Do-it-for-me has earned an entirely new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of our gardening customers have had no choice but to let us do it for them during stay-at-home orders and required quarantines. A desire to stay connected to nature and reduce stress with gardening has kept our customers engaged with us, and demand for our products high. Meeting that demand, however, has proved challenging for most garden centers.
When I originally scheduled this column topic, I was going to deep dive into some concepts and strategies for developing your own plant concierge service — a topic I’ve discussed multiple times. Let’s just say I’m a big fan of personal shopping. Alas, that was before the pandemic. As it turns out, IGCs were forced to adapt overnight this spring to handle remote orders from customers for curbside pickup or delivery. Not having an e-commerce platform in place was — and still is — a massive stumbling block for many businesses.
While some garden centers had to close their doors altogether for a period of time, others that were allowed to operate struggled to handle the volume of call-in or online orders; partially due to technology limitations but also because of the need for social distancing with their staff. Some also limited labor to one person only at the facility to put together orders for shipment or delivery.
Pandemic aside, valuing your customers’ time by offering some form of personal shopping service is and always will be a smart strategy. Shortening the lines at your cash register in spring — not to mention freeing up parking spaces — while increasing your sales and margins is always a good thing. You also improve the in-house customer experience and reduce stress for your frontline staff.
As an intense indoor and outdoor gardener, I’m no stranger to mail-order plants. Let me tell you, my online plant purchases went WAY up during the shutdown. I know many other gardeners who also followed suit. Wouldn’t you rather I place some of those orders online with you, my local garden center, rather than a grower on the other side of the country? Trick is, you must make it super easy for me. If you aren’t going to put your live inventory online, then you at least need a way for me to easily submit a list of my “wants” through your website, email or text message. I will not call you and sit on hold. You then need dedicated staff to shop and pull that order for me. Finally, a good local delivery service and an organized system for local customer pickups is a must.
If you haven’t yet come up with a good reason to invest in a smartphone app for your garden center, a personal shopping system alone is a good enough reason. Even if you do not offer full e-commerce or a live inventory, creating an app to facilitate remote orders for local customer delivery and pickup would be fantastic.
Moving forward, personal shopping is not going to just be smart, it is also probably going to be mandatory and part of our new normal. Do not assume that after all “this has passed,” you’ll be able to ditch digital and remote orders and go back to your standard form of business operations altogether. You must look to the future and accept that new generations of customers have now been trained to maintain more social distance and do more shopping remotely. It is unlikely people are going to drop these new habits quickly or completely.
Yes, many customers will want to get back out into the world at some point and do in-person shopping. In many ways, we’ve created a transactional society in America — one in which shopping constitutes socializing and community participation for many. But this pandemic is not only going to transform our shopping habits but potentially, our priorities and how we view consumerism and time spent with family. More importantly, many of our customers have spent their mandatory time at home getting back in touch with — or discovering a new enthusiasm for — gardening and spending time outdoors. Let us make sure our customers do not lose that available gardening time by forcing them to go back to in-person shopping only.
When customers can spend less time driving around to multiple garden centers to find plants and garden supplies, they can spend more time on actual garden activities and with their houseplants. This makes for both a more invested and successful gardener who is likely to spend more with you. That’s exactly the kind of customer you need to cultivate — even if it is from a socially acceptable distance.
Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com
Whether we’re at work, in the garden center or at home, most of us carry the world in our pockets. The smartphone that we’ve gotten so attached to keeps us constantly connected to friends and family, the weather, traffic reports, our photo library and more. Yet many forget that it’s also a fantastic tool for the promotion of your business. For an IGC, three or more team members can form a dynamic marketing department when armed with their smartphones and a defined schedule of responsibilities.
Easier social networking
If your IGC is on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, it’s an easy matter to post frequent photos to your social accounts. The key is to make it someone’s job description. Go for photos of “wow!” plants, with an emphasis on close-ups of flowers. Don’t use “hard sell” messages like “Now on sale!” or “Come and get them!” Instead, post the picture with the name of the plant and, if you have one, a company motto, your company’s account or hashtag. Consider things such as #HappinessBlooms @XYZCompany, #WhatsMakingUsSmile or #SeenAtXYZCompany.
