I was listening to marketing entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk’s podcast recently and laughed when he described our smartphones as our “remote controls.” Since most people have their phones with them at all times, these oh-so-necessary devices aren’t really so remote, but they do control many aspects of our lives. So perhaps life-support systems would be a better term. They are also a garden center’s best friend, since so many of our customers use their phones for living online.
Whether they are posting on Instagram, Facebook or other social channels, people are repeatedly sharing the inside of their homes and what they’re cooking or planting. This desire to photograph and then post online fuels many to be continually creative with their décor, and in their kitchens and gardens. They rearrange or change furniture, cook interesting meals and put new beds or pots in their landscapes. After all, it’s not any fun to keep posting identical shots of the same interiors, food and plants.
This share-it-all society is good news for garden centers because we’re in the beauty and change business. We sell the promise of color, flavor and fun. As we settle into an uncertain future with the COVID pandemic, we also provide stress relief and life-affirming experiences with plants and flowers. More than ever before, our customers look to their plants and gardens for lessons in hope and a focus on wonder. It’s no accident that #plantsmakepeoplehappy has been used more than 4 million times on Instagram.
A New York Times Consumer Insight Group study showed that people share on social platforms for a few key reasons. They post to inform others of products, entertainment and actions that they care about. And they use social platforms to define themselves and to nourish their relationships with others. And they post to get the word out about all types of things they care about. Bringing that information back to our businesses, this presents several opportunities.
Knowing that our customers care about organic solutions to problems, why not have an entire Organic Solutions section in your store? Make it attractive, well-stocked and easy to find. Have the signage above this display read #organic and #problemsolved. Why the hashtags? Because they instantly tell people why a photo of your display, or information about the products shown, should be shared.
We know that our customers care about bees and pollinators, so grouping plants that support these insects, with appropriate signage and hashtags, will catch their attention. They cherish their children and eagerly share experiences that are good for kids. Perhaps every IGC should have a #family #kids #projects section. Fill these areas with colorful flowers and vegetables that are fun for children to grow. Show how old toys such as a plastic dump truck can be repurposed as a container. Place Smart Pots and seed potatoes together with a #growyourown #frenchfries sign. And if you’ve seen that fairy gardens have run their course, repurpose the small plants and shallow bowls to be #dinosaurgardens and #actionfigure #environments.
As many continue to work from home, we can have fun with this experience. Bring back the old pole bean teepee, add some morning glory vine and sign it #instantoffice or #spareroom. Make a mock workstation in your greenhouse, surround it with houseplants and call it the #zoomroom.
Enclose an old desk with a display of fragrant shrubs and sign it #workfromhome (the most used remote working hashtag) and #aromatherapy.
Remind shoppers that a group of colorful containers will instantly create new vignettes on patios, porches, decks and balconies. Cluster groups of three containers together with pots or hanging-basket plants that can quickly fill them, and use signage that reads #changeyourview, #plantandpost or #gardeninspiration. And don’t hesitate to use one of the most used hashtags, #plantsofinstagram, to showcase fun flowers, unusual varieties and showy houseplants.
Hashtags remind your customers how they can use the plants and products you sell for the photos and information that they share online. The photos of your displays should be shared on your social networks, in your newsletters and on the company blog. And don’t worry if a portion of your customers aren’t living in a hashtagged world. The signage will convey the same ideas to those who aren’t on social networks.
C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at www.GardenLady.com
Now seems like the perfect time to have a conversation about bad attitudes. They are as rampant as a virus right now, thanks to a virus. Just yesterday I got an email from someone in the industry who was looking for help and insight on how to best deal with negative attitudes and the “COVID Cranky” that is going around right now. Mind you, this person is an employee, not an owner. The cranky seems to be coming from the top down just as much as it is from within. So how do we best manage attitudes and company culture during stressful times?
The feedback I am getting from a lot of folks right now is that they simply do not know to how best direct their focus or energy. The feeling of loss of control has sent many into a spiral of frustration and negativity. These feelings can paralyze people. When I find myself in this situation, I typically turn to a “focus on what I can control” approach. Is there some task or project I can check off my list to redirect my mind in a better direction?
As an owner or manager, it is your job to figure this out and focus on what you can control to find a sense of balance — both for yourself and those working for you. That said, you may need help doing so. Do not hesitate to reach out to an advisor or coach to help you get back on track.
