Key retail takeaways from Cultivate’18

AmericanHort’s marquee event features more than 150 educational sessions and tours, in addition to a trade show boasting 650 exhibitors. After attending several sessions and keynotes, we boiled it all down to 16 highlights for independent garden centers.


1. Customize the experience for customers.

Kelly Norris, director of horticulture and education at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, said during his talk about contemporary consumers that if you only remember one thing from his presentation, remember the importance of customization. He challenged garden center owners to think about how they can customize the retail experience for customers. The first step is to examine who your customers really are and what they want. Traditionally, 35- to 55-year-old women have been the primary garden center demographic, but Norris says men under the age of 40 are increasingly important and tend to spend more when compared to peer groups. In speaking of the under-40 audience, they are also the largest patron group to the Des Moines Botanical Gardens. Although digital-savvy Millennials can access information in seconds from a smart phone, the generation tends to value meaningful, in-person experiences and expertise, something independent garden centers are best at. Millennials aren’t buying products, he says, they are buying experiences and knowledge.

2. Emphasize the benefits, not features.

Consumers are willing to pay a premium for plants that benefit pollinators, and they care more about what the plant can offer than some of the horticultural features retailers tend to value, Norris says. “Deer resistant” and “pet friendly” mean more to consumers than how large they grow or rare color patterns.

3. Houseplants: “We try so hard to crack the nut, and sometimes we just need to sell the nuts.”

“Consumers are rabid for houseplants,” Norris says, and a third of all houseplants sold last year were bought by Millennials, according to the latest figures from the National Gardening Survey. Norris says that instead of understanding why houseplants are so in demand, retailers should just start selling and promoting them, noting which seem to be most popular. Pilea peperomioides and Monstera deliciosa are some of the most popular at the moment. Check Instagram to see what your customers are posting and sharing and to keep up with the latest trends.

4. “Gardening may not be the operative word anymore.”

The word “planting” performs better at a sales level than gardening does, Norris says, and it could be because “gardening” sounds like a lot of work. Plus, activities like “planting” more accurately describe the modern consumer experience and the interest in succulents and houseplants.

Dale Deppe and Natalie Carmolli of Spring Meadow Nursery announced at Cultivate’18 that the Invincibelle Spirit Campaign for a Cure reached its $1 million fundraising goal for breast cancer research.

5. Curate products, focus on exclusivity.

Garden centers tend to have an overwhelming selection of plants, and studies show that humans like some choice, but too many options can overwhelm and frustrate people, Norris says. Plus, consumers like to know that they can’t get a specific plant or product anywhere else. Try organizing plants by benefit, i.e. deer resistant or pollinator friendly, and curate the selection to make it easy for them to choose, Norris says.

6. Turn customers into brand ambassadors.

Word-of-mouth marketing and peer recommendations, even from strangers, can make or break your business — just look at the influence of Yelp and other online review websites, says Mason Day, co-founder of GrowIt, an app that allows people to review and share information about plants. Garden centers don’t have to take a wait-and-see or build-it-and-they-will-come approach when it comes to online reviews, he said during his talk at Cultivate’18. They can recruit brand ambassadors — people who are loyal and love their brand — and ask for specific promotional help based on company goals, which can be anything from increasing attendance to a specific event or boosting SEO strength. Retailers can start by identifying people who like them the most, leave five-star reviews, or who they know are fans of their companies, and reach out to them. These are not necessarily people who are spending the most, Day emphasizes. The first step is to find out more about them, ask them gardening and unrelated questions and start engaging with them. Garden centers can try sharing insider information that they want “leaked” to the public but that will make customers feel they are getting an exclusive opportunity and a behind-the-scenes look at the business. They will be inspired to share these experiences with their social media followers and friends. For more on this topic, stay tuned to future issues of Garden Center magazine.

7. If you decide custom containers are right for your business, consider key factors.

Will Heeman of Heeman’s in Ontario, Canada, detailed the custom order program they have at the family-owned garden center at one of his talks during Cultivate’18. Heeman said one of the most important considerations is pricing, and advised attendees to price it so it’s worth it. It is difficult to maintain custom containers for customers, so before venturing in this segment, make sure to factor in all costs, like labor, soil, and of course, plants. Another key decision is what plants you will incorporate into the program. “We offer 2,000 different types of annuals, but you will not even find a fifth of them in our custom program,” he says. “We offer the world, but we keep it simple.” Look for more details about their system in future issues.

Set pieces throughout the Greater Columbus Convention Center created an immersive atmosphere for Cultivate’18 attendees.

8. Suggestions in “Marketing to Millennials” presentation will resonate with all your customers.

Heeman also gave a talk on winning over Millennials, but many of his tips could be considered good business practices for customers of any age. They included: offer a personal shopping service, (which we have written about in this magazine,,); be accessible online; allow customers to sign up for workshops online; and promote what matters to customers. In advertisements or other promotions, don’t focus on quality, customer service, “blah blah blah,” as Heeman says, but talk specifically about the benefits of plants, gardening and the things that make you different. Do you have a Koi pond? A coffee bar? Events? Do you allow pets? If dogs are welcome, go beyond inviting them in and offer water and treats, because, as the saying goes, “an action that gets rewarded gets repeated.”

