Feeling uncertain about how the IGC business is going to fare over the coming months? Not sure how best to plan for fall sales and beyond? You are not alone. The ups and downs of the pandemic pressure on the industry have left many with mixed feelings about how to meet consumer demand and expectations, weather, potential plant shortages and hang on to the recent upswing in gardening interest. While many of us have taken hard hits to our businesses over the last year, we have also seen some new highs with consumer interest and fresh opportunities for innovation and growth. I would say, latch on to the latter, relax a bit and let it grow!
Put people first
First, let’s talk about infrastructure. There is no more important infrastructure to a garden center business than its people. Customer service through the pandemic, especially this spring, has been tough on IGC employees. While it is wonderful that many garden centers have seen unprecedented growth over the past year, the increased demand and necessary safety protocols have left many of your customer service staff worn thin. If you expect to carry positive momentum into the fall and 2022, then a staff health assessment is probably in order. To best plan for a great fall season, plan time to sit down with your staff and review how new protocols are working — or not working — how they are feeling, and what they need personally to feel refreshed and energized for fall.
I do not know about you, but I worked double-time through the entire pandemic. It was not a relaxing time for me in any way shape or form, nor did I get the opportunity to “step back and take stock” through 2020. It is only now that I can downshift and reassess my business priorities and strategies moving into the new year. In other words, maybe relax a little? I suspect many of you are in the same boat. As owners, it is just as important to assess how we are doing, mentally and emotionally through this tough time, so that we can be good leaders and provide the support our employees need. If you have not invested any time in some self-care lately, I would highly recommend doing so. Recharging your batteries for fall 2021 and spring 2022 preparations is crucial to your success.
In terms of customer enthusiasm and sales potential, I would say the sky’s the limit right now. Problem is, plant and product supply issues may limit your sales potential through this year and into the next; as they are limiting many IGCs right now. Planning for fall this year may look much different than it has in the past. You may not be able to secure the types or quantities of plants you would normally book, or at least not at the levels you will need to meet increased consumer demand.
So, what can you do? You can be more strategic about marketing what you can and will have and controlling your messaging; all with the goal of managing customer expectations. Native species as alternatives to commodity cultivars in low supply, habitat-friendly perennials and waterwise plants are prime for a push. When you look at gardening trends for 2021, it is easy to see that growing edibles and indoor plants are top of the list for many of our new gardening customers. If you can go deeper in your bookings for these plants and associated products, you will have an easy marketing target to hit for fall and spring 2022.
Tiny is big in 2021. By tiny I mean gardening in smaller spaces and with smaller plants. Balcony and patio gardening for those without yards, and smaller-scale houseplants, vegetables and herbs for the indoor garden. Stuck at home, many homeowners — even those with itty bitty outdoor spaces — are creating tiny gardens in which they can find some mental respite from day-to-day stress. Consider catering to outdoor and indoor container gardeners across your customer demographics. Tiny gardening is also a great way for beginners to get an easier start in the hobby with a better initial experience of success. As far as I am concerned, if you have one plant and one pot, you’re gardening.
If possible, consider expanding your educational opportunities and workshops — be they in-person or online. Cannot get quite enough vegetable transplants to meet demand? Charge for extra workshops on seed starting or veggie garden care to help sell a bevy of associated hardgoods. Cannot find as much indoor plant inventory as you need to hit sales goals? Charge for houseplant care workshops to help you sell lots of extra pottery and plant care tools. With many of us (hopefully) fully vaccinated come summer, it will be safer for us to get back to in-person events and gatherings this fall. You may still provide better distancing options for your classes or limit registrations, but I suspect gardeners are eager to re-join their community of fellow plant lovers and are ready to get their hands dirty.
Keep working on your digital infrastructure as well. Many IGCs were forced to make leaps and bounds in the realm of online sales and coordinating pick-ups and deliveries. Do not abandon these efforts. Rather, keep expanding them. If you still have not updated to a modern responsive website with some e-commerce capacity, do it ASAP.
All challenges aside, I would say the gardening industry has an amazing opportunity right now on which it can capitalize. That’s going to take clear minds. If you have not yet taken a step back to reassess, refresh and reprioritize for fall, now’s a good time to relax…and let it grow! That is probably good advice for our customers as well.
Just like indoor décor, outdoor ornament trends continue to evolve. Way back in 1995, we reported that concrete or stone geese were heating up, but 25 years later, things are certainly different in the market. Just five years ago, glass globes were seeing an uptick at IGCs, as were fairy gardens. We dug into the numbers of online options from Amazon and Etsy to see what’s been selling well in 2021.
