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Retail technology developments are making it easier than ever to track inventory, store customer data and make sales.

May 6, 2019


Look around your IGC at the shoppers armed with smartphones. It’s a profound reminder of how technology is sweeping the garden center industry. It’s been just over a decade since these devices first appeared but once they hit the tipping point, everything changed. With smartphones in mind — and in hand — you can help your IGC succeed in the digital age by keeping up with these retail tech trends.

Radio Frequency Indentification (RFID)

Tom Fernandez

What it is: RFID uses radio frequencies to take inventory tracking to new levels of ease and accuracy. RFID tags, applied with the same types of tags you use now, store product information electronically. With RFID readers, you can scan the tags without ever seeing them.

Why it matters: Imagine scanning packed spring shopping carts with a single pass or knowing up-to-date inventory without counting. With RFID tags and readers, you could accurately track product flow from receiving to storage to retail and out the door, in real time. We’re not there quite yet, but it’s getting closer.

Tom Fernandez, Michigan State University horticulture professor, oversees extensive RFID research, including a 2019 Horticultural Research Institute project. Fernandez has tested RFID in retail and nursery and greenhouse production with different tag types, product categories and shopping cart densities.

To date, slip-on keyhole tags have yielded the best RFID results, with accuracy in retail and production settings comparable to human crews. One significant limitation has been that moisture and metal impede RFID signals. However, tags smeared with dirt scan just fine.

For stake-style and adhesive tags nestled near moist media, Fernandez believes redesigning RFID placement on tags will improve results. In addition, a major mainstream label producer is collaborating on upcoming research to develop workable RFID tags for the horticulture industry.

“In retail, it could definitely replace bar codes,” Fernandez says. “There are a couple of large [European] retailers in green goods that have everything labeled with RFID. Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s are doing all their clothing items and I know that Lowe’s is very interested. It’s definitely something moving into the retail arena.”

RFID technology can help IGCs keep an accurate inventory.
RFID readers and tags let IGCs scan every item in a packed cart at once.
RFID tags could soon replace bar codes in retail, allowing IGCs to easily track products throughout the sale cycle.

Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Automation

What they are: Artificial intelligence (AI) is the capability of machines to simulate human intelligence and — through data — learn, understand, reason and adapt. Intelligent automation (IA) goes a step further as AI-powered machines automatically take appropriate action as a result of that reasoning process.

Why they matter: AI is everywhere, from your Weather Channel app to the product suggestions on your favorite shopping site to the virtual assistant on your phone or in your home. Ask Google Assistant if she’s AI and she’ll tell you that it’s true. AI-powered experiences have become the norm.

At January’s NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show, the National Retail Federation and IBM shared findings from a joint study: “The coming AI revolution in retail and consumer products.” Among the retail participants, 29% currently use intelligent automation for in-store services and 85% plan to use IA for supply chain planning and demand forecasting within the next three years.

Envision automatic adjustments of orders or purchasing plans based on real-time customer buying behavior. Or what about AI-powered apps that allow your staff to respond to an in-store assistance request with your data about the customer from names to preferences for organic edibles at their fingertips?

Chris Wong, vice president of strategy, offerings and alliances for IBM’s Global Consumer Industry, says artificial intelligence isn’t reserved for large businesses with in-house IT departments. “For smaller retailers, these capabilities will surface in things they don’t own, but subscribe to,” he says.

Cloud-based e-commerce solutions — what you may call “online” services — can use AI to personalize your customers’ shopping experiences. Cloud-based labor scheduling tools can help improve your scheduling decisions with the help of AI.

“The cloud democratizes artificial intelligence without you having to build it,” Wong says. “If you’re a relatively small business but you’re a pretty leading-edge thinker, you can probably already consume those capabilities just by subscription.”

Artificial intelligence is powering many of the experiences and conveniences modern consumers have come to expect.

Augmented reality and virtual reality

What they are: Augmented reality (AR) superimposes images onto views of the real world.

Virtual reality (VR) uses headsets to simulate imaginary environments and allow the wearers to interact with those environments as if they were real.

Why they matter: Retail has embraced AR and VR. With AR technology, your customers can see how a houseplant might look in their home or how new patio furniture will complement the pool. With VR technology, homeowners can virtually walk through a landscape design before your crews ever even put a shovel in the ground.