It is also your job to help your employees find focus. Do not just expect them to figure all of this out themselves. If your staff is feeling stressed and negative, sit down with them to identify certain tasks or projects where they can achieve meaningful progress. These tasks or projects do not need to be complicated or big picture. Small tasks related to basic organization or clean-up can go a long way to making someone feel purposeful and productive.
Watch your mouth
We are all guilty of complaining and venting our frustrations to the wrong people. Negativity from leadership staff can be incredibly toxic and contagious. When you have good relationships with your employees, it is often tempting to feel you can vent or complain to them in ways that may not really be great for their job performance. Plus, this dynamic often breaks down necessary boundaries that should exist between employer and employee. Now, certainly each person is different with their own level of fortitude, and you will have different thresholds of trust with each employee. It is your job to know what your limits are for each individual person, and when to keep your mouth shut.
Often, family businesses are guilty of treating their employees like family members. While this sounds nice on the surface, it rarely is. Disfunction or comfort levels that exist between family members often get transferred to employees. This is unfair and unprofessional. Your staff are not your family members, nor are they responsible for the bearing the same types of expectations you may have of a family member. Family business does not belong at the staff meeting table.
If you and your family business members are cranky and annoyed at one another, take those snippy conversations offline and out of public view. No exceptions. There is nothing that will make your employees more uncomfortable and unhappy than being forcibly included in your family feud. Remember, if you treat your employees like your children, expect them to act like your children. Do not complain about it when they do.
If you are an employee regularly subjected to such displays, it may behoove you to point out to the parties, “This seems like a private family conversation. We can reschedule our meeting if you’d like.”
Pratice active listening
I know, I know. Active listening may sound like a bunch of hippy dippy nonsense to a lot of you. But it is a strategy that can be useful for owners and employees alike.
During intensely stressful times, we must all learn to better control our emotional responses. When someone snips at you or is demanding in a disrespectful way, a good strategy is to take a deep breath, then calmly repeat back to them what you interpreted they just said to you or want from you. Often, what you repeat back to them is not what they meant to communicate at all. Once presented with a reflection of their words, most reasonable people will reset their demeanor and make a better effort to communicate more clearly. It does not always work right away, but it can improve dynamics over time. I am still practicing.
It can be a tricky business to cultivate a culture of caring in your company, without crossing important employer/employee boundaries. As an owner or manager, focus on helping your employees be successful at their jobs. Their personal lives or struggles are typically not your business nor responsibility — nor things you can typically change for them. You can, however, indirectly improve such things by creating company dynamics that help people succeed professionally. When employees know you care about their job success, it goes a long way to improving morale.
If you do one thing regarding this issue, consider revamping your employee “review” process. Most of the time, these are negative stressful events that your staff dreads. An employee review should be less about what someone has done “wrong” or “right” over the course of a year, and more about a check in on your success together. As an owner or manager, you are just as much on the performance hook during an evaluation. Present reviews as a two-way team conversation and be willing to take constructive and critical feedback yourself. Do not attach them to raises; do those separately. Oh, and maybe bring cupcakes?
Do not forget to let yourself — and your staff — have a little fun now and then. And perhaps cut everyone a little slack right now. Now, more than ever, we could all use a bit more humor and lightheartedness in our day.
Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com
Looking back just six months ago, the feeling of uncertainty that swept over the garden center industry still feels fresh. As COVID-19 paralyzed businesses and supply chains, no one knew what would come next. But fears of a lost season were soon supplanted by a flood of new gardeners that lifted many IGCs to their best year yet.
The starting point for this influx of interest was remarkably constant from coast to coast. For some gardeners, COVID “victory gardens” rooted in World War II nostalgia held strong allure. For others, the idea of modern self-sufficiency and control held sway. But from one gardening perspective to another, vegetables led the way.
For insights on how vegetable gardening became a gateway to something bigger, we spoke with IGCs from California to Ohio to New York. Here’s what they saw this year:
SLOAT GARDEN CENTER
San Francisco Bay Area, California
The concept of victory gardens resurfaced last spring, thanks in large part to the National Garden Bureau’s victory garden media campaign. Sloat Garden Center’s 12 Bay Area locations embraced the idea and promoted victory gardening via social media, newsletters and in-store.
President and Chief Operations Officer Dave Stoner reports positive customer feedback, but a more modern take on vegetable garden victories was also underway.
