Recipe for success

Recipe for success

Features - Cover Feature

Combine the best ingredients from other industries to create your own success story.

February 25, 2013

Merchandise like a pro

Four tips from a visual merchandiser who’s seen the best and worst in retail displays

By Karen E. Varga

When it comes to selling merchandise, there are many parallels that can be drawn between general merchandise retailers such as Target, smaller boutiques and independent garden centers. This is great news for garden center operators that would like to improve their stores’ merchandising, because they have many role models to look up to.

We spoke with Bess Liscio, vice president of visual strategy at Chute Gerdeman, a strategic brand and design firm based in Columbus, Ohio, about what customers really want, which retailers are doing it well, and how independent garden center owners can improve their own stores.

Use the 20 feet rule
First impressions matter, and you only get one shot at making a positive one on your customers. Liscio says that the first 20 feet in from the entrance of a retail store are the most important, and that keeping that section of your store fresh and eye-catching, and even good-smelling, is crucial to pull customers in. There are few things as off-putting to a potential customer as the strong smell of certain composts right when they walk in the front door.

Liscio suggests changing that opening display in some way every two to three weeks for maximum results. It also gives your customers a preview into the rest of the store. “What I love about Target, is that right away when you walk in that first 20 feet, you know what their campaign’s all about,” Liscio says. “You know what you’re going to see throughout the entire store.”

Create a sensory experience
Basic retail merchandising concepts carry through to many types of stores, whether you’re selling peonies or pizzas. Customers always want a great experience when they come into your store. “The difference between online and in-store is that people are inspired [in a store],” Liscio says. “They’re touching, they’re feeling, they’re tasting, they’re seeing that story come to life. Whether it’s your neighborhood story or [that] this lotion came from Peru, there’s always a story to be told.”

Williams-Sonoma is a great example, says Liscio. “As soon as you walk into their store, you’re not even five feet in and you’re hit with that [seasonal] scent. You can sense autumn is coming because you can smell the pumpkin bread mix,” she says. The store also does an excellent job packaging products together for this sensory experience. “They’re cross-merchandising everything you and need and more, right at your fingertips,” she says.

Offering hot coffee or refreshing iced tea can imprint a positive shopping experience on customers. Williams-Sonoma gives out free hot chocolate, while stylists at Aveda Salons make sure to offer customers tea or coffee while in the salon. “I think it sets the mood and the experience,” Liscio says.

Celebrate every day

Don’t underestimate the value of creating an atmosphere that every day is a holiday. “There’s potential for garden centers to [show] that every day’s a birthday, or a wedding or first day of school or new job,” Liscio says. “You can make up anything that requires buying a plant, a container, some seeds … great gift bundling ideas.”

Offer a plentiful supply but give the illusion of uniqueness
Customers don’t like to see half-empty shelves. On the flipside, customers may feel like “everyone” will have the same petunias as them if they see row upon row of the same variety. How do you keep your shelves full (but not too full), but still make customers feel like they’re getting a unique product? One of the tricks is to stock fewer of each item on the shelves, but replenish them frequently.

Recently, Liscio visited the Ace Hotel in New York. “As soon as you walk in, they have the most wonderful little plant stand, and it just had a few of everything in it,” she says. Liscio says that the fact that it seemed like there were only a few of each product made it seem more exclusive, whereas if they would’ve displayed all of their product at once, she would’ve adopted a “I’ll stop by and get it later” attitude.



‘Fess up, then clean it up

Five ways your business can improve by admitting to mistakes

By Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, Creators of the Barefoot Wine brand

If you’re ready to face up to your company’s mistakes and turn them into building blocks, here are five suggestions on handling your next business “my bad.”

1. Cop to it. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to admit that your company did something wrong. But the sooner you admit to the error, the more you reduce the drama, and the faster you can move on to the next, more important stage: what you are going to do about it.

2. Investigate. It’s very important to investigate how and why an error occurred, so that you can fix the faulty procedure or process. That’s why Barefoot Wine made sure employees weren’t afraid to make or report mistakes involving technical errors. Then we would brainstorm what went wrong and make technical adjustments.

3. Aim, don’t blame. Figure out what happened and focus on what you and your company can do to prevent the situation from reoccurring. During a business trip to Chicago, I was supposed to show some new wines to retailers, and the samples were shipped to my hotel. However, when the package arrived, the hotel noticed that I didn’t have a room and sent the package back. My lack of samples wasn’t my fault. But to my buyers, all that mattered was that the new wines weren’t there.From that point on, we worked to make sure that no package would ever be refused again. Every box of wine had instructions, on all sides, for the hotel not to return the box and details of when I would be arriving. We also included Barefoot’s contact information and indicated that the hotel manager was expecting the package. Overkill? Not really, because the problem was solved.

