Be heard through the noise

Departments - Profiles in Power

John Crook, owner of Town & Country Gardens based in Idaho Falls, Idaho, talks to customers through texts, emails and more.

May 3, 2013

Q. Why is it important to keep in touch with customers via text, email and more?

A. We’re competing with a lot of noise out there, and a lot of things to draw people’s attention away. And particularly with us, in our location, we’re out of town a couple of miles. We’re on a busy highway, but if you don’t happen to travel on a highway, you’re not going to see us, and so we have to do things that will keep us in the top of people’s minds when they get thinking about gardening. It’s also a way, especially with emails and our app, we can not only keep people in touch but help them to understand who we are. We can tell a story, and they can get a feel for who we are and what kind of a place we are and what kind of people we are and hopefully entice them to try us out. And we can still communicate that even with those short text messages. Hey, we care about you, and we want you to be successful.

Q. Tell us about your e-mail newsletter.

A. We started our newsletter in 1982 as a printed, mailed newsletter. The oldest one I could find of our email newsletter was 2001. Then we went to Constant Contact and went to the next level in 2006.

We’ve got about 8,800 on our list, and the open rate varies from week to week, but it’s generally around 24 percent. We’ve noticed that the subject line that you have in the email does seem to make a difference in the open rate.

Q. How do you encourage people to click through?

A. The only thing you have to look at typically is the subject line when they’re deciding whether to open it or not, but we’ve noticed that a lot of times asking a question in the subject line [helps]. Or, we try to think of things that would really make someone curious. We’ve also found that it generally pays to have whatever is in the subject line as the first item in the newsletter so that when they open it up their question is answered.

Q. Why did you decide to start a texting club?

A. I signed up for text clubs at some restaurants and various things and what I like about the text club is that you’re pretty much guaranteed an 100 percent open rate. I mean it comes in as a text and you look at it. I don’t know yet how effective it’s going to be, but we thought we would use it as both information and to communicate special deals. We plan to let people know about frost warnings. We do those with our emails, too, and that’s one of the things we get the most comments on. So we get a lot of positive feedback on that. The problem is, it’s getting better now that people have smart phones, but a lot of times people don’t read their emails for a day or two, so that doesn’t work. But with a text message you can send it out, and say hey, cover your tomatoes, it’s going to frost tonight, and you’re pretty well guaranteed they’re going to get that message.

Q. How often do you text?

A. Our thought is probably once a week, sometimes maybe a couple of times a week. Sometimes we may go two or three weeks without texting. I don’t want to do it so much that people delete us off, but I want to do it enough that they remember us. From my personal perspective, I’ve signed up to get texts from a couple of restaurants, and I’ve been on there for a couple of years, and I’ve never deleted them. I’m on an unlimited text program, so it doesn’t bother me that they come in. And it does remind me of their restaurant. I’m thinking customers probably won’t be likely to unsubscribe unless you really over do it.

Q. Tell me about your app.

A. We have a button called ask the expert. People can click on that, ask a question and attach a picture. In fact, they can take a picture right then with their camera, attach it and send that message to us and we reply by either phone or email. But that has not worked out nearly as well as I thought because I would say two thirds of the questions we get are from Tennessee or Pennsylvania or Florida. So we’re getting a lot of people downloading our app who aren’t in our area. But we’re able to have our calendar of events on there; it has all of our seminars and everything, and we have a tips section with what you should be doing this time of year. And we usually have a link to a flier on our website that explains it further. We have a specials area where we have whatever is on special, and we usually have a link on that one to our latest email newsletters.

Q. How have these initiatives helped business?

A. I, like all small businesses probably, find that with advertising, you have to spend more and more to get less and less with the normal mass market avenues. So we’re looking for other ways. We’re also looking for ways to reach younger customers. Is it paying yet? Probably not. The emails definitely pay, but we’ve been doing that for a long time. The website pays. No. 1 you have to be there, everybody goes online to research these days. Those are a given. But as far as the app and the texting, we can’t point to any huge successes on those yet. But I think we’ve got to learn how to do these things, because that’s the way the world is communicating now. We’ve got to make sure we know how to be there. And it takes some time to learn it, so that’s what we’re doing right now.

Q. What advice do you have for other garden centers looking to adapt the texting technology to their store?

A. I would say “do it,” even though we don’t have enough experience with it yet to really know how it will pay. Something to look out for – the service we use allows you to de-activate during the winter months so you don’t get charged for the months you are not using it. But no one can sign up when your account is inactive. Being the first day of spring, we decided to re-activate it today (March 20) and we sent out our first text of the season. We will do a lot of promoting over the next couple of months to try to get people to sign up, mostly with in-store signage and bag stuffers at the register. We may do some freebies to get folks to sign up, like “text ‘garden’ to 88588 and receive a free (insert gift here).” That way we not only get them to sign up, but we get them back in the store.


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