Recently I was walking down a street with trendy shops and restaurants in my hometown and passed by a small group of people who were trying to decide where to eat. One of them, a guy in his late 20s or early 30s, was standing with his cell phone in hand. “Slow food, bad service, long wait,” he read. Another person in the group sighed in disgust. “Let’s go somewhere else,” was her response.
Wondering what they were reading? My guess is that they were browsing the restaurant’s customer reviews posted on a website like Yelp or Urban Spoon. I’ve also chosen (or avoided) certain restaurants, stores and products based on online reviews.
But I don’t have a page on these sites, you say. Sure about that? Any business can be reviewed negatively or positively online, even without your knowledge or permission. As Leslie Halleck says in this month’s article, “One great review or one bad review can mean the difference between gaining those new customers and losing them before they’ve ever visited you.” Want to find out more about reviews and how to manage your online reputation? Check out her article on page 28 and do yourself a favor — Google your garden center’s name and “online review” and see what comes up.
This month’s cover story spotlights a few of the garden centers who have shown they know how to make it through any situation not only by keeping their doors open for more than 100 years (and earning some pretty great online reviews), but also by being successful enough to make our 2013 Top 50 Independent Garden Center list. I like to call them the Garden Center Centennial Club.
While each small business is unique in its development, many similarities arose as I spoke with owners and managers about the stores’ history, challenges and successes over the last 100+ years — from the importance of understanding and appreciating your customers to the need to adapt with the times to knowing the value of contributing to the community. Turn to page 16 to read 11 of the business lessons that they’ve learned as their businesses have evolved. Bonus: If you download the Garden Center app for iPad or iPhone, you’ll have exclusive access to 6 more business lessons from the Centennial Club.
Here’s hoping your spring gives way to a great summer,
If your customers knew that growing plants indoors had benefits for them besides superficial beauty, would that lead to more sales? People tend to give more value to things with multiple functions, and those that have “improved health” attributes associated with them are sure attention-getters.
Houseplants have historically been met with mixed reactions by gardeners, enjoying (or suffering) a love ‘em or hate ‘em sort of attitude. Often an avid outdoor gardener can be anti-houseplant, citing brown thumbs when it comes to growing plants inside, in spite of the fact that the ability to grow healthy houseplants improves with outdoor gardening experience.
Maybe they need help seeing houseplants in a different light. We know that having plants in our immediate environment has many benefits, but do your customers? Do they know just how beneficial for their health they can be?
Houseplants filter the air. Studies by NASA have determined that certain houseplants can help rid the air of toxins such as formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene. The studies were originally conducted in an effort to find ways to purify the air in space stations, but they also found that they were beneficial in combating stale air in enclosed office spaces where windows were sealed and air was being recirculated.
Common houseplants that filter the air include Spathiphyllum, Sansevieria, Dracaena and Hedera helix, among others. This can be particularly helpful to people with allergies. To be effective, a minimum of one large or two small houseplants per 100 square feet of inhabited space is recommended.
Houseplants produce oxygen. If your customers have taken science class, they know that plants produce oxygen, but maybe they’ve forgotten this important fact. Certain plants are very good at it, such as Boston ferns, Philodendron, Aglaonema, and spider plants (Chlorophytum). Again, one large plant or two small ones for every 100 square feet of living space will do the job.
Houseplants improve our mood. There’s a theory called biophilia that says there is something innate to humans that we have a need to commune with nature, or at least have access to it on some level, whether it’s merely photographs on the wall or a plant on our windowsill or desk. People often take walks to clear their minds and many will specifically choose a park or garden as the place to do it. Spending time with nature can relieve stress, and it’s been proven that plants in our workplace or home can do the same thing. It’s not exactly known why, they just do.
Houseplants increase productivity. There have been other studies that have proven that employees who have live plants in their work environment are more productive. This may be connected to improved mood, because happy people generally feel better about their work and life in general. This is equally important in our home environment, where we also want to be productive, most especially if we’re part of the ever increasing numbers of people making a living by working at home.
