New tools of the trade

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Cutting-edge programs and technologies to help retailers improve their customer service, sales, branding and local connections.


Local Plant Pro: connecting customers with IGC experts

For the past several years, Trent and Beth Mohlenbrock, who own Changing Seasons Landscape Center in Marion, Ill., have attended IGC Show Chicago to find new products and attend educational sessions, like many other retailers. This year, the Mohlenbrocks saw the show from a different perspective — as exhibitors behind the booth — because they were promoting their new app for independent garden centers, Local Plant Pro.

The app, which launched at Changing Seasons this past summer after a year of development and beta testing with two other IGCs, connects owners and staff with their customers, so that customers can ask questions (and include related photos) about plant care, pests and more from their smart phones. Garden centers can respond with plant or product ideas, and also send push notifications about frost alerts or sales directly to their customers. Their names and photos are included, so it’s a way to connect with customers before they even walk through the door. The app is designed to position IGCs as the local experts, and once a customer downloads the free app, it will direct them to their closest IGC that subscribes to Local Plant Pro. It’s both a customer service and a sales tool.

Beth Mohlenbrock, who has a background in IT and technology and developed the app, says she had her “light bulb” moment after reading about how important it is for the industry to connect with the next generation of gardeners and meet them where they are.

“I thought, well, they are on their phones,” Beth says. “When you read any kind of study, it’s overwhelming the percentage of transactions and activity the new generation is conducting on their cellphones. I put that together with customer service. Independent garden centers pride themselves on customer service, but the reality is there is a big gap in terms of what customers are expecting and what they want compared to what IGCs can deliver.”

Many customers turn to the internet when they have gardening questions, and though there is a vast amount of information, it is often inaccurate or not customized to their local area.

What makes Local Plant Pro different than a text, call or conversation on the sales floor is that the app tracks messages in the “My Plant Journal” feature, so that customers can refer back to that information later when they need it, and Changing Seasons can study those interactions.

“We can be a lot more proactive and anticipate what customers are wondering about, but [also] what they aren’t asking about,” Beth says.

Trent and Beth Mohlenbrock of Changing Seasons Landscape Center.

One unintended benefit of the journal is that it can be used as a training tool. Trent can see the back and forth between customers and staff, and he can and retrain in a particular area if questions were not answered properly.

Because of Beth’s background, developing the app was more cost-effective than it might be for other small, independent retailers.

“It’s very expensive to create a smart phone app, so we thought we’d create it in a way that we could resell it and allow other garden centers to employ this kind of technology without having those kind of upfront costs,” she says. “Trent, who has the horticultural background, was our reality check. There are all of these wonderful ideas in technology, but sometimes they aren’t functional. It’s really what an independent garden center would use, and it really speaks to [what they need.]”

The app was too new for the Mohlenbrocks to discuss user data or other statistics, and they launched it after the peak season in order to grasp the technology when business was slower, or as Beth says, to walk before they ran.

When a garden center signs up for a subscription with Local Plant Pro, which is only available on Apple products for now, the Mohlenbrocks also include marketing materials like counter cards with the IGC’s logo and branding on it, and an infographic for customers that shows them how to use the app. Customers have embraced it at Changing Seasons. Now the challenge will be getting other garden centers on board.

“I think some garden centers are scared of technology,” Trent says. “I had one [garden center owner] say his customers are all older, why would he need an app. And I was just thinking well, what about your new customers in the future?” — Michelle Simakis

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The Perfect Plant: the matchmaker

It’s often said that when new customers enter independent garden centers, they are overwhelmed with the options. Selection and variety are hallmarks of plant retailers, but they can also bewilder consumers, especially those new to gardening. Some are apprehensive to ask for help and don’t necessarily want a tour guide to shop for flowers. Sometimes customers can’t find the help they need, especially in spring.

Ken Klopp of the Marketing Garden says he has a solution to this and other customer service issues at independent retailers with a program he developed called The Perfect Plant. The Perfect Plant houses a customizable database of plants and products that customers can search by categories and solutions. For example, customers can use the touch screen kiosk to search by plant color, size, and other attributes to narrow down their choices. Based on what the customers select, plant options appear with images, growing information and suggested companion products the garden center recommends, like fertilizers and soil. The technology categorizes plants to help customers quickly find what they want, especially during busy seasons, when knowledgeable staff is short on time. It also includes regional weed and pest information along with suggested solutions.

“[IGCs often] have challenges with labor, budgets, technology and staffing — especially in peak season,” Klopp says. “A major concern garden centers have shared with us is finding people who want to work … much less have experience with gardening. From a customer standpoint, most are novices and overwhelmed with gardening in general. They also rely more and more on technology and want answers quickly.”

The Perfect Plant kiosk can help customers find plants based on categories like color, size and other attributes.

He first envisioned the idea back in 2007, and after some challenges, started beta testing the program during the spring of 2016. The Perfect Plant is a subscription service, and when IGCs sign up, they receive the kiosk, technology, updates, and customization to that store’s plants and product catalogue. Klopp also compiles data from searches on the kiosk to find trends and patterns for each of the garden centers he works with.