In addition to eye-catching plants, photos of people enjoying themselves make great social posts. If you’ve caught customers or fellow employees in a good shot, be sure to ask their permission to post them. Some parents are especially protective of their children in this way, so always show the picture to the adults and get their consent.
Some IGCs want a newsletter but have difficulty finding the time to write one. Others have a newsletter but may struggle about what content to include. In these cases, sending out regular emails that simply contain five to nine photos can be a simple way of keeping in touch with your customers. Since people love content that gives an inside look, you might title such entries as “Last Week At XYZ Company,” or “XYZ Company at a Glance.”
Plant and product updates
Instead of telling your customers what is new, show them. The phrase a picture is worth a thousand words is a cliché because it’s true. So being in the habit of posting photos of new stock on your company blog, newsletter or social streams is a quick and easy way to tell the public what you’ve got in stock. You might make “#ThisJustUnloaded” or #FreshOffTheTruck” a frequent hashtag or subject line.
Many IGCs have a YouTube channel but struggle with providing ongoing content. We all love the idea of posting how-to information, but deciding who will produce it, gathering the visual aides and making the video takes time. So this way to market often gets pushed to the back burner.
Instead of instructional pieces, consider having customers or employees tell you what they like about a particular plant they’ve found at the garden center. If one of your clients has had a great experience that day, ask if they’d be willing to be quickly recorded speaking about their visit. Short and sweet clips are usually better anyway, as many studies show that videos 45 to 90 seconds are ideal.
Who and when
Using a smartphone for your store’s marketing is no different than unloading the trucks and watering thirsty plants. Tasks like these are best set in someone’s job description and weekly planning, and marketing follows suit. Write up guidelines for how often a team member should be taking photos or videos, acceptable subject matter and where they’ll be posted.
By using two or more staff members, you’ll get assorted points of view because different plants, products and people will be of interest to each individual. And by being clear about who is responsible for the visual promotion of the business on which days, the marketing of your IGC will flow smoothly.
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 www.GardenLady.com
When Garden Center explored the emerging Do-It-For-Me (DIFM) movement in late 2016, forward-thinking independent garden centers were already responding to consumer preferences for convenience-related services. Though Do-It-Yourself (DIY) was thriving, IGC customers were hungry for services that would save time and improve results.
National Retail Federation (NRF) research on consumers and convenience, released early this year, solidified the significance of this trend. Katherine Cullen, NRF senior director of industry and consumer insights, explains that that ‘convenience’ began bubbling up in consumer data, where price and quality had ruled before, prompting the new research. “Convenience was starting to become a key component of how consumers were looking at value,” she says.
Among the illuminating results, NRF research found that many consumers don’t understand how important convenience is to them until it’s absent: While consumers note quality and price as the most important factors in buying decisions, 97% say that inconvenience has caused them to back out of a purchase they had planned. In addition, 52% of consumers say the convenience factor influences more than half their purchases.
Data says it wasn’t always this way. More than eight out of 10 consumers in the NRF research say that convenience is more important in shopping than it was five years ago. To top that, more than 90% say they are more likely in some degree to choose a retailer based on convenience — with 33% significantly more likely to choose their retailer with convenience in mind.
Cullen points out that consumers vary in how they personally interpret convenience. And, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has redefined convenience for ICGs everywhere. But as the meaning of convenience evolves, so do the buying decisions of the convenience-attuned consumers coming through your IGC’s digital and physical doors.
Factors behind the convenience trend
If you’ve been listening to consumers, it’s not surprising that NRF researchers found that more than one-third of consumers feel they have less free time now than five years ago. “Consumers say that things like work and family and commuting were all taking up more and more of their time,” Cullen says. But the perceived need to compensate for lost time is only one factor driving consumer desire for convenience and DIFM.
Alonso Johnson, general manager of The Gazebo garden center at New Garden Landscaping & Nursery in Greensboro, North Carolina, believes lack of experience intensifies time restraints and makes education an essential convenience service.
