20 Years: Time to Party

Take a look back at the past two decades in the garden center industry as we celebrate our 20th anniversary. We’ve revisited what was trending in 1995, from consumer trends to marketing to merchandising.

Where were you 20 years ago? Were you working in the green industry, or a different field? What was your garden center like then? How did your customers learn about your business? What was your product mix then compared to now? Chances are, the garden center you’re at now looks and operates a bit differently than it used to.

Over the years, we’ve learned that adapting to the times is the best way to stay relevant with the current consumers. But in order to move forward and continue evolving, we mustn’t forget the path we took to get to where we are now. In that spirit, we’re revisiting what was trending in 1995, from consumer trends to marketing to merchandising. In addition, we’ll be touching on a different aspect of the past 20 years throughout the year, as there is much more to consider than what we were able to fit on the pages of this month’s issue. Stay tuned for next month, when we take a look at the people without whom this industry wouldn’t be the same.

AKA Garden Center Merchandising & Management

Twenty years ago when we launched the magazine, it was known as GCM&M. While many aspects of the industry have changed, including the name of our magazine, others remain steadfast. For example, as seen on our March 1995 cover (our second-ever issue), reaching children at an early age was as important then as it is now. We’re looking forward to continuing to serve the industry for another 20 years! 



Staying trendy

From bat gardening to selling products at the mall, browse the top trends from 20 years ago.


KV: As I was looking through the issues from 1995, one article that really stood out to me was about promoting “bat gardening” as a hobby. Far from warning gardeners of the danger of contracting rabies, the article touched on the reasons gardeners should draw them into their yards. I'm not surprised this trend fell out of fashion in mainstream gardening.

In the Christmas trends article, the writer suggests using themes to group Christmas merchandise, a technique still employed today as we saw in last month’s article about Moore & Moore Garden Center.

MS: Christmas trends stood out to me, too, because holiday planning and marketing was covered much more often in the magazine. Finding a niche for your garden center was just as important then as it is today, as evidenced by this article about Japanese gardens.

MS: I was expecting something different when I came across this “Vertical Gardening” article about trends in trellises, vines and climbers. Vertical gardens have a whole new meaning today.



What's hot today

Edibles will continue to be popular this year and more growers are expanding their crops to include them, according to our research. Gardeners now call themselves “urban farmers” and decorate more with plants. Consumers are still buying annuals, but perennials are starting to come back. Container and miniature gardening have also remained popular.



Getting the word out

At a time when only 14 percent of adults were using the Internet, marketing was a different game in 1995.

MS: One of the first articles I came across while browsing the old issues (and my favorite) was titled “Internet: Yellow Pages of the future?” At that point, the Internet had “relatively few benefits for retailers,” but GCM&M encouraged readers to at least get familiar with the World Wide Web. “It just might be a situation where the early bird gets the worm,” advised one consultant. One garden center owner said he was disappointed in what was available at the time. But GCM&M pointed out, “The Internet could turn out to be the yellow pages of the future. You could even gain more customers by being a part of it.” Isn't that the truth?

KV: One of the hot topics that our retail panel looked at was whether or not they produced a newsletter. You know, the paper kind. But whether it’s sent via email or through the mail, retailers still found it to be extra work that they had to find time for, and were often unsure of the return on investment.

KV: Marketing to kids has been, and will likely continue to be, a strong marketing focus for retailers. Children who grow up gardening won't find it as intimidating as an adult.

Speaking of adults, IGCs were trying to figure out what each demographic, such as “snowbirds” (see bottom left article), would most like, and market to them appropriately.

MS: Many companies doubted the benefits of the going online, as evidenced by this article, “On-line, when it’s time.”



Getting social

The Internet can now be accessed pretty much anywhere, and many businesses are adapting their established websites to make sure they are compatible with mobile devices. Doing so ensures they reach their young, on-the-go customers, who are increasingly shopping from phones and tablets.



Catching their eye

If a customer isn't drawn into a display, he won't purchase anything from it. Here are some of the merchandising techniques used in 1995.

MS: Merchandising strategies were covered just as often in the magazine in 1995 as they are today, and many of the techniques are still employed today. GCM&M named these merchandising tips, such as The Instigator and The Propmaster. The Propmaster encouraged garden centers to use large, eye-catching pieces, like a tall cabinet, to help bring attention to small accessories in the store. Cross-merchandising was also encouraged. In one example, the garden center retailer paired floral-printed boxes of scented soaps and lotions with dried floral arrangements, books about dried flowers and flower-themed floor mats.

KV: As we saw earlier with the Christmas displays, trying out themed displays and cross-merchandising wherever possible has always been a mainstay for successful IGCs.

KV: Many of the suggestions included in the tips for making displays work for you are still relevant today, such as creating shoppable displays and grouping related items together.

MS: GCM&M surveyed readers about which merchandising and decorative products they planned to buy. Some responses are not surprising; lighting is and always will be a key component of merchandising. But we were interested to read that 28.5 percent of retailers planned to buy mannequins. Though many retailers still sell apparel today, the large percentage surprised us.



