On June 25, AmericanHort hosted a webinar that delved into the new strategies many garden centers quickly had to adopt due to the seismic retail shift caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. The webinar, which was moderated by Katie Dubow, president of Garden Media Group, featured the following panelists:
- Tammy Behm, owner and managing director of Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop, St. Louis, Missouri
- Jessie Jacobson, president and owner of Tonkadale Greenhouse, Minnetonka, Minnesota
- Benjamin J. Polzin, owner of Down to Earth Garden Center, Eau Claire, Wisconsin – A 2019 Top 100 IGC
- Jessica DeGraaf, retail account manager, Proven Winners
Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop
At Maypop, Tammy Behm noted they were fortunate to be in the Midwest because they could see what was happening on the West Coast. In response, Maypop immediately sold gift cards online and initiated dialogue with vendors and banks in the event of a downturn.
"Having those conversations early on really helped us a lot in being able to quickly navigate and pivot through," Behm said.
In March, Maypop planned to host a gallery where customers could purchase goods from its in-house coffee shop and items from local artists. Behm said they used Instagram and Facebook to virtually showcase all of the artists' work so they could still earn income. Instagram was crucial in the beginning stages because Maypop didn't have an online store at the time.
"It was really kind of hard because we had to do direct messaging and phone calls. So that evolved into, within three days' time, we added gift cards online and we started our store,” Behm said. “We were able to do that because we have Square as our POS system.”
As soon as stores started closing, Maypop entered into partnership initiatives with local businesses, which also helped to solidify sales and spread their branding across different sectors. Many restaurants and stores jumped into action, and Maypop enlisted their services to create clever, themed gift boxes. These were promoted on social media through #Together movements, which vendors also shared and tagged. As an added bonus, many of the vendors had a base following of 13,000 each, which boosted their reach.
Behm said using humor helped the brand as well, because it encouraged customers to support local businesses while delivering a smile to loved ones. The packages were designed to be fun and had themes like "Everything Succs," "Take Shelter" and "Keep Your Distance." These all included gifts like locally bottled wine and artisan ceramics filled different types of indoor or air plants.
Because there aren't a lot of plant stores and shops in the market, it took some time to coax customers into visiting Maypop's online shop. To do this, the IGC promoted the "at-home" lifestyle. As online orders took off, noticeable trends emerged. Sales trickled in later in the morning, around 10-11 a.m. More jumps occurred around 2:00 p.m. (after lunch) and again at 9:00 p.m. (after the kids were put to bed). But the biggest spike came from the people who couldn't sleep at night: "We would get an amazing amount of orders at about 2 o'clock in the morning," Behm said.
When sifting through their stock — something they had a lot of before going into the economic shutdown — they decided to showcase stylized plant pairings online. By pairing classic bestseller plants with their supply of unsold pots, they could sell both online. They also sold excess plants with popular pots, so this method worked twofold to keep sales moving steadily.
Overall, Behm said their motto evolved into "click and buy." They successfully run an Instagram store now, which means customers can see a plant featured in a post and buy it instantly. In the beginning, Behm noticed a FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) attitude among customers. Whenever they posted something to Instagram or Facebook, they’d tag it and customers bought the featured product immediately, especially if was something unusual — such as large monsteras with beautiful leaves.
At Tonkadale Greenhouse, Jessie Jacobson said innovation boiled down to the question: 'What can we do to affect change in the business, staff and community?'
Initially, Tonkadale closed its curbside pickup and shut down completely. During the reopening phase, the IGC slowly eased into curbside pickup once more, all the while preparing to reopen the store. In Minnesota, garden centers were exempt from the stay-at-home order, and Tonkadale officially reopened around mid- to late April.
Tonkadale generates 40% of its revenue in the month of May. In order to reach its goal, the staff averaged out the number of indoor shopping reservations they would need to achieve per day. As Jacobson called it, they needed to “flatten the ticket curve.”
“If we were to spread our tickets over the month of May, it would be about 584 tickets per day, with peaks on weekend days — Fridays, Saturday, Sundays — at about 1,200 tickets per day or over 100 tickets per hour,” she said.
