much can go wrong so quickly and there often isn’t time to pivot before at least some damage is done.
While most businesses have a contingency plan for big emergencies like natural disasters, the loss of a key employee or a bad month of sales, many don’t have a clear path to deal with issues like sub-par plant deliveries or a staff member with a bad attitude. Sometimes small problems, when not addressed, can become big problems.
And even if those little problems don’t become big threats to the health of the business, they can keep you and your staff from growing. If you’re always running back and forth, you’ll never have the time to really dig into your business and find new opportunities to serve the community.
In this month’s cover story, we hear from two Top 100 Independent Garden Centers that have taken the time to adapt and grow their pet divisions to meet the growing demand for “pandemic pets.” The opportunity that arose from the boom in pet adoptions during the pandemic was one that no one saw coming two years ago, but with the right focus and resources to expand their pet departments, Homestead Gardens and Chalet are seeing great returns on their investments.
I personally love this quote from Nathan Herman at Chalet: “We were always thinking about, ‘How does this enhance the health and wellness of our customer and the community?’” That kind of focus is a great guiding principle that can extend to all parts of the business. But without the time and energy to focus on that goal, mission statements are just words.
Planning for the little emergencies or disappointments can help your garden center keep on doing what it does right. It's easy, at the end of the year, to look at what went wrong and how you can fix big pain points. But it’s also important to look at what you’re doing right and focus on how you can keep making your customers, and your community, happy.
I hope you and your staff are able to find a little time for rest and relaxation before your planting season starts and it’s all hands on deck again.
As gardening gained popularity throughout the COVID pandemic, another trend was on the rise: pet ownership. One in five American households acquired a cat or dog between the beginning of the pandemic and May 2021, according to a survey conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. That amounts to roughly 23 million homes.
What’s more, according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2021 State of the Industry report, Americans spent $103.6 billion on their pets in 2020, compared to $97.1 billion in 2019 and $90.5 billion in 2018. In addition, the APPA predicts Americans will spend $109.6 billion in 2021, a growth of nearly 6% from last year.
According to Garden Center magazine’s State of the Industry Report released last month, only 11% of garden centers surveyed reported operating a pet division. While the number of IGCs that have them is low, the category is rich with potential to reach both new and existing customers.
Know your customers.
- Appeal to pet parents by merging their interests with solution-based strategies.
Ashley Helmrich, farm and pet manager at New England’s Homestead Gardens, says their standard garden customer is a senior woman buying for herself and her family.
“With pets, the profile is a mother with kids who want to do 4-H or who want to raise animals themselves. They want to teach their kids about animals and agriculture, and get them outside in the garden and in the farm setting. We focus on that middle-aged, growing family,” Helmrich says.
At Chalet, located 14 miles north of Chicago in Wilmette, Illinois, the retailer takes a holistic approach to serve its customers. The 104-year-old IGC has been operating its pet division since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that it updated its marketing strategy, says Nathan Herman, general manager, retail. The nursery created the department to provide income in the off season, when expenses were up and little revenue was coming in.
“We’d been operating for many years as a traditional pet store, and it was kind of separate and not really connected to the rest of what we do,” Herman says. “We were always thinking about, ‘How does this enhance the health and wellness of our customer and the community?’”
As a result, the pet division split amongst the four different subcategories of the garden center itself: home, wellness, outdoor and nutrition. This decision achieved two things, Herman explains: One, it makes it easier for customers to shop because they’re shopping by solution, and two, it allows Chalet to market pet products with the rest of the merchandise cohesively.
“We’re bringing the pet into the whole fabric of the family-oriented experience,” Herman says.
As a whole, pet profits are generally flat, with slight increases — a success, by Herman’s standards, given that the level of competition in the pet division is vertical. As furniture and home décor sales boomed during the pandemic, so did pet-friendly indoor plant sales, pet treats and pet toys.
“We started seeing some significant declines a few years ago and it has bounced back partly because of the puppy pandemic phenomenon. But I do think it's because we found ourselves and we recognized what the pet customer was looking for from us,” Herman says.
Strive for product diversity.
- Curate a selection of tried-and-true basics like food and toys, along with holiday- and luxury-themed specialty items.
At Homestead Gardens, Helmrich notes the IGC created the department to boost foot traffic and balance the garden center’s seasonal peaks, much like Chalet. “We do have deliveries for our equine feed and things like that, and those people are always getting deliveries,” she says. “So even if it’s not necessarily always bringing people in, it’s definitely adding income to the store,” she says.
The department’s gross margin contribution is in the mid-30th percentile, which may seem much lower than a typical department contribution, Helmrich says. Still, the category helps bring in a weekly customer base compared to a standard seasonal customer base — while filling a need for their ever-growing market of pet-loving customers, she says. Like Herman, she says the margin has seen some uptick as more toys and treats sell.
Homestead Gardens launched its pet department in 2012, initially carrying standard cat and dog products, like treats and toys. Then, they expanded with more products around 2014, finally breaking into the animal feed, equine and backyard flock sectors.
“The backyard flock category does well each year. And with the pandemic, that was a huge boom all across the country,” Helmrich says.