David Leonard

David Leonard, senior project manager for Parsons Corporation’s Infrastructure and Planning Sector, is past chairperson for the American Society of Landscape Architects Digital Technologies Professional Practice Network. He encourages green industry members to use AR and VR technologies on projects of all sizes as rapid technological advances put these tools within reach of designers and consumers.

Leonard expects that tech-savvy DIY consumers using these tools will drive greater use by IGCs.

“As people want to design their own backyards, I think they’ll want to see what it will look like before they go to the garden center. They may download an app and place a tree or shrub in their yard to get a sense of what they want and then go to garden center,” Leonard says.

“Now that phone developers are specifically developing their software to support augmented reality, we’re going to see a huge explosion of this over the next five years,” Leonard says. “As people are exposed to it more, it will branch out to other aspects of life. Garden centers that have design centers will invest in it.”

Virtual and augmented reality apps allow users to place objects from shrubs to hanging baskets to hardscape products like benches.
Virtual reality technology can help professionals and tech-savvy consumers plan their landscape designs.

Mobile Checkout and Self-Checkout

What they are: Mobile checkout staff scans products and checks customers out on mobile devices rather than busy registers. With mobile self-checkout, customers use their own phones to scan products and check themselves out.

Why they matter: Many retailers are using mobile solutions to speed up checkout time and appease patience-strapped customers. Consumers have grown accustomed to self-checkout stations and using smartphones for mobile payments, so why not streamline the process and check out on phones, too?

Last spring, Walmart piloted mobile checkout in 350 of its lawn and garden centers. Roving sales associates with sashes saying “Check Out With Me” used cellular devices and Bluetooth printers to ring up sales and provide receipts. Customers skipped hauling plants and potting mix through in-store checkout lines. Then, in November, the service rolled out nationwide.

Mobile self-checkout is also increasingly popular among shoppers who appreciate control and speed. New York-based supermarket chain Fairway Market began offering the option of mobile self-checkout at its 15 tri-state locations last fall. A cloud-based, AI-powered subscription software solution integrated with the existing POS provides in-store shoppers with personalized experiences.

Customers simply download the store-branded app on their phone and scan products using their phone cameras. For items purchased by weight, they scan digital scale readouts. With their shopping complete, customers scan the QR checkout code on their phones and skip the checkout line.

Mike Penner, Fairway Market director of retail applications and technology, says feedback has been extremely positive. Average checkout time is just 2.4 seconds. Random audits show a 99.8% accuracy rate for shopper-scanned products and 94% of Fairway’s self-checkout customers rate the experience at four stars or higher.


Blockchain Technology

What it is: Blockchain is a data-sharing technology that stores time-stamped transactions in a digital ledger shared by all parties involved. Each new transaction forms a block of the chain, which can never be revised or deleted. The result is an immutable record of every transaction in the chain.

Why it matters: Blockchain is often linked with bitcoin transactions, but these ledgers record non-financial records too. As consumers demand greater transparency about product origins and handling, blockchain provides a way to track products and confirm their provenance.

Blockchain use is growing among retailers and agribusinesses. After last fall’s romaine-related E. coli outbreak, Walmart started requiring blockchain from leafy greens producers, lowering the retailer’s tracking time from seven days to 2.2 seconds.

Some commercial cannabis producers are piloting blockchain programs to document cultivar origins and pesticide-free production. Several European floriculturists are trialing blockchain as well.

In a recent article for Hort Journal Australia, horticulturist and marketing technologist David Thompson, web and memberships manager for the Australian Institute of Horticulture, overviewed blockchain’s potential for establishing transparent, fixed records of plant heritage, propagation and production practices, and plant breeders’ rights.

Thompson says that potential carries over to IGCs: “Garden center retailers have a responsibility as well as an opportunity to be able to ensure that what they are selling is true to type, adheres to Plant breeders’ rights and is safe and free from pests that may otherwise cause damage to their customers … Blockchain’s role in demonstrating the validity of every link in a supply chain could be another tool that clearly records and validates the claims being made by each member in the supply chain.”


He also suggests that there’s marketing potential when IGC customers can scan a plant’s product code, see its journey from seed to retail and confirm how it was sourced or produced.

Whether it’s blockchain or virtual reality for your IGC, follow the advice of Wong and his IBM associates: Think big, start small and rethink the way you do business in the digital age.


The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to GIE Media publications.