“A lot of people don’t know the questions to ask or don’t feel comfortable asking the questions,” Johnson says. The IGC’s “Weekend Warrior Workshops,” social media videos and other educational resources conveniently help fill the void.
Bobby Lewis, vice president at Washington, D.C.-area Meadows Farms Nurseries & Landscape, views consumers’ precious free time from an uncommon perspective. Lewis says that, though IGCs often talk about competing with Home Depot and “other mom-and-pops like us,” the real competition during normal times comes from soccer games and family activities with the kids.
With pandemic restrictions on school and other activities, Lewis says the essential IGC’s 18 retail locations won big. “Our main competition as far as leisure time has been completely taken away and allowed us to dominate in a way. It’s almost like we’re the only show in town,” he says.
Cullen agrees that COVID-19 has put a new spin on retail. “The coronavirus pandemic obviously has kind of put a halt to the period of economic expansion we were in,” she says. “But it’s actually accelerated some of these trends that were coming out as a result of convenience.” In addition, she points out, safety and convenience have become linked.
BOPIS takes the lead
For many retailers, Buy Online Pick up In Store (BOPIS) has become a standard part of doing business — one directly tied to the need for convenience and speed. According to NRF research, 70% of consumers say BOPIS improves their shopping experience. Cullen adds that, as of March, 77% of consumers say they have tried BOPIS and more than one-third of those consumers say their use is directly related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Cullen explains that many older, less digitally savvy consumers are BOPIS newcomers. “They’re finding that things like Buy Online Pick up In Store or home delivery are not just safe, but they’re convenient,” she explains. “People are trying it now because they have to or they’re more concerned about safety, but they’re discovering that they really like it and it’s really convenient for them.”
In past years, many garden retailers expressed doubt about whether consumers would order plants online, sight unseen. IGCs that invested in e-commerce are ahead of the game as consumers swarm garden center websites, but even IGCs without online ordering are finding innovative BOPIS avenues, including social media and web-posted availability and email ordering.
Cullen emphasizes that purchasing is only part of the BOPIS equation. Online, convenience matters most during early research phases of the shopping experience. In store, convenience matters most at the final checkout or pickup stage.
Convenience requires that consumers know in advance where and how to check out or pickup easily — whether that’s at a register, a special kiosk, customer service desk or curbside. And, incidentally, though convenience services are most prevalent in urban areas, NRF research found almost no difference between urban and rural areas when looking at BOPIS.
Curbside pickup and delivery
Curbside pickup, one BOPIS option, has special significance in the shadow of COVID-19, but this convenience service was enjoying pre-pandemic popularity. Especially favored by young parents with kids in tow, curbside pickup appeals just as much when rounding up annual flats and pollinator plants instead of cereals and snacks.
Johnson says that adding curbside pickup as part of The Gazebo’s pandemic response was enlightening. He plans to keep the service after the pandemic subsides. “We’re working through the kinks, but it’s really working out,” he says. “We found that this is a service we should have been offering all along, especially for elderly or clients with disabilities.
Meadows Farms’ curbside order system was created specifically in case the retail locations were closed as non-essential businesses under COVID-19 restrictions, which fortunately didn’t occur. Lewis describes in-store traffic this spring as “intense,” with curbside pickup now available only to the IGC’s VIP Rewards members. Without e-commerce capabilities or online availability, the service has been challenging. But Lewis sees its merit.
“People are used to ordering without touching or feeling. It’s become more normal and the trend is to shop online,” he says. “I think you have to be able to facilitate the entire retail environment versus saying, ‘Hey, we’re a nursery. We can’t do that.’ We can do that. … It’s hard to get used to, just like any change, but we can do it.”
When it comes to home delivery services, convenience reigns there, too. And don’t assume consumers expect delivery to be free. With expedited and same-day delivery services becoming widespread, consumers have gotten used to quick, easy delivery at a price.
NRF’s pre-COVID research found that 66% of consumers pay for at least one delivery shipping service. As of January, Amazon Prime alone had more than 150 million paid members worldwide. But another finding surprised even the NRF team: 25% of consumers pay for at least two delivery service memberships.