Mixing the new with the old

More and more retailers are reusing old items in revamped ways in their displays, as seen above in All Seasons Gardening and Homebrewing Supply Company in Nashville, Tenn. Wood, chalkboards and food items have been popular accoutrements in displays we've seen recently.



Shopper satisfaction

Garden centers agreed excellent customer service was a key to success, but debated the best methods.

MS: It’s no secret that one of the best customer service strategies is making sure employees are happy. Jack Bigej from Al’s Garden Center (then called Al’s Fruit and Shrub Center,) paid his staff’s vacation time up front, according to this article from 1995, so they could choose to save the money or spend it on a trip. A debate that remains in the industry today was highlighted in this article, “Salesmanship over expertise,” which pondered what was more essential: knowledge or good customer service and sales skills?

KV: Some IGCs still offer customers refreshing beverages to drink as they shop, as seen here. What do you do to make your customers feel welcomed?



Keeping up with technology

While certain aspects of managing a business have been simplified with the incorporation of new technologies, customer service is still a chief concern. In some ways it’s easier to connect with customers, such as via social media, but it’s also time consuming. Many IGCs are still figuring out how to best divide their time for maximum results.


Reflections on more than 20 years in the industry

Digital revolution accounts for biggest change, challenge for garden centers

By Leslie F. Halleck

I started working in the garden center retail business in 1993. My first green industry gig was at a small town Texas nursery called The Green Fiddler. We operated as many small nurseries still do today, buying most of our inventory off of the weekly truck visits and propagating a lot of our own material. We didn’t have a website and therefore no online presence or sales. We did have a POS system, one of the earliest versions I believe. Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist and “mobile phones” were only beginning to emerge on the scene. Advertising meant taking out a black and white ad in the newspaper. I remember being freaked out when gas went up to 95 cents a gallon. Good times.

There is a lot of talk these days about how to get the younger crowd into gardening. Honestly, I can’t recall many 20-somethings visiting our garden center 20 years ago, except on the rare occasion one might slink in looking for vermiculite for their “tomatoes.” As a 20-year-old botany student with a penchant for plants, I was an anomaly amongst all of my friends and acquaintances. I take that back; I had one plant friend (Carolyn Hestand, see page 42). The only interest college kids expressed in plants was their desire to prevent foliage from burning on their closet pot plants. Today, however, I do see a growing interest in indoor plants amongst the younger crowd, driven by decorating and botanical styling trends.

Ironically, while I’ve personally never taken any interest in the marijuana, I spent a fair amount of time in my early garden center days doling out technical advice. I almost recorded the phrase “turn down the fan and stop over-fertilizing” on my answering machine. I should have charged consulting fees back then — Can you imagine the business I’d have today?! These days, growing marijuana is a burgeoning economic driver, and we’re seeing a surge of young people looking for legitimate careers growing the crop. It seems this gateway drug could be the gateway drug for many to enter a brave new horticulture industry.

After four years at the IGC and graduating with my bachelor’s, I decided to get an advanced horticulture degree. The very first email I ever sent was to Dr. Royal Heins at Michigan State University to apply for a graduate school research assistantship. I used my now-husband’s email account because I didn’t have one. I’d never used a computer for school until I started my graduate program at MSU.

As the digital world was born, it offered up completely new opportunities. From my perspective, it’s the digital revolution that has most changed and challenged IGCs over the last two decades. Twenty years ago we didn’t have websites, garden blogs, social media or Yelp reviews.

These days, you have to exist fully in both the physical and digital world in order to be successful in most businesses. The benefits of today’s instant networking, access to information and a direct connection to customers are pretty mind-blowing when you look back at how we did business 20 years ago. The opportunity is great, but so must be our commitment to use the technology effectively.

Our customers have also gone through a significant evolution over the past 20 years. As customers live more in the digital world, and less outdoors, their priorities and spending habits have changed dramatically. People still garden, but they certainly garden differently than they used to. Instant gratification is important to them — they don’t want to wait for something to bloom a year from now; they want to buy it in bloom. Purpose in planting has become a driving force behind customer purchases; plants have to do more than look pretty. Decorating has become a much bigger motivator when it comes to indoor gardening. Edibles, rather than roses, dominate the backyard.

Many newcomers to the hobby of gardening don’t label themselves gardeners, but rather urban farmers. They incorporate not only plants but also livestock into their urban spaces. The health and wellness movement and a focus on using eco-friendly methods has many customers focused on organic products and growing methods. Culinary trends have a huge influence on green industry trends. IGCs have had to adapt to absorb many new nontraditional product categories in order to serve these evolving customer personas.

After thinking back on how things have changed during the past two decades, I realize that almost exactly half of my life was spent living free of computers, the Internet and cell phones. I’ve spent the second half completely immersed in them. For me, embracing the digital movement and blending it with my old-school, hands-on horticulture experience have lead me to where I am today. While many IGCs have been slow to warmly embrace the digital revolution and customer evolution, 2015 is going to offer up some great opportunities to embrace the change. Let’s make the most of it!

January 2015
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