They try to carry quality items customers can’t buy at surrounding pet stores or online retailers like Chewy because it’s not worth price competing with them, she says.
Both Chalet and Homestead Gardens offer price points for every customer, and both buy from local businesses or trusted vendors. Helmrich notes they also carry mid-range products, such as toys and treats, to coincide with different seasons and holidays.
Jessica Wright, merchandise buyer for Chalet, pays close attention to the ingredients used in their products, particularly when it comes to food or treats, which helps them stand out from competitors that also serve cats, dogs and birds.
“I think our customers are looking for something that they would consider that they would eat them that themselves, in a way. They’re looking for those organic and natural, less chemical, products,” Wright says.
Cross-promote complimentary products.
- Market pet products with gardening and lawn care solutions as a way to foster customer education.
Many pet products can complement existing plants or garden center goods. Helmrich says they like to educate customers about certified pet-safe products, especially since their pet department is close to their garden supply department.
“I do tie in a lot of the chicken/backyard flock information with gardening, because there are things that chickens can do to help you garden — composting, eating scraps, and how things like that can help turn over your garden beds. If you have raised garden beds, they help on the lawn side when it comes to keeping ticks and fleas at bay in your yard, because they're eating them,” Helmrich says.
At Chalet, Herman says they try to incorporate plants into every category they offer, and pets are no exception. They feature a vignette of pet-friendly plants, along with handouts listing their unique qualities and care instructions in the garden center. He notes they’ll also place gypsum in this vignette, which is a non-toxic mineral — typically used as a fertilizer — that neutralizes urine spots in customers’ lawns, as well pet-safe ice melts.
Look for the purrfect partnerships.
- Partnering with local shelters or hosting educational events are great ways to build community while promoting a pet division.
Both Homestead Gardens and Chalet partner with local shelters to help fundraise for local animal rescue causes and adoptions, which also helps to build bonds within the community. Throughout the year, Homestead allows the SPCA of Anne Arundel County to host events and food drives at their stores.
Chalet partners with different animal rescues and hosts adoption day events at their store every month. In August, they ramp up their efforts and host an adoption day every week. Almost every single cat or dog gets adopted, Wright says. Thirty to 50 people attended each adoption day before COVID-19, but even with attendance limitations in place, they could set up one adoption every 15 minutes. Additionally, anyone who rescues a pet during their event receives a $50 gift card to Chalet.
Market with events.
- Host events where pets can join in on the fun.
Pets are not only welcome in both garden centers, but encouraged. Wright says they even keep dog treat samples on hand, and owners often end up buying a bag.
In addition, Chalet hosts many pet-themed events, such as National Ice Cream Day where dogs can get treats, a Barks and Brews-themed “yappy” hour where guests can socialize with other pet parents and enjoy beverages, and costumed pet parades.
Chalet's Selfies with Santa event is one of their most popular of the year. Guests and their pets line up around the building to get their photos taken with Santa. Herman says there’s no charge for the event, and hundreds of customers wait in line for hours.
“I just heard that we have a lot of upset customers because we’ve already sold out. We actually had to extend Santa for two or three more hours,” Herman says with a laugh.
At Homestead Gardens, the first Saturday of April kicks off chick season with the annual “Chicks on the Loose” event. Several breeds of chicks are for sale while the IGC hosts educational seminars on various chicken topics. There are also "essential" chick/chicken product displays, along with arts and crafts projects for kids, Helmrich says.
“The educational workshops don’t end with this event. We host several workshops throughout the year to help our flock customers stay knowledgeable in each life stage or season. We strive to make sure our customers are informed and knowledgeable throughout their chicken ownership to enjoy it to the fullest,” Helmrich says. The garden center hosts similar seminars for other farm animals, livestock and pets.
Like Chalet, Homestead also ties holidays into its event marketing. For example, the IGC hosts a Santa Paws event where pets can get their photos taken with Santa, as well as an annual Critter Crawl costume contest during Halloween.
These events are a lot of work, but they’re necessary to make this category successful. Helmrich says they’re continually developing their social media efforts and have targeted bi-monthly email lists to farm and pet customers, as well as a separate Facebook page for the department. However, she says that Facebook is their most prominent social media push when marketing farm and pet.
At Chalet, Herman says they leverage social targeting campaigns to reach customers in the pet community and offer things like birthday packages and a subscription program. They also partner up with local doggy daycares, vet clinics and dog walking services, all of which provide discounts to the Chalet customers who use them and vice versa.
For example, The Doggy Dudes, an independently owned dog walking service in the city, has a link on their website and then that links back to Chalet. “We have a tracking tool that to find out where the traffic is coming from on their site and their customers automatically get 10% off of their purchases,” Herman says.
Above all, Helmrich stresses that a garden center with a pet division should focus on its marketing efforts.
“The marketing is huge initially when you bring it in but then obviously staying on top of it and then if they’re a garden center, like we are, who’s primarily a greenhouse, I would make sure that rodent control is part of their plans. And then also some type of UV protection for the product, because otherwise your product will become damaged from the sun,” she says.