“They can use [the data] for seasonal trends and training purposes,” Klopp says. Part-time or less experienced employees can feel more helpful to customers by assisting them with the system and learn more about plants. “How it was used and what they were searching for can also be helpful with store displays and influence inventory decisions.”

The kiosk is adaptable, meaning garden centers can purchase a tabletop, standalone, wall-mounted, or portable option depending on their needs.

“Once we can help the customer in the store, if the garden center has a website, [eventually] our product can be integrated into their website as well,” he says. “Our focus is to help in store; that’s where the biggest need is.”

All garden centers need to house the system is power and an internet connection, Klopp says. The program just launched, but he says there are garden centers in 14 states looking to implement The Perfect Plant for the coming year. The best time to implement the technology is before the spring rush, he says, so staff can get familiar with the system, and so it’s in place during the busiest time.

Customers who use the program say it has improved their shopping experience, Klopp says.

“Consumers say, ‘This makes it so easy; I can actually find what I need and not walk around aimlessly,’” Klopp says. “We haven’t been connecting with them on this level before, and it’s desperately needed for our industry.”

— Michelle Simakis

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Plants Map: going beyond tags

What began as a way to organize disparate and scattered personal gardening information has expanded into a connected and thriving community of gardeners and businesses sharing knowledge and finding solutions together.

Back when Tracy Blevins and her husband, Bill, were new homeowners, Tracy struggled to organize the photos, notes and records she was taking to document her gardening efforts. Bill was having similar trouble when he started collecting conifers.

Plants Map allows customers to instantly access additional plant information in a store with a QR code scanner.

“The joke is that master gardeners obsess about how we killed our plants, and we like to keep notes about what killed them as well,” Tracy says with a laugh. “[Bill] wanted a solution that was mobile and that really enhanced his landscape. He wanted to be able to map his plants.”

Realizing that many public gardens and fellow home gardeners would also benefit from a system for tracking their plant information, the Blevins launched Plants Map in 2014. Today, Plants Map provides retailers with a collection of plant tags, signs, stakes and tree mounts for displaying plant information and QR codes that customers can scan for additional background info, photos and growing tips on each product.

However, Plants Map goes beyond the tag and sign service with a digital network where both businesses and customers can create user profiles on with “organization” or “individual” profiles. Users of either variety can build “collections” of plants; individuals use these collections to keep track of what they have already planted and what they’re interested in planting. Businesses can use collections to advertise the varieties on their shelves.

Tracy says this sharing of plant information between companies and customers allows for more informed and empowered purchases, as well as more direct marketing.

“Garden centers have signs on their walls [saying] ‘plants for shade,’ ‘plants for sun’ and ‘plants for pollinators.’ What we would like to do is work with garden centers to get those sheets off their walls and go beyond PDFs and get them all on customers’ phones on Plants Map ... before they even get to the store. If they don’t ever walk into your store, they’re not going to know you have a solution there for them.”

Profiles and collections on Plants Map are also optimized for social media platforms, allowing retailers to share their special offers and promoted inventory directly from their profile to Facebook, Twitter and beyond.

“If they don’t ever walk into your store, they’re not going to know you have a solution there for them.” Tracy Blevins, cofounder of Plants Map

“I know that when I share collections out to our social media sites from Plants Map, I get a lot more interest from the collections, because I think people do like to think of plants in terms of groupings,” Tracy says.

In the future, Tracy says she plans to further fine-tune the ability for consumers to find the plants they’re looking for from retail profiles on Plants Map with a new “Resources” section. In this new section, businesses will be able to list more products, such as giftware, hard goods and other services alongside their plant selections on their Plants Map profile.

“In our resources section, we wanted to be able to say ‘raise your hand if you’re a business or service provider,’ so that is going to be one of our premium features,” she says. “You can be listed in this resource section because you are a business and you do want to offer products and services.” — Conner Howard

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Sunrise Marketing: engaging with apps

It’s becoming clearer every day that if a business isn’t accessible through a smart phone, it’s missing out on a sizeable chunk of the marketplace.

Historically, garden center retailers have struggled with being relevant to younger and more technology-oriented customers, who do a great deal, if not a majority of, their shopping and socializing through their mobile devices. Kurt Fromherz, founder of Sunrise Marketing, is looking to change that with a customized app building service.

Sunrise Marketing enables IGCs to build simple, accessible consumer apps to enhance their brands.

The Hartford, Conn.-based business launched 22 years ago with a foundation in direct-mail newsletters and postcards designed and printed for a variety of clients, from horticultural businesses to restaurants and food distributors. After expanding into web page design for his clients, Fromherz began to see an opportunity for further growth as personal technology developed.

Sunrise Marketing began app development in 2012. Although the business’s methods changed over time, the goals of Sunrise Marketing did not.

