Grow your relationships

Grow your relationships

Features - Cover Feature

We spoke to growers and retailers to find out how relations could be improved between the two and how both can maximize profits.

May 10, 2013

What do your growers really want out of their business relationship with you and your garden center? Do other retailers feel as satisfied or dissatisfied as you do about their growers? What can be done to improve this relationship and achieve mutual benefits?

To find out more about these relationships. Garden Center and sister publication Greenhouse Management teamed up for a joint research project to find out the answers to these questions from their retail and grower readers. Both publications sent out a survey to readers back in March, asking for their opinion on all aspects of the grower-retailer relationship. We also personally spoke to some retailers and growers over the last few months to get their take on the situation. The Greenhouse Management survey was sent to readers via email and social media pages, and a total of 146 growers answered the survey. The Garden Center survey was also sent out via email and social media pages, and 107 retailers responded. Over the next few pages, we share what the growers had to say about the ideal relationship with retailers and what your fellow retailers had to say about what their relationship with growers.

Think green

Price and payment options were ranked No. 1 one by both growers and retailers when it came to the most important aspect of their relationship. On the grower end, “consistent, prompt payment” was the most important quality growers want in a retail customer, with more than 42 percent of growers ranking it as their top pick. On the flipside, 62 percent of retailers felt that the most important service a grower could offer them was “providing fair prices.”

Mark Birmingham, CEO and president of Stein Gardens & Gifts, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisc., is one of those retailers looking for fair prices. “Notice I didn’t say cheap,” he says. “[We want] quality plant material at a fair price; anyone could grow a cheap plant. It’s really about the presentation to the customer and how it stands up on the bench. I mean it might look great in the greenhouse under ideal conditions but the true test is really how it performs at retail.”

Tom Demaline, president of Willoway Nurseries in Avon, Ohio, says that the green industry sometimes sells itself short on the quality of its product, and often prices plant material lower than it should. “You can’t sell a bad plant for a lot of money, but you can sell a good plant for a lot of money. Retailers [can create] an upscale display with nice plants, and ask a reasonable amount of money for [them], but [still] get the money they need to get," he says. "People will buy it.” Demaline points to the popularity of the new, expensive iPhones, as well as the hefty monthly cell phone bill that goes along with it. “Price isn’t the issue, it’s supplying the need and creating the demand. People still spend money even in today’s economy; if they want it, they buy it,” he says.



Put down the mouse and pick up the phone

The growers and breeders we spoke to all agreed that communication is a strong contributing factor to the success or failure of a relationship, and our survey results confirmed this. Growers ranked open communication as the second-most-important quality they look for in a retail customer.

Whether or not this communication was in person or on the phone or via email wasn’t specified in the survey, but Nicholas Staddon, director of new plant introductions at Monrovia, voiced his approval for the former.

“I am a firm believer that in the nursery industry, we are absolutely at our best when we are face-to-face looking across a table from each other, or walking down the aisle of a garden center,” he says. “Customers have got to know their suppliers personally as well as they know their own. They should visit every single person they buy their product from, whether it’s a fertilizer company, a green goods company, a company that sells hoses, etc.”

Staddon says that the better an IGC knows its growers and vice versa, the stronger the relationship will be, and the easier it will be to resolve potential problems. “If, heaven forbid, there’s ever an issue or problem between the supplier and the business owner or nursery, if those relationships are good, it won’t become a problem,” Staddon says. “All people have to do is pick up the phone, speak to the respective owner or manager, say 'we have a problem here, can we chat about this?' If you know them, they’ll help you through it.”

The grower-retailer relationship can also be strengthened by sharing the direction and vision of the company, including potential changes in staffing, ownership and inventory. If both parties are made aware of these changes ahead of time through constant communication, preparations can be made to mitigate any potential negative consequences.

“Let’s say an independent garden center is going to have a change in direction or open up a new store or has something special going on,” Staddon says. “They’re looking for a vendor that can get that business from A to B, whether it’s more merchandising material or extended terms of payment or making sure that they get more of a certain type of product.”

Bend over backwards

Flexibility is a necessary trait to be able to adequately adapt to unpredictable weather and economic conditions. Growers would like retailers to be more flexible with their expectations about variations in the product that they receive, according to our survey. This trait placed third in qualities growers look for in a retail customer.

Demaline related flexible ordering to a grocery store. “They know exactly what’s coming out of the growers and what looks good, and how they’re going to market that for that particular period of time,” he says. “They know they’re going to do an ad, but I don’t think they know six months in advance what they’re going to do. There’s no sense having an ad in the paper for corn if you’re not going to have any corn because of a two-week delay because of frost or rain.” He says IGCs can learn from this example and should keep in touch with their growers to find out what looks good that week, and be willing to adjust their order if needed to get the best product. Willoway sends out a weekly email with a short video of how the plants look that week, so retailers can choose the product that looks the best.

Retailers also want flexibility, but in slightly different ways: flexible payment options, staggered ordering/deliveries throughout the season and flexible shipping options for smaller quantities. “I don’t want to have to get in six racks of bedding plants on Monday and find out Tuesday I’m out of pink impatiens and need to wait three or four more days to get another order,” says Sandi Hillermann McDonald, president of Hillermann Nursery in Washington, Mo.

Take advantage of resources

Many of the growers who responded to our survey cited providing more educational and merchandising materials to their retail customers as a way that they’re improving their relationships. This might include research the company has carried out, educational signage or POP materials.

Amelie Aust, new business development manager at Fall Creek Farm and Nursery in Lowell, Ore., suggests that garden centers take advantage of the consumer research and resources that growers have already completed about gardening trends, specific varieties or any of a variety of other topics. Some growers are already offering this information on their blogs, Facebook pages and websites.

Since Fall Creek is a wholesale blueberry grower, Aust provided us an example based on that crop, which has become very popular in grocery stores in recent years due to its health benefits. “We can be their outsourced experts on blueberries, because as those health studies come out, that’s what their customers are hearing about,” Aust says. “Maybe you have [an article about blueberries and health] and put it right there with the blueberry plants, and [write on a sign] ‘plant a blueberry for health today.’”

In addition to these types of resources, ask your growers if they provide POP materials or signage that could be useful in selling more plants. Ella Maxwell, horticulturist at Hoerr Nursery in Peoria, Ill., says she appreciates when growers send these types of materials, and believes that customers are more likely to purchase a plant with good picture material. “I think the point of purchase materials that they send with the plant material are great,” she says. “Everything’s well-labeled and gives planning instructions and great descriptions of the varieties.”

Create an environment of trust

Trust is also vital to growth, according to Corey Bordine, industry expert and co-owner of Bordine’s in Michigan. Without it, few relationships will survive. “Mistrust can be solved with honest dialogue, but all parties have to come to the table with integrity and truly be willing to look at the situation from the other person’s perspective,” says Bordine. “Ultimately, everybody wants the customer to be successful, but that whole chain of success can only occur if there’s trust throughout the system.”

Growers and retailers share many of the same desires when it comes to improving their relationships: increased communication, profits, flexibility and trust. We hope you’ll take this information into account as you think about your own relationships with growers, and use it to improve upon them.

Michelle Simakis, associate editor of Garden Center, contributed to this article.