Houseplants increase humidity. People are generally healthier if their environment has an optimum humidity level. Dry air can aggravate certain illnesses such as respiratory infections and conditions like dry skin. Since one of the processes that living plants are involved in is transpiration, adding several plants grouped together to the living or work space can effectively add humidity to the air. Plants themselves will be healthier if they have housemates in close proximity to one another as well.
When you consider all these things, it’s hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t want a couple of houseplants. Communicating the benefits to your customers may change their perception of houseplants, which in turn can mean an increase in the bottom line when it comes to sales. With a large palette of plants suitable for growing indoors, houseplants are multitaskers working quietly in the background, enhancing not just the appearance of the environment, but the health and mood of those who are in it.
Kylee is a freelance writer and the co-author of Indoor Plant Decor: The Design Stylebook For Houseplants. She gardens inside and out on an acre in Northwest Ohio.
Diane St John
Retail store manager, Natureworks in Northford, Conn.
“I love Vernonia noveboracensis and so do the butterflies! Also the fall color of Amsonia is amazing. Joe Pye weed perennial mums are huge and pretty. The color palette of fall is the best! Shrub favorites include fothergilla, winterberry, itea and callicarpa. Aronia is another beautiful shrub. Red foliage and pretty hanging berries hang on for a while. We really promote fall planting at Natureworks.”
Retail manager at Wojo’s Greenhouse in Ortonville, Mich.
“My No. 1 go-to for fall color is the ‘Limelight’ hydrangea. I like it because it can be used as a backdrop that will also flower starting in July, and the flowers will hold until winter,” Lutey says, adding that he doesn’t prune his back until spring because the dried plant adds winter interest as well. “It is extremely cold hardy. It blooms pure white then transforms to light pink with green tints.” His other favorite is the ‘Pee Wee’ oakleaf hydrangea because of the stunning burgundy foliage it produces in autumn. One plant he’s excited about now and trialing in his own garden is the BloomStruck hydrangea from Baily Nurseries' Endless Summer Collection.
Garden center manager at Frazee Gardens in Brownsburg, Ind.
“I love coral bells in the fall. The heucherella/heuchera/tiarella groups are so similar. ‘Midnight Rose,’ ‘Berry Smoothie,’ and ‘Amethyst Mist,’ plus ‘Caramel,’ ‘Cinnamon Curls’ and ‘Southern Comfort’ all have done well in my mostly shade backyard west of Indianapolis. Their rich foliage colors outlasts so many blooms. I was concerned after our record-breaking winter, but they are all coming back.”
Photos: Limelight hydrangea: Proven Winners / Bloomstruck: Baily Nurseries / Aronia: Diane st john / 'Southern Comfort': Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder, photographer Charlotte Barre
With hundreds of growing media on the market today, people can get confused about what to purchase, how to read the label and most importantly, when to use it. We sat down with Ed Bloodnick, director of grower services and product development at Premier Tech Horticulture, makers of PRO-MIX growing medium, to discover exactly what it means to plant a $1 plant in a $10 hole.
Q: What trends are you seeing in growing media?
A: Years ago, gardeners would spend time blending their own mixes with different “secret” ingredients to grow beautiful plants. Time is no longer a luxury. Homeowners are looking for easy, simple steps to plant and beautify their homes. The biggest trend in growing media is to provide customers simple solutions with less investment of time that produce great results. Producers are now making potting mixes that contain time-release fertilizers, water-absorbent gels and plant-growth enhancers like mycorrhizae. And with the booming popularity of edible gardening, organic mixes are in demand. Another trend that continues is “designer mixes” made for very specific uses, like cactus, orchids or African violets.
Q: What are some of the most popular growing mix combinations?
A: By far the most popular combinations for potting mixes are made with a base of Canadian sphagnum peat moss, perlite and vermiculite. The high-quality ingredients provide predictable results and have been mainstays for commercial growers for more than 50 years.
Other quality ingredients include coir and humus. Coir is extracted from the husk of the coconut and provides a fiber with unique properties. Coir should be specially processed to leach out undesirable salts or plants will suffer.
Outdoor plants benefit from a humus and Canadian sphagnum peat moss mix that stimulates beneficial soil microbes and improves the friability of soils. This rich mix makes a super healthy environment to grow stress-free plants.
