Pantone has announced Classic Blue as the 2020 Color of the Year. Here are a few ways garden centers and retailers can join in on the fun and incorporate this trendy yet calming hue into their businesses. It’s time to clean the slate of 2019, start anew and delve into the possibilities Classic Blue can offer for the new year.
Dahlia variabilis Hort
BRED BY GARDENGENETICS
How long has it been on the market?
Introduced in 2019
Consumer care requirements
For this low-care plant, consumers need to remove dead flowers.
Compact and densely branched
Grows to height/width
3 to 4 feet tall and wide
Partial to full sun
Container combination ideas
They’re great in the “filler” position in the thriller-filler-spiller model; combine with these annuals: angelonia, lobularia, petunia, calibrachoa, verbena
Plant in a 6-inch container, minimum
Dark leaves, compact habit, medium height, semi-double flowers, powdery-mildew tolerance and a long blooming period
HOW TO CREATE HASSLE-FREE POLICIES
There’s nothing worse than an unsatisfied customer walking up to your register and demanding to know why their plant is failing to thrive. While the situation isn’t always preventable, salvage both the customer’s expectations and your reputation by creating a plant warranty policy — or in the case of IGCs who already have one, updating your warranty. Garden Center rounded up some of the best plant warranty pointers as IGC owners head into the retail rush of spring season.
Prioritize customer success
The most important thing IGC owners should take into consideration when creating a warranty policy is fostering healthy plant growth and nurturing customer relationships. Joseph J. Kiefer, manager of Triple Oaks Nursery & Herb Garden in Franklinville, New Jersey, shares why this is the cornerstone of any good policy. “We want people to succeed with our plants” he says. “That’s the whole principle of it. The policy is there for customer success.”
Bethany Broderick, who manages the East Broad Street location of Strader’s Garden Center in Columbus, Ohio, echoes this viewpoint. “Most customers, yeah, they want to be successful with their plants and they come here so that we can help to educate as far as proper planting and care and maintenance,” he says.
Ben Polzin, vice president of retail operations at Down to Earth Garden Center, located in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, says this should be any garden center’s top priority when it comes to mapping out a warranty strategy. “We changed our plant warranty this spring. We had kind of a more broad spectrum, very lenient program before,” he says. “We still want to stand behind our plants. We also don’t want to be taken advantage of.”
Tweak according to your brand
Most plant warranties tend to cover big-ticket items, such as trees and shrubs, but IGC owners can tweak these to what fits their needs best. Broderick says that trees and shrubs at Strader’s have a one-year warranty, with the exception of trees or shrubs on 50% markdown. They also offer a warranty for roses sold during planting season, which lasts 90 days (as long those roses are not 50% off).
Strader’s does not offer a warranty for test plants, annuals or perennials. In order to uphold the warranty, customers must first bring in their receipt, along with a sample of the plant (like foliage) or a photo of the dead plant.
“And then we will do a one-time replacement,” Broderick says. “If it’s a plant that they were not successful with because, perhaps it’s a more difficult plant to grow, or they didn’t realize it needed a certain type of care, then we may try and educate them about a better alternative.”
Similar to Broderick, Polzin and Kiefer require proof of plant death for the plant, and both agree that a photo or physical evidence will do.
Down to Earth provides a general 30-day warranty, and then customers can opt to buy a one-year extended warranty for trees and shrubs. Roses and perennials are covered for the current growing season, which ends on Oct. 15 of the purchasing year. The IGC requires customers to buy Root & Grow, along with a bag of compost, at the time of purchase as well. “If they’re buying it, they are a lot more likely to use it,” Polzin says. “So, between the watering of the Root & Grow and using the compost when they’re planting, it’s just forcing them a little bit more to care for it, get it planted correctly.”
Triple Oaks offers a six-month “cash and carry” warranty and a two-year “installation” warranty. In Kiefer’s experience, trustworthy people usually don’t make claims, but if they do, they own up to them. “Honest people will say, ‘Oh, well I didn’t water it’ or ‘The soil there is not good,’” he says. Kiefer says they’ll replace these plants nearly every time, even if the customer is at fault. “Yeah, the thing is, if somebody’s nice and polite and friendly, that goes such a long way,” he continues. Triple Oaks will even replace perennials, which technically aren’t even under warranty. “We pretty much make exceptions for anybody who’s nice.”
