Despite the challenges of curbside pickups, customer or employee safety and a scarcity of plant stock, the Spring of 2020 was kind to IGCs. Sheltering at home, many turned their attention to their yards and patios. Record numbers planted vegetable gardens, flower-filled containers and new landscaping, resulting in increased business for our industry. As we move from the growing season into the holidays and winter months, our focus has turned to keeping these COVID customers focused on the garden. Here are a few ways that we can encourage these new gardeners to stay involved with plants.
Give them plant-based winter projects to lift their spirits.
We’re going into a time of year that’s already hard for many people. The short hours of daylight, holidays and winter weather make many depressed even without a pandemic. We can help lift our customers’ moods with plants. Encourage people to come into the greenhouse for light therapy among the plants. Post photos of the most beautiful flowers in bloom, be they indoor plants you have in stock or selections that you’ll carry next year. Remind your customers of how wonderful it is to put a group of paperwhite narcissus in the bottom of a clear glass vase and watch the growth process from roots to bloom. Suggest that your customers buy a small bulletin board for displaying colorful seed packets. Show them plants they can put into their outdoor containers even in the winter months.
Present virtual programs on houseplant care, planting a terrarium or creating dish gardens. Offer grab-and-go kits for creating fairy gardens. Google “plant science projects for kids” and offer the supplies that parents will need for such activities.
Help them to remember how plants make them feel.
Invite your customers to write about how they felt last spring when they planted their first vegetable garden or put annuals in containers. Ask them to email you a photo of what they created and which plants they enjoyed the most. Post these photos and the most uplifting comments in your newsletter, on your blog and on social media.
Validate and reiterate gardening as a hobby.
Praise these COVID planters to the high heavens! After all, they could have decided to distract themselves with pints of ice cream and old movies. Write about this wise choice in your communications and in op-ed letters to local newspapers and websites.
Tell the public what a great decision it was to get outdoors. Remind them that they have modeled something important for their children; they’ve demonstrated that in difficult situations we can learn new things, create something beautiful and plan positively for the future. They choose to get exercise, improve their surroundings and support a local business. Applaud them, long and loud, for this response.
Start a local gardening group on Facebook.
If your region doesn’t have a garden group on Facebook, start one. This is a great way to build community, and keep local gardeners inspired and informed. Many garden centers wonder if they’ll have to spend lots of time either answering questions or moderating, and I can say from experience that not much time needs to be spent once such groups are up and running; the members will help each other. My garden center started a local group several years ago, and it now has 8,500 very active members.
Be sure that you make it clear that it’s not a group for selling things, but for the exchange of information and photos. It’s also a good idea to screen potential members by asking them where they live in order to keep the group local. It’s not helpful, for example, for someone from southern California to give plant suggestions to Cape Cod gardeners, as well-meaning as they might be.
People like to be a part of something good, so creating a regional group around plants and gardens will keep new gardeners connected and enthusiastic moving forward.
Help them plan for next spring.
It’s never been more important to start encouraging your customers “think spring,” even in the dead of winter. Ask them what they tried for the first time in 2020 that they’re planning to plant again. Show them photos of new varieties that you’re expecting. Give them a calendar that lists times for seed starting indoors and spring plantings. Have a countdown for the number of days until your first nursery delivery. Ask those who follow you on Facebook or Instagram to comment about what they’re most looking forward to growing in 2021.
Will some COVID gardeners give it up once the pandemic has ended? Undoubtedly. But it’s likely that others will continue finding stress relief and joy with plants and in their gardens … especially if we cheer them on.
“I want to be better than all my competitors.” This is a declaration I hear a lot from companies I advise on marketing and business strategy. It sounds like a valid and legitimate goal, but deciding to be No. 1 in your marketplace without a clear strategic market position can leave you spinning your wheels — and your cash — without great results.
Do you really want or need to be No. 1 overall, or would being No. 1 specifically at what you do best better serve your bottom line? Just as important, do you really understand who your true competitors are, and why? These are important questions when you are deciding where to invest and drive business. Trying to be all things to everybody can be expensive and does not guarantee you a good ROI. A narrower focus on capturing maximum market share of the things you want to be best known for could be much more profitable. Realizing you might just be your only worthy competitor is equally valuable.
