Stuart Leventhal, owner of Down To Earth Living, got into the home décor business sideways. It developed as an adjunct to the Pomona, New York, IGC’s successful patio furniture business. Leventhal has long considered his IGC an entertainment business, competing for customers’ leisure dollars not only with other garden centers but big box stores. As such, he has strived to create a reputation for his store as a purveyor of high-end furniture, and for marketing and presentation purposes, décor became a necessity.
“We had to dress the tables,” he says. “So as a result, we added tableware into the business.”
As its customers purchased tabletop items in addition to the furniture, Down to Earth began to delve into the broader spectrum of home décor.
“By having the furniture to the extent that we do and having the accoutrements that go with furnishings, that led us to a full-blown home décor presentation,” Leventhal says.
This doesn’t mean that Down to Earth Living is neglecting the green goods side of the business. Quite the opposite, as Leventhal says the IGC built out a section of a greenhouse to accommodate the home décor items. As a result, customers shopping for interior plants or containers inevitably will encounter Down to Earth’s home décor offerings. It’s by design, as the company aims to provide the total experience for customers looking to furnish their homes.
“You’re furnishing your home with plants; you’re furnishing your home with furniture; you’re furnishing your home with décor and we believe that’s all one piece,” Leventhal says.
Home décor benefited from the same pandemic boost as gardening, maybe more so.
“If you’re stuck at home for three months, you might say, ‘I don’t like that painting,’” says Candace Moffatt, gift and holiday buyer for Al’s Garden Center in Oregon. “With people being more indoors and the focus on that, our business has been incredible.”
Home décor has been a growth area for Al’s Garden Center, especially in 2020. And there are no signs of slowing down. In fact, Moffatt says her indoor area has seen double-digit growth through the first few weeks of 2021.
Leventhal says the home décor segment has grown steadily at his business as well. “As time passes and people respect our offerings, it becomes more and more obvious to them that even if they’re just going to someone’s home for dinner and they want to bring a little gift that we’re a logical place to come to acquire that extra little bowl or set of glasses or a wall hanging.”
Themes and trends
One of the toughest parts of the home décor segment is deciding stocking levels. Unlike the plant side of the business, where an IGC knows how many hundreds of thousands of a particular plant it needs to stock, there’s more uncertainty with home décor. which responds to fashion trends that tend to be more volatile. At Down to Earth Living, Leventhal tries to be careful not to get caught holding a ton of items that were last year’s style. He cautions IGCs to not stock deeply and to stock only to the level that they can afford.
“As quickly as people fall in love with green, they can fall out of love with green,” he says. “And then everything you have in green and any green shades, you might as well just dump in the garbage.” The furniture market is very color-sensitive, Leventhal says, and it usually lags the fashion market by about a year. He says green was the hottest furniture color years ago, then it was supplanted by brown, which remains strong but has been displaced to an extent by gray. Leventhal also expects gray’s popularity to continue as Ultimate Gray joins Illuminating (yellow) as the Pantone Colors of the Year.
At Al’s Garden Center, Candace Moffatt breaks the area down into themes, then by color within the theme. Clustering items together that share similarities makes it easier for the customer to shop. The 2021 theme is ‘indoor oasis,’ which Moffatt describes as a natural modern feel with a color palette that includes lots of greens, blacks and taupes. It utilizes natural woods and highlights succulents.
“Once you cluster that together, I do think it’s very enticing for the customers,” she says. “It’s very easy for them to shop. If you just don’t like green, you don’t go to the green section.”
Another theme at Al’s Garden Center is called ‘South of Province,’ which has pops of green, white, lemon and orange for more of a citrus feel. Moffatt developed that theme around lemon, which has been particularly popular for a few years now.
With Illuminating, one of the 2021 Pantone Colors of the Year, being yellow, Al’s Garden Center is anticipating even more interest in that theme from shoppers.
“When you really break down the themes, it’s color,” she says. “So yellow is a Pantone color of the year. So within it for the home décor, we have a lemon wreath or lemon candles, yellow silk, a yellow table runner. There are house pillows with little sunflowers with a pop of yellow, and pots too.”
From items that have the yellow color to items that are related to the citrus fruit by scent, the idea is to have a one-stop shop for customers.
“For gift giving, it’s really nice,” Moffatt says. “If you need a quick gift, it’s all in one area, so you can kind of get that look all in one place.”