They could safely accommodate 60 customers in the facility at one time, plus 20-25 staff members. With these plans in mind, they built a “reservation experience.” They charged a deposit fee of $25 to incentivize customers to keep their reservations, and one employee was tasked to concierge the appointments. They were able to maintain 500 reservations per day while operating between 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The week after Mother’s Day, reservations were completely sold out.
"Like Tammy, we did not have an online store so throughout April we got that going. Our site crashed because we did not have the bandwidth for the amount of visitors coming to the site, so we rebuilt and went with a new platform, and now have thousands — as many of you do — of items available on our website, along with the shopping reservations,” she said.
While some customers complained, she said this new method helped to improve the overall customer experience. There were less crowds, shorter lines and it was easier for customers to navigate through the store. In this way, Tonkadale was able to “provide safety as a luxury experience.”
As Tonkadale eased into June, they reduced the number of reservations to 10 per hour and accommodated all walk-in shoppers with wait times of 20 minutes or less during the busiest hours on the weekends. Tonkadale saw a good amount of momentum after exemptions eased up, but traffic dipped once more in June.
“It came to an abrupt halt after the murder of George Floyd and just all of the violence that was happening, and the confusion and the fear,” Jacobson said. “I do think there were some extenuating circumstances that definitely halted some June sales.”
Regardless of external factors outside of Tonkadale’s control, Jacobson believes online is the way of the future. In fact, they were able to produce 15% of its sales online for curbside pickup or delivery. While she said their system isn’t perfect, she believes their robust online platform made May a more tolerable month for employees’ mental and physical health.
I think now that we have this platform ready to go, I think we can just pump it harder for the next spring,” she said. “I do think there could be value in this type of business model moving forward.”
Down to Earth Garden Center
Benjamin J. Polzin reminisced about the coronavirus’ impact in the early days of March, and how Down to Earth rapidly had to fill online orders through its existing website.
“Thankfully, we were able to do curbside and local delivery orders very quickly and get those running, basically right away, within a day or two of the actual shutdown,” he said.
Shortly after that week, the IGC received around 100 orders a day, and orders increased as the IGC reached its peak season. Wisconsin was shut down for three weeks. After the state reopened, online orders stayed strong all the way into May, but they have since tapered off.
“We're still getting quite a few orders, even here into June. That's been a very nice addition. We put a lot of time into that, getting as much inventory up onto there as we could. It did take a lot of manpower, but it was something we were able to, thankfully, get up and running to a good scale,” Polzin said.
Polzin said when they looked back at the spring season, they analyzed the strategies that worked the best.
“A couple of the things that we felt went very well was promoting the at-home gardening, staycations, kids’ gardening projects — everybody was at home, so instead of going on vacation, they were working on the yard,” Polzin said.
Down to Earth took to social media to get started, and shared educational videos for things like ‘living’ picture frames, kids’ projects, seeding guides and gardening basics. The IGC also shared online classes through its e-newsletter and social media accounts. In April and May, all the events and in-person classes were canceled, and even though they didn’t have them this year, sales and profit margins were still up. This new shift caused Polzin to consider some changes about the future, and question whether hosting these events was still necessary.
“If you're going to change something, it's a really good way to change it now. We all have an excuse of why we change now, and there's no reason it has to go back the way it was. So that's something we're internally looking at and thinking about, ‘OK, now's the time,’" Polzin said.
Diversification is also key to surviving whatever comes next, he said. If shutdowns happen again in the fall, IGCs must market themselves as essential.
“When it happened in the spring, we have herbs, we have veggies and all the supplies to grow vegetable gardens. So, you have the whole food supply chain. Well, in the fall, or winter, we don't necessarily have that angle,” he said. “So I think it's something internally as a company to look at, ‘OK, what can we do, or potentially do — whether it's a new greenhouse, or a gift shop, or whatnot — what can you offer to be deemed essential by your local county, or state, if something like this was to happen again?"
The webinar ended with some new product and marketing tips from Proven Winners’ Jessica DeGraaf, and the session was rounded out with a final Q&A session from the audience.