Another reason Triple Oaks is so lenient with their policy is because of big box stores who provide blanket coverage for a year. “So you’re kind of in competition with that, where people have a mindless idea that they could take a plant and throw it in a fire and burn it and then take it back for warranty coverage, and that’s the big box store kind of warranty,” he laments. “Because they’re not paying, the grower’s paying it.” Kiefer says Triple Oaks plans to edit its policy on January 1. “You know every time somebody gets the best of you, swindles you out of something, you learn a lesson and put that on paper. Say ‘I’m not going to let that happen again,’” he says. However, this mentality has made the policy too complex, forcing Kiefer to reconsider. The new policy will include a $50 inspection fee and the policy will be more open-ended. That way, Triple Oaks can review claims on a case-by-case basis.
Educate customers at the front lines
According to Broderick, enforcing the warranty policy starts at checkout. From the time customers visit the register to the time they walk out of the store, their expectations should align with your IGC’s care instructions and warranty parameters. “The cashiers are trained to pay attention to the computer screen and when someone buys a tree or shrub, they’re supposed to verbally inform the customer of the policy,” she says. Strader’s has their policy down to a science, and the team doesn’t anticipate changing its policy any time soon.
Kiefer says their policy is located on Triple Oaks’ website for easy access to the public, and employees are trained to refer to it upon checkout.
“We’ve taken it all the way out to the sales yard. It is mentioned at checkout if it hasn’t already been talked about,” Polzin says. Aside from perennials, employees are encouraged to upsell the extended warranty.
Protect your reputation
According to Kiefer, it’s easier to bite the bullet and appease angry customers, even if they’re wrong. “These people clearly went and killed a beautiful, perfect plant. But if you sit there and argue with them, that could be the worst thing in the world for your reputation and word of mouth, because people aren’t experts,” Kiefer says. While it is frustrating to honor a baseless warranty claim, in the end the monetary amount is small — he estimates about 1% of people request a plant return. Both Broderick and Polzin estimate the same. It’s a delicate balance, but one that requires customer satisfaction to keep business rolling.
It’s also important to keep your warranty policy simple and streamlined, something both Polzin and Kiefer agree on. “That’s probably my number one thing, because the more complicated it is, the harder it is for the customers to understand it and want to do it, and it also can create delays in the checkout process, which is the last thing you want to do on a busy weekend,” Polzin says. He advises that your policy should be something your team can stand behind and understand.
For garden center owners thinking about creating their own warranty policies, Kiefer recommends outlining the different types and molding them to fit your brand. He suggests owners join the Independent Garden Center Forum on Facebook to gather ideas. “Now some people on there have no warranty. Some people have an amazing warranty, some people have something in between. Some people just treat it on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “And there’s merit to all the different ways.”
Two years ago, brothers Dan and Thomas Gallo bought Country Mile Gardens from their father, Tom, who opened the Morristown, New Jersey-based business in 1977. Since then, they’ve continued prioritizing the family-run business’s reputation for high-quality plants and top-notch customer service.
“I think we’re very good on the live plants side of things. That’s definitely our bread and butter,” says Dan Gallo, who earned a degree in environmental studies from Bucknell University and worked in the federal government before returning to the garden center full-time. “Customers tell us we have good pricing and good quality.”
Staying on top of trends
The Gallo brothers have purposely shied away from pivoting their garden center toward a gift shop-model, in order to focus on perennials, annuals, trees, shrubs and hardgoods.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t proactive about staying on top of trends.
“I pay a lot of attention to the industry trends and making sure that we have what people are looking for,” Dan Gallo says.
To track trends, Gallo says he reads a lot, focusing on trade news and product availability reports.
“I read availabilities all year long and try and pay attention to what’s moving and what’s not moving,” Gallo says. “You can kind of pick up on what’s selling elsewhere by what’s disappearing from their availabilities. So I pay a lot of attention to that kind of thing, and my brother does the same with the annuals.”
Being positioned as they are in New Jersey — in close proximity to many growers and wholesalers — Country Mile Gardens is able to buy most of its plants and trees from local sources.
“There’s a lot of great growers in New Jersey,” Gallo says. “On the annuals side, we’re really lucky. We kind of have our pick of a dozen. As time has gone on, I’ve tried to buy more and more from the home state.”
The decision to source locally makes practical business sense for the company.
“It’s financial reasons and quality reasons as much as anything else. The plants are already timed right for our area. Being able to place an order and have it here almost the next day is the primary reason — in addition to the quality,” Gallo says.
