Collaboration over competition

Departments - Straight Talk | Honest insights from an IGC expert

With the right strategies, collaborating with local garden centers can maximize your advertising budget while building a community partnership.

September 13, 2022

Working with other local garden centers can help you create a network of customers who shop local instead of spending their dollars at big-box stores.
Photo © VisionPro | Adobe Stock

What’s one likely thing you and your competing independent garden centers share? Your customers. While gardening enthusiasts typically confer their loyalty on one favored garden center, the reality is our customers shop around at multiple IGCs to meet all their gardening needs. Gardeners don’t just IGC hop out of necessity to find what we’re looking for; they also just find it fun to pop into different retailers to see what’s new. Recognizing that you and your neighboring garden centers are simultaneously catering to the same customer — and a similar ideal target customer — can be a big opportunity for you: if you don’t let your competitive nature get in the way.

While it’s tempting to think of other garden centers in your market as competitors, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with a little healthy competition, we operate in a “we all rise together” sort of industry. At least in my opinion and experience. Rather than thinking in terms of competition, you might shift your mindset to cultivating community connections and partnerships. Can you and other local garden centers work together as partners in marketing to build a network all your shared customers rely on so they can skip the mass merchants altogether?

As we face recession — or are already technically in a recession — I’m sure many of you are tempted to or have already cut your marketing budgets. Dollars spent on marketing are often the first to be sacrificed from IGC budgets when times get tough. Unfortunately, this can be one of the worst times to pull back on your messaging despite consumer concerns about inflation or the economy in general. When you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind, and it’s much tougher to work your way back into your customer’s consciousness once they’ve forgotten about you. If you’re considering slashing your marketing budget or already have, you might want to consider how to collaborate with other retailers to make bigger collaborative ad buys.

It's always struck me how many of our potential target customers in the garden center industry can’t really define an independent garden center. When asked what a garden center is, new gardeners often respond with “Home Depot” or “Lowe’s.” I’m still not sure that, as an industry, we’ve done a good enough job at exposing newer consumers to and educating them about IGCs; or how to differentiate between them and mass merchants. This is one major area I think garden centers could collaborate on to elevate the value of perception for all our products and services.

If you’re apprehensive about approaching or working with other IGCs with whom you feel you “compete,” I suggest first taking a step back to review your company mission statement and brand identity. Would partnering with other garden retailers in any way violate your mission? Likely not. Most IGCs share similar values and goals, most of which have nothing to do with putting anyone else out of business. No one business can help all the people all the time. When multiple IGCs partner up to work on collaborative marketing efforts and events in their respective communities, it creates opportunities for each of them to better bolster their individual brand identities and offer clarity to customers when it comes to differentiation.

When I ran an IGC in Dallas, I always dreamed of getting a garden center hop event going with other local garden centers in my area. I never could seem to get the buy-in from other businesses, but such collaborative events not only offer opportunities for big brand exposure, but the perfect opportunity to recruit new interested customers seeking unique experiences. Think of it like a tour of multiple local artist studios or restaurant hopping during restaurant week. These types of businesses collaborate all the time to create fun interactive and intensely promoted events that allow customers to experience and sample all their wares. Chances are your customers are hitting more than one IGC on any given Saturday anyway…why not work together and incentivize them to stop by yours as part of a collaborative event?

Photo © Dilok | Adobe Stock

Again, if you’re slashing your marketing budgets then consider pooling resources to expand your buying power when it comes to paid advertising. Of course, you always want to partner with other retailers who align with your brand and products. Look for companies that share a value system with your company. Authenticity is crucial for meaningful community involvement.

With freight limitations, costs and supply chain issues causing plenty of pain the last few years, have you considered teaming up with other retailers on meeting order minimums and filling trucks together? Partnering up on ordering needs can be a successful solution for receiving smaller, more regular orders from vendors who need to fill big trucks before they’ll head your way.

Interacting proactively with your local business community, neighboring IGCs and related retailers gives you a chance to gain exposure to customers who share interests and will value what you have to offer. When it comes to closely allied services, such as landscaping, tree planting or irrigation services that you may not offer, consider developing a well-vetted partner referral program. Work with your business referrals to offer collateral incentives for trading business with shared customers.

Of course, you aren’t limited to partnering with other garden centers; there are plenty of other types of retailers and restaurants with whom you share customers, or potential customers.

Your customers choose to buy you when they connect to the value you can offer them and see themselves reflected in your brand. The same goes for any other business with whom you share an ideal target customer. Partnering up not only gives you access to a new customer base, but also new market voice and share.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural and business consulting, as well as product development and branding for green industry companies. She is also a horticulture instructor, industry writer and book author. Find out more at