Q: Garden center customers want to know: why should they choose one mix or another?
A: The healthiest soil is not often found at the end of a gardener’s shovel. It is important to educate customers on how to choose the right potting or garden soil mix for the right growing application because each product is formulated for a specific use.
For example, seed starting mixes should have a fine texture and low amount of fertilizer to encourage seed germination and young plant growth. For long-term planting applications, customers should look for time-release fertilizers and water-saving components. Both save time and money and increase success.
Q: What does it mean to be OMRI listed?
A: The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is a national organization that determines which input products are allowed for use in organic production and processing. OMRI Listed products are allowed for use in certified organic operations under the USDA National Organic Program.
If people want organic growing mixes for their fruits, vegetables and herbs, they should use products with the OMRI seal, as they have been verified for use in organic production and processing.
Q: Let’s talk about peat.
A: Peat has been the main ingredient in potting and planting mixes for years. It is a natural, organic soil conditioner that regulates moisture and air around plant roots for ideal growing conditions. It absorbs nutrients and water like a sponge — up to 20 times its weight — and releases them over time as the plants require.
[Most] Canadian producers are committed to preservation and reclamation of peat bogs for future generations, not just because it’s highly regulated and monitored by the federal and provincial government, but because it’s the right thing to do. Of the 270 million acres of peatlands in Canada, only .016 percent, or one in 6,000 acres, is being harvested.
Q: Is Canadian sphagnum peat a sustainable resource?
A: Yes. Peat forms at a rate of 1 to 2 millimeters a year, accumulating at more than 70 times the rate it is harvested. Harvested bogs are returned to wetlands so the ecological balance of the area is maintained. For more information, visit www.peatmoss.com.
Q: How can IGCs improve growing medium sales?
A: IGCs have the number one selling advantage: an informed staff that provides one-on-one guidance. You know that growing mixes are not “one size fits all” — but your customers don’t. Explain what each growing mix contains. If your staff sees someone purchasing a flat of herbs, for example, they should suggest a mix specially formulated for edibles. It’s an easy add on, and your customer will appreciate the professional tip.
Q: Do you have any merchandising tips or tricks?
A: The best ways to merchandise potting mixes are to use the point of purchase (POP) materials provided, cross merchandise with other related products and feature merchandise to show how the products work. With different formulations, consumers need to know which potting mix will work best for their specific need. Something as simple as a potting display gives the homeowner ideas on how to use products and how to achieve the same results at their home. We’ve learned the value of demonstration workshops in driving sales.
Q: What does planting a $1 plant in a $10 hole mean to you?
A: There really is no secret. It’s simple: great soils make great plants. Whether planting in containers or flowerbeds, plant root systems require the proper balance of air, water, nutrients and pH to flourish. Regular yard dirt can be heavy, which compacts roots. Help customers choose potting mixes and garden soils that are formulated to grow great plants.
It’s no secret; birding is a very lucrative business. But selling only bird seed won’t get you your piece of the sweet reward that is selling birding supplies. The potential of merchandising birding products has never been more alluring, especially because both gardening and bird watching/feeding are ranked highly among Americans’ favorite hobbies. Since you’ve already got a leg up on one of the favorite hobbies by carrying gardening equipment, why not expand your selection with birding products?
New to the bird game?
It’s never too late to get into the birding business, but be forewarned: You’re going to have competition. Unlike the plant business, bird accessories (especially bird seed) can be bought just about anywhere right down to the local supermarket. There are many problems with this beyond just having competition such as:
- Cheap bird seed can spoil customers’ idea of what bird feeding is all about.
- Bird seed bought at big box stores typically has lots of filler, which results in not as many birds frequenting feeders and a big mess.
- Some lower-priced bird food also has non-sterilized seeds, which can fall onto the ground, sprout and make a mess around the feeder.
Taking a look at these aspects, it might be difficult to sell the idea of bird feeding to a novice or somebody that has had “bad luck” with feeding birds before. This negative mindset can easily be appeased with information about how and why premium bird food is worth every penny.
While grabbing a bag of black oil sunflower seed from the grocery store will ensure customers get the same couple of birds coming to their feeders, a more balanced, varied seed will bring more exotic birds.