9. Sell “cat nip” to Millennials.

Not really, though Millennials do have a certain affinity for cats. Heeman shared plants that people in the generation tend to gravitate toward, including fiddle leaf fig, air plants, cucamelon and succulents.

10. Good knowledge, customer service will win them over.

“Millennials just want knowledge and to go someplace where they feel special. The bar for customer service is low; we just need to provide good customer service,” Heeman says.

Displays at Cultivate’18 used hashtags to encourage attendees to share their experiences on social media.

11. Town Hall: The industry needs to promote what plants do for people and the environment.

The Cultivate Town Hall gives panel members and attendees the opportunity to openly discuss challenges and other issues in the industry. One rule is that press cannot share direct quotes, but media can share highlights from the discussion. Key points made included:

The industry needs to use language consumers are familiar with and that resonates with them; one example is “planting” vs. “gardening.”

The industry needs to promote the value of plants — there are arguments that retailers are not charging enough, but at the same time, studies show while work used to be a barrier to gardening for consumers, cost is now cited as a roadblock to invest in the lifestyle.


Emphasizing the prettiness of plants is not enough — the industry needs to promote their greater value to our overall health, wellness and the environment.

Emphasize what plants do for you and how they make you feel.

Keynote speaker Dr. Charlie Hall, AmericanHort’s chief economist, outlined the economic factors affecting the industry.

12. There are specific challenges, and opportunities, for women in horticulture.

Greenhouse Management, Garden Center and Produce Grower columnist Leslie Halleck gave a presentation on how women can harness their inner strength to succeed in the horticulture industry. Halleck addressed details about sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, as well as other difficult situations women face, such as when managers sometimes don’t take their ideas seriously. She then explained how women can “level up” in life by being direct, assertive and confident, as she has done. She suggested women learn to interrupt, stop apologizing and use fewer words when trying to make a point.

13. Horticulture industry raises money for breast cancer research.

Spring Meadow Nursery, the company behind Proven Winners ColorChoice Invincibelle Spirit II hydrangea and the Invincibelle Spirit Campaign for a Cure, announced they have surpassed their million-dollar fundraising goal for breast cancer research. Spring Meadow Nursery owner Dale Deppe and PR specialist Natalie Carmolli shared the news before Sunday’s keynote address at Cultivate, announcing the Invincibelle Spirit Campaign has surpassed the $1 million goal set about 10 years ago.

Bremec has three distinct garden centers in Northeast Ohio that Cultivate'18 attendees visited during the tour.

14. The state of the industry: “Greater Uncertainty.”

Dr. Charlie Hall once again delivered a keynote on the state of the horticulture industry. He said while last year the overall theme was “uncertainty,” this year’s talk centered on “greater uncertainty.” For example, he said consumer confidence is always a unreliable metric because “people afford what they want,” quoting economist Lowell Catlett. “I don’t care how we feel, I care about how we spend money,” Hall says. “Somehow, we find a way to buy the things that really matter to us.” Retailers are also in a conundrum, because while they need to raise prices, surveys show that consumers consider cost to be a barrier to gardening.

Scott Greenberg delivered the Sunday, July 15 keynote address at Cultivate’18.

15. Retail bus tour visits Cleveland

In years past, the Cultivate retail bus tour has given attendees a glimpse at the operations of Midwestern independent garden centers, but Cultivate’18’s tour was a particularly exciting opportunity to see how one company approaches three distinct markets and customer bases. Bremec Garden Centers, with locations in Chesterland, Cleveland Heights and Concord, Ohio, was the subject of this year’s excursion. The day-long tour began at Bremec’s largest and original location in Chesterland, which specializes in pottery and features a dedicated structure for fountains, containers, statuary and other hard goods. The second stop was Bremec on the Heights, the company’s smallest location with a 1,000 square foot main retail building and about 15,000 square feet of outdoor sales space. This urban IGC focuses less on nursery stock than the Chesterland store, but attracts a strong holiday business during the winter and also sells poinsettias grown by the Concord location, a visit to which ended the tour. In terms of size, Bremec Concord sits between the other two locations at about 2 acres of total space. This store featured a newly-built indoor boutique, carrying an array of jewelry, clothing, accessories and other giftware.

16. Leaders with the same tools can get different results.

Light a fire within your team, not under them says Scott Greenberg, who gave Sunday’s keynote address. There are three factors that contribute to the success of a person and determine why some leaders get better results using the same tools — circumstances, operations, and mindset. Sometimes we don’t have control over our circumstances, like weather, or even operations, but mindset is always something we can manage, and he focused on ways leaders can achieve a high performance mindset. Clear your head of clutter and silence the mental heckler — the inner voice that tells you you’re not good enough or smart enough. And, most importantly, have gratitude for what you have, even during difficult times.

Associate editor Conner Howard and Patrick Williams, associate editor of sister publication Greenhouse Management, contributed to this article.

August 2018
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