For plants not available from New Jersey growers, Country Mile does source elsewhere — including Florida, California, and the Pacific Northwest. “We have probably 50 growers that we buy from, focusing on eight or 10,” Gallo says.
The small growing operation Country Mile maintains on site is mainly supplemental.
“We do some growing, but it’s very small, mostly a few things that we can’t get from suppliers, or some things that we want to bump up, like planters in the spring,” Gallo says.
Country Mile Gardens’ landscape design services is one area the brothers hope to expand. In a given week, anywhere from three to 10 customers might request a landscape design plan, Gallo says.
The garden center launched its landscape design division in 2002, as a means of diversifying revenue streams during the recession, Gallo says.
While Dan Gallo headed up the department initially, when he and Thomas took over Country Mile two years ago, they hired a full-time landscape designer. In the coming year — due to steady demand for services — they hope to add a part-time assistant to the department.
“I’m not a big risk taker, but we are going to try to bring on a half-time assistant. It is growing, and our current landscape designer can’t currently keep up with demand,” Gallo says. “We’re looking at bringing on perhaps a landscape design student who can provide 20 hours a week. And then, after that, perhaps we’ll grow to two full-time staff.”
In five years’ time, Gallo hopes to have expanded the landscape division to a dedicated office space on the garden center property, with a two-to-three person full-time team. “That’s my vision for where we’re headed,” he says.
Last summer, in another of their biggest changes since taking over ownership, the Gallo brothers installed a solar array on the back of the garden center’s roughly three-acre property.
“We’re basically generating all the electricity we need for the year,” Gallo says.
Installing the array was something the Gallos had initially investigated a decade ago, but the higher cost of the technology at the time was prohibitive.
Still, energy efficiency had remained a priority to the family, and making the install this year finally made financial sense.
“It became a non-brainer in terms of the finances, because the cost now was about 30% of what it was when we considered it originally,” Gallo says.
Roughly two years ago, the Gallos also completely renovated one of two main greenhouses attached to the garden center’s 35,000-square foot retail space.
“We renovated partially to keep heating costs down,” Dan Gallo says. “It was an old, glass greenhouse from when they built the store. Now, it’s Lexan [a brand of polycarbonate sheet] and also has some nice retail features to it.”
With the greenhouse redesign, the building is now much more open, allowing staff to have the flexibility to use it for retail, Gallo says.
In the 20 years that sales manager Greg Jennings has been working at Country Mile, he’s noticed a shift in the types of plants that customers are looking for.
“For instance, bulbs — tulips, daffodils, and all that — we used to sell a lot of those, but it seems to be almost a thing of the past now,” Jennings says. “People don’t want to plant as much as they used to. People tend to be less hands-on today.”
Part of operating a successful business is changing with those trends, and Country Mile has been able to keep pace by offering a growing inventory of low-maintenance, hearty plants as well as ready-made planters, Jennings says.“It’s a different pace now, everything is faster,” he says. “Even in the fall season, people used to come in and buy 20 10-inch chrysanthemums, and now, they’re coming in and buying one or two of these large, 24-inch pots that we carry. It’s more money, but it’s instant gratification, without the planting.”
Staying abreast of trends and stocking the types of inventory customers are seeking — as well as hiring knowledgeable, friendly staff — has helped Country Mile stay on top of a competitive local market.
“We’re in a very affluent area and that lends itself to people spending money on [plants and landscaping],” Gallo says.
“But there’s lots of competition around. There are five or 10 other places that people could choose within 10 miles of here, so we have to be good or we won’t survive.”
From snow-white roselilies to ‘Black Hero’ tulips, and every shade of unusual variety in between, the bulbs being grown today are not your grandmother’s flower bulbs. With more options and innovations on the market, bulb sales are on the rise.
“Across the board, bulb sales are increasing,” says Marjolein Berbee-Dzmura, co-owner of Leo Berbee Bulb Company in Columbus, Ohio. “Our garden center is having record-breaking bulb sales and our [wholesale] customers are saying the same thing. We’ve only heard positive news — people increasing their orders and asking to get bulbs earlier.”
To capitalize on this boom in 2020 and beyond, growers should pay attention to these four bulb trends that are taking over the market.
New, different and unique
Berbee-Dzmura says social media is driving bulb popularity, as it has for houseplants.
“Everybody wants something unusual and unique that they can’t get somewhere else,” she says. “Everybody wants something they can share on social media to say, ‘Look what I have.’”