Let’s steer back to that strategic market position (SMP) for a moment. Knowing your true SMP is dependent on deciding which pieces of the market — and their scale — generate the most profits and overall value. If selling large heavy pottery is a constant drag on your GMROI and your staff, then it is probably not a growth or SMP category for you. If you aren’t delivering on quality compared to local design and build companies on landscape installation services, you might hurt your brand. You might not be able to compete on price for annual color with the volume-vendor down the street, but your high-margin custom mixed color containers may draw customers from far and wide. I always feel that working to make the most money at what you think you do best — and feel good about doing it — is the best strategy.
Typically, your SMP and ideal customer go hand in hand. Knowing who your ideal customer is and what they value about your business will help you better analyze and segment the market at the product level. Low-price vendors attract low-price customers. Is that the market segment in which you want to be the best? Or would you rather command bigger margins based on a different value proposition?
Perhaps an easier way to think about your SMP is simply how many eggs you want to put in each market segment or category basket. A more clearly strategized SMP usually results in more eggs placed in fewer well-chosen baskets.
Too often companies start out trying to be “the best” by looking only outward for opportunities and solutions. More paid advertising and marketing can certainly help you build or retain market share, but your service and customer experiences need to back it up. It is really hard to be the best at what you do if your house isn’t in order. By that I mean if your internal company culture, infrastructure, protocols and products are a mess, then it’s going to be tough to ever be “the best” no matter how you try to market and grow.
When it comes to your SMP, it may also be time to clean house of products or services that are dead weight against your P&L. Too often, garden centers hang on to departments, categories, services or individual SKUs that just don’t turn enough or generate adequate margin. Why? Well, it can be scary to stop selling items you think your customers expect you to sell. Chances are that those poor sales reports are telling you it may be time to dump the bad apples and focus on the good ones. Getting rid of market segments or products that are not serving your brand can be incredibly liberating — and profitable.
Don’t cut corners
Growing smartly always requires that you take care with your cash and control costs, whilst simultaneously forecasting for future opportunities. Unfortunately, I too often see garden centers try to cut costs by excessively understaffing or underpaying staff. Rarely does this help a garden center dominate its chosen SMP. There are many smart ways to control costs via good buying and negotiating practices. But in a customer-facing retail environment, a poor investment in your staff will hurt you more than just about any other decision you make.
A rising tide really lifts all boats — as long as your boat does not have any unplugged holes. Trying to compete directly with all surrounding garden centers or big-box retailers on all things can leave you with more holes than you have fingers to plug them. Ultimately, when all the local garden centers in your area are thriving by “doing their thing,” it creates an engaged and energized consumer community that benefits everyone. If you have not exactly figured out what “your thing” is yet, there is no better time than now to get cracking.
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
Ten years ago, Garden Center magazine published its first Top 100 list, featuring the highest-grossing independent garden centers across North America. Taking a look back at that first list from 2011, it’s clear that things have changed drastically for the industry.
Back in 2011, the combined annual revenue of companies on the list was roughly $30 billion. This year, that number is only about $1.3 billion. But the Top 100 still brought in about $30 million more in 2019 than in 2018. The IGCs on this list have found ways to battle the allure of the big-box stores and keep loyal customers coming back year after year.
While some names are familiar (and have been on the list since 2011), others are new just this year. You can read more about them inside.
We hope that over the past few years you’ve learned a lot from other successful IGCs, found some great ideas to implement at your stores and been inspired by their creativity and resulting success.
But there are many paths to success and many definitions of it. What might be one IGC’s mission might not be another’s. While profitability is always top-of-mind, gross sales might not be what’s most important to you and your staff at the end of the day. Sometimes growth isn’t in the cards and just maintaining is an achievement in and of itself.
Although we look at the Top 100 independent garden centers in terms of revenue this month, there are so many other top lists I wish we could do. I’d love to find the garden centers with the most loyal customers, the ones with the most knowledgeable staff, or the ones that have overcome the biggest challenges to stay in business. But, of course, that’s impossible to quantify.
No matter what size garden center you have or what types of customers you serve, you can always be the best of the best at what you do with the resources you have. We wish you all the success in the world, however you define it, in the coming year.