For example, grabbing a gallon of milk at the convenience store is quick and easy, but you may only have the option of skim milk or 2 percent. At the grocery store, you have an entire section of milk to choose from, including organic and whole. Think of bird seed the same way. Make sure to provide a diverse selection that includes some more exotic seeds and seed that can’t be found in other stores.
Who wants what, and why?
Take a look at your customers — the population of birds in your area is just as diverse as the customers who pull into your lot. There are some common bird feeder visitors like cardinals and finches, but you can open the door to more exotic birds. You might even be able to turn your customers on to the “challenge” of bird feeding and watching. Turning birding into an adventure will surely lure in some of the younger crowd by offering them a challenge instead of just a passive activity. Make sure you have ample supplies of food to feed just about anything with wings, including some of the larger, less songbird-like birds such as woodpeckers and little ones like hummingbirds.
Songbirds are a common interest for novice bird enthusiasts, and the range of seed available for them is impressive. You should not, however, make it a point to sell every single blend available on the market. Doing this will cause you to take over other, valuable floor space in your store that can be used to market something a little more profitable. Selecting some of the top-selling blends and in a variety of sizes will be more than enough to suit the needs of your customers. You want to have something to offer your hobbyists — a little something to tack onto their gardening purchase.
Sing your bird song!
Customers tend to have a habitual pattern when visiting your store, and unless they’ve come to your store specifically for birding supplies before, there is a good chance they don’t even know you carry it. Making your customers aware of this selection can serve as a gateway for new customers. Make sure your bird supply layout is in an easy to see place, but don’t let it be front and center. Birding accessories aren’t necessarily an impulse item, but it could be a tack-on sale if spotted somewhere in the vicinity of your cash wrap area. You’re at a disadvantage here name wise, too. Unlike other stores that incorporate the word “bird” into their name, you’re forever going to be branded as a garden center, not a birding store.
Try thinking outside the birdbath and host a bird friendly event, such as “Coffee with the Cardinals” or even “Wine with the Woodpeckers.” Open your doors to the local bird watching clubs and market it on community bulletin boards in subdivisions and coffee shops. Welcoming the general public makes them feel like the red carpet has been rolled out and they’re going to receive something really special. Set up product demos, have samples of the bird food out and someone ready to explain the differences between qualities of bird food.
This can be a permanent display as well. You can also send an email blast to your subscribers inviting them to a seasonal birding seminar highlighting the latest greatest innovations in the bird enthusiast world.
Seed, got it. What else?
You can’t get away with selling cheap food (and you shouldn’t,) but you can get away with selling feeders and bird houses with a diverse set of price points.
Although quality usually comes at a cost, there are still some very decent bird feeders on the market that cost a fraction of the price as some of more long-lasting ones. A couple of perks will come from offering a broad spectrum of prices on bird accessories, which will make customers think:
- “Wow, this is a really good deal. I can spend the money I saved on the feeder and get a bigger bag of bird seed.”
- “This feeder is cheap, I like this store. I don’t feel like I’m being charged too much for what I want.”
- “This feeder doesn’t cost much, but it also doesn’t look like it would hold up very well. I might look at feeders that look a little nicer, and spend a little more in order to keep it longer.”
- “I can afford to buy two different kinds of feeders for how reasonably priced these are. That means I can attract more birds to my yard without spending an arm and a leg!”
Don’t ever sell stuff that is just junk, though. Your customers will remember you for it. Just like the poor quality seed that they picked up at the grocery store, the memory will linger and your store will frowned upon for quality. Take time to do some research into which feeders work best in your area and don’t hesitate to contact your supplier directly for more information on what they carry and feedback from owners. Make sure that nobody leaves your store without knowing that you take personal pride in the selection of your birding line. Think of it this way: The sky is full of birds flying about waiting to be fed. You’re the one that can bring dinner to their bellies by carrying a decent assortment of birding supplies. Those hungry birds are all yours to feed, and by feeding them through your customers, you’ll feed your bank account in return.
Nikki is a horticulturist and professional adventurer who uses her experiences and knowledge to manage a successful garden center in Greenville, S.C. email@example.com