Make your IGC sense-sational

Departments - Retail Revival | Store improvement tips from the Garden Lady

Show your customers that plants are more than a sight for sore eyes by appealing to all five senses.

February 7, 2022

Appeal to the senses with displays customers can taste, touch, see, hear or smell, like this Herbal
Petting Zoo created by the staff at Hyannis Country Garden on Cape Cod.

We’ve all watched how customers behave in the rose section of the nursery. First, they look for flowers on the shrubs and make a beeline toward those blooms. Next, they bend down to smell them. Whether a rose has fragrance or not, our impulse is to put our nose into that flower.

Every IGC is in the plant and garden profession, but we’re also in the “sense-selling business.” Information about a plant’s ultimate size, shape or hardiness is interesting, but it’s data for the head. How a plant appeals to the senses, however, is information that goes right to the heart. Compare this to the cookies or cheeses you might have sampled at a grocery store; the ingredients and calorie count might be important to us, but if we love the taste, that’s how the box of cookies or chunk of cheese ends up in our cart.

Just as tasting a sample prompts us to buy something in the grocery, the color and fragrance of the flowers often sell the plants. So how can we make sure that our customers have a sense-sational experience at our garden center? Here are a few ideas.


People often pinch a leaf on the herb table and smell it, but how we group these plants can be a reminder of their value in the garden. Putting plants that are more known for their scent than their culinary value together can better sell them. Label this bench or table the “Aromatherapy Section.” The lemon verbena, pineapple sage and scented geraniums can be placed there and customers will instantly understand that the scent of these plants will make them feel good.

The aromatherapy theme and signage can also be used for shrubs or perennials, or in an endcap display that combines the two. You can get even more specific, and offer “Aromatherapy for the COVID Cranky,” or “Fragrance for the Firepit.”


You don’t have to offer samples of food to appeal to your customers’ sense of taste. Everyone is familiar with the experience of thinking about a favorite food and finding that their mouth starts to water. Our brains are so able to imagine the flavors that we begin to salivate from the thoughts alone. IGCs can engage their customers’ minds in ways that rope in their sense of taste as well.

Just as you can group herbs that are good for aromatherapy, you can put herbs or vegetables together with signage that reminds people of the power of their flavors. “Pizza and Pasta Night Plants” can feature the basils, oreganos and parsley, with a side of arugula. Marjoram, tarragon, thyme, sage and rosemary might be on a bench labeled “Flavors for Chicken and Fish,” and mints and basils with a sign reading “For Cocktails or Tea.”

Before things get hectic in the spring, create some lists of the plants that are most important for fragrance and flavor, grouped according to their most popular use, and have those PDF shopping lists ready to download from your website. “Flavors for Foodies,” “Cocktail Ingredients” and “Fragrant Plants for Decks and Patios” are just a few ideas to post on your website or social media.


Create a section or an endcap with a sign that reads “Plants That Feel Fantastic.” Soft leaves such as lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) are a natural, of course, but there are others that people love to touch. Fiber optic grass (Isolepis cernua) or Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) beg to be stroked, and many Artemisia are not only soft but also fragrant.

Displays that encourage customers to touch the plants are great for families since kids get quite excited about how things feel. You might even organize a special area made for children and adults where the theme is “Please Touch the Plants!” Some years ago, at my garden center, we created an Herbal Petting Zoo. Any employee who wanted to contribute made an animal that included herbs. These were labeled with fanciful names and displayed in a temporary enclosed area on strips of sod. Animals were created out of flowerpots and assorted garden center cast-offs, and the display included Sage the Ageless Turtle, Pesto the Basil Beast and Lavender the Perfumed Peacock.


Some garden centers are fortunate enough to have music piped throughout the property, but if yours isn’t one of those, there are other ways to appeal to public’s sense of hearing. Hanging bells or wind chimes in selected areas are ways to pleasantly counteract the sound of forklifts, as well as showcase the chimes you have for sale.

If your IGC stocks fountains or water garden supplies, be sure to have some filled and running where customers can hear the sound of falling water. Signage might point out that placing such fountains on decks or porches can mask or distract from street noises and neighbors.

A sage turtle at the Herbal Petting Zoo created by the staff at Hyannis Country Garden on Cape Cod


This is the easiest sense for garden centers to appeal to since a good portion of our stock is eye candy. Bright blocks of color, big flowers and brilliant foliage are what we sell. Yet we can surprise and delight our customers with periodic shakeups in the same-old, same-old. Consider painting some older displays with different, unexpected colors. Declare a time and space for people who are passionate about purple or tickled pink. Line pots of flowering perennials up like a rainbow or a circular mandala. And as you put such colorful combinations together, be sure to include a bench where people can sit and take selfies among what you’ve created. Invite those who follow you on social media to take pictures to post.

You might even make one small area of the garden center the “Sense-sational Section” for the coming season. Appoint several employees to take charge of creating a different monthly display that appeal to one of the senses in that space.

The French novelist Honoré de Balzac wrote that “Love is the poetry of the senses,” but we might argue that the same could be said about plants.

C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at