When it comes to the customer experience, Shelmerdine Garden Centre (No. 90 on the Top 100 Independent Garden Centers List) is taking extra steps to include more than just a typical transaction. Nicole Bent, owner and president of the Winnipeg, Manitoba, garden center, has added some new initiatives to her business playbook since the gardening boom of 2020. These initiatives range from launching a plastics recycling event to starting a bulk material re-bagging program. She’s also added designer pumpkins to the IGC’s fall lineup. It’s been quite a busy few years for Shelmerdine, and we caught up with Bent to learn how these bold strategies became successes for the Canadian garden center.
Outsmarting the supply chain
One of Bent’s most significant initiatives last year — and the one she was most excited to try — was a bulk material re-bagging program achieved through purchasing items wholesale and selling them in Shelmerdine-branded bags. Describing it as “a labor of love,” Bent spent an entire year researching and developing the program’s logistics, which was born out of two primary goals — the first focused on employee retention.
“Rather than laying key staff off during the summer and winter, the re-bagging program helps us to bridge our seasons and retain staff,” she says. The re-bagging program successfully fills that gap, and now employees help weigh the bulk materials and discuss the best sizes and prices for the customer. Decisions bounce around the team for deliberation, and once made, the team gets to work on re-bagging the items, Bent says.
The other reason Bent wanted to start the re-bagging program was to better market the Shelmerdine-branded products.
“I wasn’t very happy with the quality and pricing of many of our staple products and potting mediums. So, I decided that we would try out purchasing in bulk, re-bagging them using our own branded packaging, and voila!” she says. “Our customer trusts us more than any other brand, otherwise they wouldn’t be in our store. It has been a lot of research, sourcing and work on my end, but the margins are definitely worth it.”
She notes that it has strengthened Shelmerdine’s staff retention, brand recognition and product value. An additional benefit? The re-bagging program has also reduced Shelmerdine’s reliance on vendors.
“It’s actually quite easy to source bulk materials, and I found that bringing in bagged items takes more time. And oftentimes, the freight is higher because there’s loose space in between bags, so it saves on freight. It’s just all around a better product, better margin, better branding and keeps your staff employed,” Bent says.
Shelmerdine currently offers 15 to 20 SKUs of re-bagged products, some of which include rooting compound, perlite, vermiculite, iron sulfate, lava rocks, sand, drainage stones, orchid mixes and clay pebbles.
“I'm constantly going, ‘What else can we re-bag?’ I want to do a bonsai mix next. We'll probably be doing grass seed because the price of [bagged] grass seed is so high, but bulk is quite reasonable,” she says.
Buying in bulk has also helped in a creative pinch, especially when securing hard-to-find orchid clips — or, in Bent’s case, mini hair clips from Amazon repurposed into orchid clips.
Moving forward, Bent hopes to work with a local soil vendor so that the IGC can start to bag its line of indoor potting soils and custom mixes. Since taking the plunge, Bent owes it all to mindset: “We should learn from the lessons that the pandemic taught us, right?” she says with a laugh. “And not just learn — but act on.”
A community effort
Another goal Bent focused on was initiating a plastics recycling event, which she launched two years. Bent was inspired by fellow IGC owner Bernie Whetter, owner of The Greenspot Home & Garden.
“I have to give credit to Greenspot, who is located two hours away from us. They found an independent, local business [Lewis Material Reclamation] who chips plastics and then resells it to be used in new products, diverting it from landfills. Our city, like most, doesn’t accept No. 6 plastics. We’ve worked with our local growers, so growers’ pots and their specific trays that we collect will be returned to them,” she says.
Because Manitoba’s gardening season runs late, Shelmerdine hosts two recycling events: one in mid-June and one in mid-September, coordinating dates for when customers will have the most pots to recycle.
This June’s recycling event was the IGC’s most successful yet, and at the end of the weekend, Shelmerdine diverted nearly 10 pallets of condensed, stacked plastics from the landfill. The event has also helped improve customer education and awareness around plastic pots because there are so many questions regarding the different categories of plastics, she says.