This demand is pushing breeders to hybridize new varieties — shaking up the expected red tulips and pastel lilies to offer new options.
“People are going after the parrots, doubles and fringes, not the standard varieties you can get anywhere,” Berbee-Dzmura says.
“The doubles trend is definitely picking up,” says Martin Meskers, AAF, president and owner of Oregon Flowers, which sells to wholesale florists and specialty supermarkets across the country. “The first doubles that came out had a few issues but the varieties are getting better every year.”
Now, instead of sticking to classic categories — like Oriental, Asiatic, trumpet or longiflorum (Easter) lilies — the lines between varieties are blurring.
“These groups are getting mixed up because they’re being hybridized together,” Meskers says. “Now you have OT, which is a mix of an Oriental lily and a trumpet, and you have LO, which is a longiflorum crossed with an Oriental, and then Asiatics are being bred with longiflorums so you have LA — and they’re even cross-hybridizing those, so it gives us a lot more varieties.”
Bulb hybridization has unlocked a spectrum of new color possibilities.
“Instead of just having white and pink Orientals, now we can get peach, yellow and other colors,” Meskers says. “Tiger lilies used to be heavy in orange and yellow, and now we can get whites, pinks and even two-tones. Even hyacinths used to be pretty much blue, white and pink, and now we see peach, yellow and purple.”
“Purple was the hot color for 2019,” Berbee-Dzmura says, noting unusually dark varieties like the nearly black “Queen of Night” tulip and “Black Hero” parrot.
Shades of salmon and apricot have also been popular, thanks to Pantone’s selection of coral as the color of the year.
“It’s difficult to adjust to color demands, especially if it’s something like peach that isn’t readily available in lilies, because we have to purchase our bulbs at least a year or two ahead of time,” Meskers says. “That will always be a challenge.”
Regardless of the color trends that emerge in 2020, growers can generally rely on holidays to inform selection. Obviously, red and white rule during Christmas, with pink joining the mix in time for Valentine’s, and then a wider palette of pastels to celebrate Mother’s Day.
In general, colors “get darker as the season goes on,” Berbee-Dzmura says. “It starts light — the first blooming flower is a white Galanthus snowdrop — and it works its way up to the latest-blooming bulb, allium, which is purple.”
Hybridization isn’t just about getting different bulb colors, but breeding better growing traits.
“Sometimes that means a stronger stem, better bud count, longer-lasting blooms, or more disease resistance,” Meskers says. “It might be a nice color, but if it’s not holding up by the time the end consumer gets it, then it just doesn’t work.”
For cut flower growers like Oregon Flowers, stem strength and length are key characteristics. But potted plant growers are benefitting from more compact growth traits hitting the market.
“Over the years, they’ve been hybridizing more varieties for the potted culture,” Meskers says. “Now we have more varieties that are genetically short, so that’s a big advantage for potted growers.”
Perhaps the most important trait is timing, as growers look to force bulbs earlier and extend the growing season.
“Some say the first sign of spring is seeing a flower bulb bloom, so getting an early crop [is important,]” Berbee-Dzmura says. “We do pre-cooling here, so customers will have Valentine’s Day flowers in early March because they want to have them before anybody else.”
Despite the spectrum of bulb options available, Leo Berbee Bulb Company still plants standard red and yellow tulips in front of its store to draw traffic, and those classics continue to outsell unique newcomers.
Keeping up with bulb trends isn’t about abandoning the time-tested favorites, but expanding your assortment as the options expand.
“You’re always going to sell the most of your yellow and red tulips — at least we always have — but bring in more unusual varieties. Try to offer something different,” Berbee-Dzmura says.
Berbee offers about 120 varieties of tulips in the U.S., with an expanded collection of more than 600 at their family’s facility in Holland, from which they special order. Oregon Flowers offers about 60 varieties of tulips and 80 varieties of lilies, in addition to hyacinths and outdoor crops like peonies and hydrangea.
The challenge for bulb growers is navigating new varieties as trends shift at the speed of social media.
“Customers are getting more demanding, so we have to have more varieties, a better assortment and consistent quality,” Meskers says. “None of us can say, ‘Well, I’ve been growing this crop for the last 10 years, so I’m going to keep growing it for the next 10 years. Everything gets renewed, so we have to keep up to date, try new varieties and listen to our customers.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and frequent contributor to Garden Center magazine.