“The objective has always been to help the retailer get that incremental, additional visit into the store and to increase the dollars per [transaction],” Fromherz says. “Over the years, newsletters morphed into direct-mail post cards, we started building websites back in ’97 or ’98, and with the advent of email marketing, a lot of the direct mail sort of took a hit. The common denominator was no longer the mail box; the common denominator was the smart phone.”

Apps developed by Sunrise Marketing are specialized for each client, but there’s a common thread in each case: the apps are built to provide a simple and easy-to-use loyalty program, complete with check-ins, punch card and reward tracking functionality.

“My larger goal, in addition to making independent garden centers more competitive, is to help leverage the technology so they can expand their ability to sell.” Kurt Fromherz, founder of Sunrise Marketing

“What I was looking to do with the app program is basically to put the onus on the consumer, so it’d be totally opt-in,” Fromherz says. “They’d go to iTunes and Google Play and download the app, we ask them for their name, their email address and their month and day of birth, so that way we have complete, 100 percent accuracy on it and the consumer controls the experience. They come in, they make a purchase, they get a punch. They collect enough punches, they get rewards.”

In addition to the basic visit and reward tracking features, the apps built by Sunrise Marketing can also include an “Ask Us” function that allows users to send photos to the IGC hosting the app and identify plants or even inquire about availability in the store.

Fromherz says Sunrise Marketing is always looking into new ways the apps can be further personalized for client businesses and offer more to the user. Many growers and retailers include a plant database in their Sunrise Marketing apps, and other tools like mulch calculators and store maps are also available. The apps are also compatible with Apple’s iBeacon technology and Google’s Eddystone platform. Additional features, such as the ability to purchase gift cards from the apps, are planned for implementation in the near future.

“My larger goal, in addition to making independent garden centers more competitive, is to help leverage the technology so they can expand their ability to sell,” Fromherz says. “An app that delivers value and experience is going to be the expectation, basically, of any business. I just have to help our garden centers get there.” – Conner Howard

For more: sunrisemarketingcom

Bower & Branch: e-commerce for IGCs

A lot has happened since we last caught up with e-commerce brand Bower & Branch back in February.

The group of more than 50 independent garden centers in the Northeast and Midwest has hired industry consultant and expert Sid Raisch as its president and CEO, and Tom Hilgeman as its director of retail member onboarding and engagement. Hilgeman previously worked as general manager of White Oak Gardens in Cincinnati, Ohio, and helped the IGC join Bower & Branch, which allows customers to shop for hundreds of varieties of trees online, purchase them if they are suitable for their climates, and request to have them delivered to their local independent garden center. Those local IGCs sign up and invest in training and marketing to be members of Bower & Branch, and receive a commission without taking the risks and expenses associated with inventory.

Don Eaton, who developed Bower & Branch and is co-founder of the primary wholesale tree grower, Eaton Farms, says Bower & Branch is not an “overnight thing,” as he started realigning and preparing his business back in 2010.

He wanted his family’s business to survive and succeed, and to do that, IGCs must also thrive. His goal is to make IGCs more visible to more consumers and help them sell more trees and plants.

“We work very hard on the online experience to align it with what takes place at a garden center. We use names and personalities, and the way we talk to the online customer is as if they were our neighbor asking us for advice,” Eaton says. “Except we have more expertise and more time in that product segment and more access to information. And we’re better salespeople because we don’t forget to ask — the database doesn’t forget to ask about fertilizer and supporting products, and isn’t embarrassed.”

Bower & Branch features several seasonal images of each tree online, in bloom and during fall.

According to Bower & Branch, more than 60 percent of purchases include companion products, and 30 percent include services.

The goal is to expand the network, adding more IGCs and growers, and to cover more than the 23 states they are in now.

“If we are not ready to meet customers where they shop, and we keep demanding that the customers come to us to do business during store hours, we are going to fail,” Eaton says.

Raisch says it’s essential for IGCs to consider selling live plants online to their customers, because other types of companies are developing programs or are already up and running.

One aspect that sets Bower & Branch apart from companies selling plants online is the sheer size of the trees, Raisch says.

“Plants that aren’t easily shipped in a cardboard box is [where] we decided to start from,” he says. “That is probably not likely for anyone to cover that scale on a national basis for a long time, including Amazon. However, never say never. Amazon says they’ll sell everything to everyone, and they mean it.”

Member IGCs have sold trees at midnight, and they can pre-sell the next season, getting the margins from trees months before customers plant them, benefits that are not possible in-store.

Raisch says the in-store order center that’s an integral process of the program can be just as powerful as shopping from home.

“The garden center is a windy, rainy, dusty, dirty, imperfect and uncontrolled environment, and they are looking at a confusing array of plant choices,” Raisch says. “But when we can invite them to a controlled environment, where we have flooring, ceilings, lighting, air conditioning or shade, it’s much more comfortable for consumers and staff. We can give them the full, digital experience of pictures of mature plants, in bloom and in spring or fall color, at times when they’re not.” — Michelle Simakis

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