“That really stood out to us,” Cullen says. “That speaks again to that value consumers are placing on this experience. It is something consumers value and not just in terms of where they’re choosing to shop, but what they’re choosing to pay. It can influence that as well.”
Johnson says that The Gazebo’s $20 city-limit delivery service instituted two years ago led to increased sales of the service and the number of items purchased per sale. “We have had increased requests because of COVID-19,” he says.
Convenience-driven DIFM and DIY
For many IGCs, custom container design and planting has been a steady moneymaker for years now. Rather than buying pots and plants for home planting, more and more consumers turn to IGCs to design, plant, grow and deliver finished creations. But Johnson says The Gazebo experiences a growing demand for a DIFM-DIY blend.
“We’ve seen a change in demographics, definitely a younger millennial crowd coming in,” he says. “They are DIYers. They prefer to do it themselves, but they need a little assistance.” In response, the IGC created a convenient “planting bar” — especially popular with younger consumers, who bring children and plant up pots in-store. An older, more affluent demographic prefers the convenience of custom pots, done at their home and switched out every season.
Meadows Farms started offering container consultant Sharon Hadden’s Grab & Go program last year. “We’ve started doing that more aggressively this year,” Lewis says. “It’s been hard to keep up with getting the potting done more than anything.”
DIFM landscape plans and plantings have also been on the upswing. Meadows Farms offers a “Pick and Plant” service designed to fill demand for small landscape jobs. Customers pick out the plants, but the planting is done for them. “Before the virus hit and going into this year, the momentum was all with install,” Lewis says. “People want it done for them. They’re very busy.”
Lewis expects interest in the service will grow as a new, post-pandemic normal emerges and the shift from DIY to DIFM continues. “It’s kind of an evolution. Customers do some stuff on their own and then want it to be better. Then they call the landscape department and get it professionally done and that gives it that really nice look,” he says.
The Gazebo also offers the convenience of a “You Pick, We Plant” service, but the star of the season is their “We Plan, You Plant” program. Previously an in-store service, the program involves customers providing pictures of their small-project sites and in-store designers creating personalized plans. Then customers pick up the plants and plant themselves.
Johnson decided last fall to offer take the “We Plan, You Plant” service online this year — just in time for COVID-19. “Going online has taken it to another level,” he says, pointing to added convenience for customers and designers.
Lewis shares how stressful this spring has been for Meadows Farms staff. “Our operation — not only the pure business, but how we’re doing business — is much more difficult than our usual year,” he says. But the IGC is firmly convinced and committed to convenience-related offerings.
Like Johnson, Lewis expects to keep convenience services added during pandemic times, albeit improved and more efficient. “No. 1, I think it will be a while before we get back to whatever normal is going to be, but I also think the demand will continue. It falls more in line with the Amazon-type ordering that I’m seeing growing so much,” he says. “I think those things are here to stay to a degree. People like the convenience of it.
“We’re going to continue to add seminars, workshops, activities for kids — all hard to do at the moment — but we’ll pick up the direction we were headed in,” Lewis adds. “We have to give them the convenience, and when they do come out, give them an experience. I think both those methods can be developed and do real well for us.”
Johnson says that making the customer experience as convenient as possible reinforces that The Gazebo is responsive to customer needs and desires. “People appreciate that we appreciate them,” he says. “We respect our customers and honor their suggestions so that we can grow and continue to do right by them.”
While retailers need to be nimble, Cullen also emphasizes being focused and informed about convenience and its role in retail’s future. As consumers experience and enjoy convenience innovations, whether related to COVID-19 or not, they expect their chosen retailers to follow suit.
“Understand the fact that this issue of convenience is happening across the retail landscape, and retailers of all sizes in all industries are rolling out these solutions. You have to be able to keep up with that,” Cullen says.
“But the other thing we would point out is that it’s important to relate this to your own business and your own brand and what works for you and your customers. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, but making sure that your customers have as frictionless an experience as possible.” The IGC that understands that wins.
The author is a freelance writer specializing in horticulture-related industries. Reach her at email@example.com
Having celebrated its 80th anniversary in April, Gray’s Garden Centers — with locations in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon — remains true to its roots as a full-service, community-focused garden center, while staying abreast of the latest in-demand services and trends.