“Whether it was victory gardens or just being prepared for not knowing what the food supply was going to be come summer — or just the fact that people were home and concerned — gardening definitely played a role in limiting those concerns,” he says. “Vegetable gardens did it two-fold because they were growing food.”
As vegetable sales soared, Stoner noticed two camps. On one hand, seasoned veggie gardeners upped their efforts “just in case,” planting more than ever before. “The other extreme was people that have never thought about where their tomatoes come from, let alone that they come from a plant, saying, ‘I’m going to grow a tomato,’” Stoner says.
Questions emailed to Sloat’s Garden Guru reflected the newness of gardeners involved. “It exploded this year. We had to double our force as far as answering those questions. But the quality of those questions also diminished dramatically because there was so much inexperience out there,” Stoner reports. “We found we were answering basic questions like ‘Why doesn’t my tomato have fruit yet? I’ve had it for two weeks.’”
To help new gardeners, Sloat focused mainly on in-store information and communications. But in-store handouts that had been popular lost their appeal to new vegetable gardeners with COVID concerns. “Nobody wanted to touch anything,” Stoner shares. So, the IGC quickly moved to get more online.
“One thing we’ve learned initially is that our company is grossly underrepresented with e-commerce, which is something we’ve never ventured into,” he says. “We’ve been pretty simple in our approach, pretty true to our core and to our brick-and-mortar, and it serves us really well. But we’ve learned there’s some avenues that we need to focus on moving forward.”
As new vegetable gardeners realized work-from-home would continue, Sloat saw interests evolve. “The first month was nothing but edibles,” Stoner says. Annuals were next. Vegetables kept skyrocketing, but focus shifted to landscaping and nursery stock. As the Bay Area enters fall planting season, interest continues strong overall.
Supply chain issues — the biggest challenge for Sloat this season — remain a concern. “I think the thing that surprised us around edibles, that we’ll address going into 2021, was ancillary products,” Stoner says. He notes that COVID-related production and packaging issues caused shortages in soil, fertilizers and more.
“What we’re looking to do going into 2021 is secure as much product as possible in advance, and put processes and programs in place that are nimble,” Stoner says. “If we left anything on the table this year, it was because we couldn’t get it, so in our mind, supply chain is really one of the most important things the industry has to do.”
Stoner points out that 2020’s garden victories transcended harvests: “We added a huge increase in brand new gardeners, which I think bodes well for the industry. There’s an investment they’ve made, and they found solace in it. A lot of them got the gardening bug. That’s what we’re hoping for and planning for next year.”
One observation that fuels Stoner’s optimism is that new gardeners weren’t just adults. “Kids were home, too, and the children got involved with not just growing veggies, but growing flowers and growing plants and digging holes for shrubs,” he says. “These are the gardeners of tomorrow. They really were exposed to much more than I think parents would have the ability to do in a normal year. That’s really exciting.”
THE DEES’ NURSERY & FLORIST
Long Island, New York
When coronavirus hit New York City this spring, emotions ran high at The Dees’ Nursery & Florist. Co-owner Joe DiDominica explains, “We were in the hot bed at the time. Long Island was the first hotbed of COVID-19. Obviously, now it’s the safest place in the country, but our area was pretty much shuttered. It shut down, but we were luckily allowed to stay open.”
With people quarantined at home, DiDominica saw a change take hold. “Folks were saying they had to do something to get out of the house, keep themselves occupied and do something with the kids,” he says. “That transformed into seed starting and teaching kids how to add a garden. We had a lot of people who had never gardened in their lives saying they wanted to start a vegetable garden.”
Dees’ promoted COVID victory gardens on social media, but DiDominica says that victories became more personal: “Victory gardening was out there, but vegetable gardening just took on a whole new thing. It was self-reliance. It was ‘I want to grow my own food.’ People wanted to take care of themselves.”
Early on, New Yorkers were hesitant to go out and shop, so they hit the phones instead. With just four regular staff on board, down from 21, DiDominica’s four daughters jumped in as telephone operators. “Like everybody, we really increased our phone order sales. I increased my online sales about 10-fold from the previous year,” he says. “We really transformed our business in a short, short period of time.”
Reticence to shop in-store eventually passed. “As things started lightening up, people weren’t afraid to come out,” DiDominica says. “Next thing, they started penetrating into our store a little bit and then it was game on.”