4. Write it down. If you don’t write down what happened and how to avoid it, you are in danger of making the same mistake again. Take the lessons you learn and physically make them part of your company’s policies.

5. Resolve that it won’t reoccur. Along with your apology, assure the injured parties that it — whatever “it” was — won’t happen again. Voluntarily describe how the mistake happened, what changes you are implementing to prevent its reoccurrence and how your company will make things right.

Remember, what people recall most of all is how you handle missteps and errors, not what they were. Don’t miss out on these golden opportunities to show your integrity, reduce the drama, and improve the way your business operates. That is how you make mistakes right.


Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, authors of The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built a Bestselling Wine, started the Barefoot Wine brand in their laundry room in 1986, made it a nationwide bestseller, and successfully sold the brand to E&J Gallo in 2005;


Be social media savvy

By Michelle Simakis

In just a few short years, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest have become essential marketing tools for retailers. The pages, first used by college students, teens and tweens to share photos and updates, are now used by companies nationwide, and are vital for connecting with customers. Many independent garden centers have already embarked in the world of posts, tweets and pins. Some larger retailers find the pages so important they create jobs around the websites. We spoke to Kim Cornuelle, senior social media specialist at Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, about how she manages the company’s walls, feeds and boards.

A two-way street
Cornuelle says interacting with and engaging customers is just as important as sharing sales, specials and the latest products. “Our goal is essentially to reach our customers, and it’s just another marketing channel,” she says. It’s also a great way to hear feedback. “Sometimes [customers] will ask a specific question about Jo-Ann, such as ‘What are the store hours for my store?’ and I can provide that information. Other times they’ll say, ‘What quilt pattern should I do next?’ which is a huge matter of opinion. So I’ll provide resources for them, but then usually I can ‘like’ the post, which can give it more visibility, or re-share it in a different capacity so our fans can share their feedback as well.”

Jo-Ann shares craft ideas on Pinterest, inspiring customers to get materials from stores. Photo courtesy of Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores

On Facebook, that means sharing customers’ photos and answering questions as soon as possible. On Twitter, it means responding to people by hitting reply on the tweet or retweeting something they said. And on Pinterest, it means pinning more than just your own products. But there’s a way to tie it back to your store.

“Our job is to provide inspiration so they want to come shop at Jo-Ann,” she says. So she’ll post photos of decorated Ball jars from Martha Stewart on Pinterest; when customers get inspired, they can visit the store and buy the materials.

Take the good with the bad

Jo-Ann has more than half a million Facebook “likes,” and tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and Pinterest. The impressive number is a good thing, but sometimes the feedback isn’t always positive.

“We take every single post or comment seriously,” she says. “You tend to want to get all of the facts before you discount it. And I don’t think we discount anyone’s posts on our walls or tweets.”

Jo-Ann has a process for complaints. Sometimes Cornuelle gathers as much information as possible right away so that customers know their concerns are being addressed immediately. And sometimes she’ll pass that information along to customer service representatives.

But once she addresses the complaint, she doesn’t remove the post.

“We tend to keep the negative posts on our site because it not only shows that we’re very willing to respond and work with that person and hear what they have to say, but I think it shows we’re more authentic,” Cornuelle says. “We don’t just want the positive posts on there, because I don’t think that’s very honest or real from the brand.” And the comments, good and bad, help Jo-Ann improve its services.

“We hear everything from what quilt they’re currently making to what party they’re going to throw with Jo-Ann materials to questions asking us where they can find coupon information because they don’t always know where to look,” Cornuelle says. “That’s good for us to know to make our information as clear as possible.”

Vary your voice and posts
Cornuelle says Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter each serve a different purpose.

“The tone is usually different. Twitter is more of a customer-service type tone, and I feel as though Facebook is the hub,” she says. “It’s turned into that community that maybe would have been utilized in a forum setting in the past. We still share inspiration on Twitter, but it just falls off so quickly.” Pinterest is a good fit for Jo-Ann because crafts are so visual. “Something I might have described in a status update on Facebok or Twitter is conveyed in a much better way in Pinterest.”

And it’s a good fit for independent garden centers, too, that want to share photos of new plants, patio furniture or garden accessories.

Generally early mornings, lunchtime and late afternoons are the best times to post on Facebook, and lunchtime and weekends are peak times for Pinterest. Twitter is ongoing. Cornuelle suggests experimenting with times to see what works best.

She uses a calendar to ensure she posts about a variety of products, crafts and promotions, because to be successful with social media, companies must diversify their updates.

“That gives me a chance to see everything laid out for the week. Have I posted enough about yarn projects? Have I posted enough about scrapbooking?” she says. “I try to integrate inspiration in with the promotional material. We try to maintain balance in what we post.”