Monica Holst is the merchandising and floor manager for Wallace’s Garden Center, in Bettendorf, Iowa. Whether it’s art, pillows, vases, or other home décor items, Holst also arranges her sections by theme. When a customer sees the section you’ve painstakingly designed, not only will they be convinced to shop that look, but they will be more willing to buy multiple items because you’ve shown them how they can work well together.
“I like people to look at that and say, ‘Hey, this could be my whole living room. I’m buying 20 of these pieces,’” Holst says.
Moffatt and Leventhal both tout the Atlanta Market, but this year much of the shopping has been done virtually. Holst also shops multiple vendors and credits HGTV for pushing several trends forward.
“Even last year, yellow was such a nice little pop,” Moffatt says. “Here in Oregon today it’s super gray and rainy and yellow is such a happy color. It does make a big pop of spring in your house, and outside too, if you’re planting.
As far as other trends, Holst says the industrial look is hot in Iowa. Gold is the top trending color, although the neutral palette and the “greige” look is still very popular. Anything to do with houseplants is selling, even pillows with houseplants stitched onto them.
Moffatt runs reports every Monday to see if she needs to reorder items. Al’s Garden Center has four different stores and she always tests new and trendy items at the Beaverton store first.
It’s the largest store, and the closest to metro Portland, and the most receptive to trends so it serves as the bellwether. If it does well there, and the sell-through numbers look good, she’ll roll it out to the smaller stores.
One important metric to track with home décor items is price point. At Al’s Garden Center, Moffatt says you have to know your market. At her more rural stores, she encounters more price resistance. She can test items in the high-to-elite tier at the Beaverton store where customers are willing to spend more.
“Because they’re looking for something very special and unique, price isn’t an issue,” she says.
In the home décor market, once an item hits that $80 to over $100 price point, it’s a tougher sell. Even if it’s a beautiful and well-made container. However, there are examples of items at that elite price point that can still be successful. Moffatt purchased a series of kinetic spinners that ranged from $100 to $300 depending on size. They sold well initially, so when it was time to re-order, she tested them in all of her stores.
“It was just a win all around,” she says. “That’s something I initially probably wouldn’t have bought for everybody.”
Display: the silent salesperson
Make sure you have someone on your staff who is very attuned to color, shape and display.
“Presentation is the coin of the realm,” Leventhal says. “You must make the displays a gravitational point for customers in your store. Without display, you can present the finest goods in the world and you won’t sell them.”
Holst agrees that presentation is key to increasing multi-item spend. Around Christmas, a customer came into Wallace’s Garden Center looking for a loveseat. She ended up buying two chairs, the matching dining set and some of the accessories as well. “She said, ‘This is how I want my home to look,’” Holst says.
That sort of multiple buy is a triumph of presentation. It makes the work that goes into building a themed décor section worth it.
By design, the home décor market contains many types of items. It can be overwhelming for shoppers. But the thematic layout can make it easier. Instead of shopping for a specific small item, stores can break it down to lemon or citrus, for example, then go from there to help customers achieve a more cohesive look.
To make that happen, Al’s Garden Center has an in-staff visual team and contracts designers to showcase it, especially at Christmas. The goal is a cohesive theme that is consistent across stores that does not look like it’s just tossed out onto shelves.
“There’s a thought process, there’s a plan behind it,” Moffatt says.
And when it’s done right, you can see the results. Customers go straight to the section they’re interested in, and it results in more multiple sales.
Another important factor to presentation is be cognizant of what your competition provides. Then, make certain you’re presenting goods that are reflecting the uniqueness of your store and what you perceive the taste of your customers to be.
Holst suggests IGCs should devote a section near the front of their store to home décor — too close to the greenhouse and your staff will be spending a lot of time cleaning dust and dirt from your merchandise. As you move back in the store, you can weave in garden accent décor pieces, items for which a little dirt won’t hinder a sale.
One pitfall Leventhal cautions IGCs to avoid is sacrificing quality for price. If you make that compromise at your store, you’re competing with box stores, outlets and anyone else that sells home décor goods.
Currently, the top trending items at Down to Earth Living are candles and candlesticks. After two booming years, succulents have cooled off.
Popular items at Wallace’s Garden Center include pillows, picture frames, candlesticks and furniture. Holst never uses any items in her displays that aren’t for sale.
As Wallace’s sales of dining sets and sofas has increased, it’s become easier to merchandise around those items. Instead of glass shelves holding all the items, she uses the larger home décor items themselves to showcase the littler pieces.
“It’s more work, because you’re selling a cabinet, then you’re taking everything out of it, but you’ve got a sale that you never would have had for a thousand dollars,” she says.