To help new gardeners, Dees’ turned to handouts on starting seeds, prepping soil and planting. Veggie basics such as peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes were top sellers, but all vegetables sold well. Among herbs, basil was No. 1, with Mojito mint for cocktails coming on strong. “People couldn’t go out to the bars, so they’re going to have their own little party at their house. They need Mojito mint,” DiDominica says.
The fervor for gardening expanded into other categories as Long Islanders skipped vacations and focused on home improvement instead. “Summer sales have been excellent,” DiDominica says. “Everybody wanted to fix up their yards. As long as you had products, you were able to have good days.”
What started with vegetables and segued to nursery stock has shifted to houseplants now, as people working from home want to grow plants indoors, too. “Houseplants were in an upward trend before COVID-19, but now this has supercharged it and really has increased that,” DiDominica says. “They’re booming now.”
Spring’s biggest surprise in DiDominca’s mind was how quickly the season turned around and who got involved. “I was really happy to see how many families did it together,” he says. “Gardening turned back to kind of like the old days, where kids were doing it with their parents. You haven’t seen that a lot. Working outside in your yard, in your vegetable garden, became a family event again.”
DiDominica hopes 2020’s vegetable-fueled gardening victories stick: “When you work in the yard, it’s a feeling of accomplishment and you never want to go backward. Why would you not want that again for next year? We definitely have opened our doors to a whole new group of new homeowners and younger people. I think it’s going to bode well for our industry as we move forward.”
Looking to 2021, DiDominica’s predictions sound a lot like Stoner and Petitti. “I definitely see an opportunity of maybe 10% to 20% increase over  sales, which was a great year,” he says. “It would be very hard to duplicate what happened this year, but we’re definitely bullish for our industry, our business, for next spring.” And, incidentally, he won’t be surprised if vegetables help lead the way next year.
PETITTI GARDEN CENTERS
As late-winter talk about COVID victory gardens circulated the country, customers at Petitti Garden Centers’ nine Northeast Ohio locations seemed to take a more direct approach. “In terms of the actual victory garden, it wasn’t a trend that we saw people rally around. It wasn’t a huge call to action in our area,” says President AJ Petitti. But vegetable gardening itself was a different story. “We picked up about 43% on herbs and veggies compared to last year,” he shares.New gardeners account for much of that growth. “We picked up about a 27% increase in customer traffic in terms of transactions,” Petitti shares. “Clearly, I think a lot of that was driven by a lot of new gardeners. I think existing gardeners did more because they had more time, but we definitely drew a lot of new customers. They got to experience our stores and our product for the first time. And I think that’s going to carry over, hopefully for years to come.”
Across the grower-retailer’s stores, no single category of edibles or non-edibles stands out. “In terms of variety, just everything went. Demand was just huge this year,” Petitti says. “We grow 90% of what we sell, so fortunately we were able to keep planting and keep producing all along. When everybody was struggling to get product, we were able to make sure we had a continual supply.”
Petitti reports that spring annuals and vegetables both started very strong and went hand-in-hand until mid-July. As vegetables quieted down — typical for summer — other categories stepped in. “But in fall, there’s renewed interest in cole crops and fall veggies, so we’re seeing that now.
Obviously, that’s not as strong as what it would be in spring, but it’s still strong,” he says.
To help new gardeners succeed, Petitti fortified their phone resources. “One of the biggest things was we started a call center in our corporate office and moved the questions off the stores,” he says. “A lot of those calls were from new gardeners, so we had really experienced people speaking to our newest customers, which I think made a huge difference.”
Looking to 2021, Petitti expects a strong year. “I don’t see it being as strong as it was this year, so we’re taking our initial 2020 plan and we’re bumping that up,” he says. “I think it’d be really difficult for us to see it increase off of what we saw this year. This was kind of a Cinderella year.”
He advises IGC owners to plan carefully for 2021. “I think it’s really tempting to either go way short or way over in terms of planning — whether you’re buying or whether you’re growing,” he says. “Everybody picked up new customers and there was a great interest in gardening. But I don’t know what’s going to stick, especially as families get busier again, depending on what happens to schooling and activities and all that stuff. I think 2021 is still going to be really strong, but we’re in a little bit of a bubble right now.”
The author is a Minnesota-based freelance writer specializing in the horticulture industry. Reach her at email@example.com.