It’s a recipe for success that has served the business well, from its earliest days as Gray’s Feed, launched by brothers Bob and Carlton Gray in April 1940, through its transition in name and focus to Gray’s Garden Centers in the 1970s and eventual ownership outside of the family, beginning in the early 1990s.
Current owner Scott Bocci — who had previously owned the business from 1998 through 2007 — repurchased Gray’s and reopened it after the company underwent bankruptcy in 2013.
Since then, business has been strong.
“Really for us, one of the keys is that we are a full-service garden center,” says General Manager Stuart Leaton, who has worked at Gray’s for 17 years. “We don’t necessarily have to specialize in one aspect or another. We have everything from annuals and perennials, to trees and shrubs, plus hard goods, pottery and a floral department.”
During typical seasons, the garden center hosts live music frequently throughout the year, along with a series of other events.
“We find, actually, that music on the weekends is a great way to keep people feeling relaxed and at home when they come in to shop,” Leaton says. “They tend to look around more. They’re not nearly as quick to come in and out.”
Gray’s annual Easter Egg hunt is another big driver of foot-traffic to its stores — with roughly 300 children participating across both locations each year.
Beyond these marquee events, the garden center often partners with local civic groups and nonprofits, including the Eugene Symphony Guild and local garden clubs, to host ticketed events on their grounds as well as garden tours and workshops off site. The garden center also teams with schools and nonprofit groups to host fundraising sales of both spring hanging baskets and winter wreaths, poinsettias and greenery.
“We do most of those fundraisers via coupon sales, so the groups actually distribute a coupon that then brings customers into the store [to pick up their products],” Leaton says.
“I think one of the things that makes Gray’s unique is that, as an independent garden center, we have two locations — one in each town — that are both very community-minded,” he says.
Leadership at Gray’s views the garden centers as one large team, rather than two separate businesses.
Staff at both locations attend an in-person, company-wide meeting at the beginning of each month at the Eugene store to discuss policies, product information, sale information, inventory management, maintenance and other issues. Staff at both locations also do a 10-minute conference call with one another to start each workday.
“One of the keys when you have two stores is realizing you’re all one company,” Leaton says.
Inventory for both locations — 90% of which is sourced from Oregon-based growers — is tracked through a single POS system. Vendors typically deliver to the Eugene location, and staff trucks needed inventory to the Springfield store.
“That way, we can be sure we’re offering a consistent product and consistent price across both locations,” Leaton says.
With around 20 employees at its Eugene location and six in Springfield, Gray’s staff represents a mix of ages from several core, long-term employees to younger, newer workers. The intentional staff diversity leverages Gray’s ability to offer customers just the type of service they’re looking for. Staff at Gray’s also work hard to gauge the level of service each customer is after — some want to pick their plants and go, while others want more tutorials and advice.
Gray’s also offers unexpected services, including Reed & Cross Floral, a full-service floral design and delivery department within its Eugene location. The floral department also offers live flowering and non-flowering plants as well as European-style dish gardens.
For DIYers, the garden center also offers its own line of branded soils, composts and fertilizers. “It’s a very focused thing,” Leaton says. “Obviously, you can’t brand every single thing in your store, but it is a big draw for people and helps build brand loyalty.”
Gray’s has found its customer newsletter to be a key marketing tool, allowing staff a ready platform to share gardening and plant knowledge.
Staff there also routinely lead classes, including popular make-and-take workshops and seasonally appropriate talks on a variety of topics.
“I like to make classes more like a Q&A session,” Leaton says. “Both during the classes and after, I try to make sure that everyone is able to get their questions answered — just to acknowledge their interest in coming.”
In the coming year, Leaton hopes to continue the garden center’s focus on maintaining and building its customer base by staying abreast of current trends and customer needs.
“Currently in our area, we’re doing a lot of house plants. Containers and deck-plantings have also been a long-running, popular trend for us,” he says.
The author is a freelance writer based in Kentucky and frequent contributor to Garden Center magazine.