“A question we got asked a lot is if we're taking plastic plus from other garden centers as well. And of course, by all means. It's not about loyalty to one specific garden center. It's about keeping these plastics out of the landfill. They can be used for a new product,” she says
Shelmerdine marketed the event through social media and newsletters to maximize pot collections, heavily promoting the dates. Bent recalls a similar recycling program the IGC hosted a few years ago, but customers dropped their plastics off at their convenience instead of a specific date. As a result, plastics began piling up at the front door, and it soon became a chore to deal with the drop-offs. Now, customers know to mark their calendars.
“The parking lot was full — normally at this time of year, our sales would be falling off a little bit. I was really happy with how many people were drawn to the store. And then of course we give them a 20% off coupon and then that gets them in the door, hopefully picking up a few last-minute annuals that they might tuck into the garden,” she says.
Recycling helps the IGC in its sustainability efforts and helps cut costs for everyone. Bent says that checking in with their growers during annual summer meetings was another way to improve their plastic recycling efforts and quickly found that after asking if they wanted their trays and pots back, she was met with a resounding "Yes!”
“The cost of a tray isn't 30 cents anymore. You’re looking at a pallet of stacked trays. You’re looking at thousands of dollars there. So, I’m really happy that we’re collecting their trays and returning them. It’s another side arm of diverting plastics from the landfill as well,” she says.
On the whole, Bent believes plastics and other packaging are a concern for the industry. While there are some innovations like biodegradable growing pots, it’s not enough, she says — especially when retailers end up eating the cost of the materials like cardboard, paper bags and trays, she says.
“You can easily look at a shopping cart that leaves your store and go, ‘There's $3 to $5 just gone on packaging out the door,’” she says. So, to cover those costs, Shelmerdine decided to charge for packaging. In addition, Bent hoped it would encourage people to get creative and bring in their own crates and bags and collectively — consumers and retailers together — reduce the amount of packaging.
However, they scrapped the plan because the season started so late. Enacting such a new policy would have slowed down the lines, and Bent feared the customer pushback. However, it’s something she plans on sticking to down the road.
“We love our customers as garden centers, and we work so hard to build and keep relationships with them that we’re afraid to upset them if we charge for packaging,” she says. “Whereas it might gain respect for you. They might say, ‘Hey, you know what? I understand that. They’re a business too, and they’re not doing this to make money. They’re trying to reduce packaging for the planet.’”
Extending the season
One of the more colorful ventures Shelmerdine embarked on in 2021 was the introduction of designer pumpkins. In the fall of 2020, Bent pored over seed catalogs, hunting for softer-hued tones like white, pale greens and blues, and cantaloupe orange.
“Those muted tones are what designers were kind of working with, and what I was seeing trending. And so those are the varieties that I gravitated toward, and also flat ones, like stackers,” she says.
After carefully selecting the varieties, ordering the seeds and providing them to one of their local pumpkin growers, September couldn’t come fast enough. When the shipments finally arrived, Bent recalls staff members squealing with excitement over the unique varieties. Then, after deciding on the best marketing and display strategies, Bent and her team opted to price pumpkins by their perceived value.
“I change their varietal names to fun, more marketable names, like Cat’s Eye and Houndstooth. We used to price pumpkins by the pound, but now we price it by the pumpkin,” she says. “We wash each pumpkin, gauge its ‘cool’ factor and its size, and write the price on the bottom accordingly.”
The pumpkins were an immediate hit, and customers spent hours selecting the perfect pumpkin. The unique, eye-catching varieties were a great way to show off on Instagram and capture a prized demographic.
“Fall is the new spring — that season especially seems to resonate with millennials for some reason, and it’s so photographically beautiful,” she says. “So, by being the coolest pumpkin store in town, we’ll attract the influencers, saves and shares!”
Before the pandemic, Shelmerdine hosted a Kid's Fun Zone every fall, an indoor amusement park that drew thousands of people and bolstered sales during the autumn season. The designer pumpkin patch was a way to attract customers in lieu of the event, but this year, Bent plans on doing both for 2022 — a double sales whammy, she says.
“As a garden center, you’ve got to try new things. Don’t just think of it as fall. It's like, ‘No, let's take this to next level fall,’” she says.