Those who work at Watters Garden Center know it’s more than just a job. It’s a family, a community and a mission to make the Prescott, Arizona, area a better place to live.
Watters Garden Center has cultivated its brand around fun, positivity, community and giving back. The husband-and-wife team of Ken Lain and Lisa Watters-Lain has spent years reaching far beyond the world of gardening to touch the lives of employees, customers and the community at large. Lisa, general manager and owner, has been in the family business since she was old enough to hold a hose, while Ken, whom she met in college, has spent decades growing in the highlands of Arizona.
Together, their goal is to not only beautify the city of Prescott but to bring joy, hope and positivity to their community. And it all starts with living their core mission.
“So many companies have a mission statement that they put together 10 years ago but nobody else knows what the mission statement is,” Lisa says. “The employees don’t know; the community doesn’t know. I think we make it a point to live out the mission statement. So the things that we support — our staff, our community — we’ve got to live out our mission statement.”
The most integral part of the IGC is the strong beliefs that stand behind its purpose, as well as a sense of community, camaraderie and genuine passion for the work they do every day.
To that end, the entire garden center staff is in the midst of a campaign to craft “We believe” statements they stand behind. Those statements can be anything from movie quotes to sayings from favorite authors as long as they’re sentiments the staff feels strongly about. They run the gamut from “We believe in rising early, working hard and fruits of our labor” to “We believe in integrity, respect and love for one another.”
“So these are things we stand for and believe,” Ken says. “We believe that things should be natural, safe and organic. We believe that so we’ve got products that accommodate that. Our plants are natural; they’re safe and they’re organic.”
Watters makes those belief statements a part of their advertising, their website and their company culture. The Watters social media presence is always “positive, happy and uplifting,” Ken says. And that positive messaging helps attract both customers and employees.
“We can stand for things and be very positive and uplifting and make a difference in our community — not just our staff, but our community,” Ken says.
“A company that’s really engaged should carry the light for their town and make it a better place to live.”
Finding the right fit
When it comes to hiring criteria, Watters Garden Center is looking for motivated individuals who enjoy working with others and encouraging those around them. “Our best employees are people who have been customers,” Lisa says. “They see how we treat people and they’re ambassadors.”
The garden center doesn’t require a specific level of plant knowledge or a horticultural background. Instead, they hire for personality and rely on the signage around the store that helps both staff and customers stay informed. “Even I don’t remember every detail about a plant all the time,” Ken says with a laugh.
Prescott, like many surrounding cities in Arizona, has a large population of newly retired residents, many of whom are interested in taking on some part-time or seasonal work to get connected with the community, stay active and meet new people. It was named the fourth-best city for retirement by Money magazine and the second-best place to retire by Smart Money, so that population will likely continue to grow.
On the other end of the spectrum, many seasonal employees are high school or college-aged students home for the summer. Many stick with the garden center throughout their studies. “When they come back home, they want to work for us. It’s more than just pay. It’s got to be a fun place, an energizing place, a respectful place,” Ken says. “For employers to think it’s just about pay — that’s so 1970s.”
With a strong returning seasonal workforce, Watters Garden Center has not had many difficulties finding employees. Nearly half of the 27-person staff is permanent, while the other 11 are seasonal. This year, the IGC only had to hire three employees.
“All of our seasonal staff came back because they like working here,” Ken says. “And so they may not want to work in the winter but in spring they love the energy, the style, the culture, the family and their colleagues. We look after each other so we don’t have to hire very much.”
With that kind of retention, it’s not easy to get hired at Watters. The company requires a four-page online application designed to weed through applicants and eliminate those who are not a good fit. The form includes everything from schedule availability to math calculations to a checklist determining what an applicant is and isn’t willing to do on the job like maintain a positive attitude and work well with teammates.
Once completed, applicants must print out the form and bring it to the garden center. When staff members meet an applicant, they’re encouraged to give their own feedback. If an employee writes ‘no’ on an application, management eliminates the applicant from the pool.
“We’re not even going to take time to read it,” Ken says. “They get authority at the cashier level to say yes or no. So we’ve got many, many hurdles that keep you from coming through.”
The company doesn’t do any traditional media advertising for open positions, relying instead on social media because, as Ken says, they want to hire people who are “social.”
“We want people that, like us, that share the positive and do their homework on Watters Garden Center before they come in, so it goes both ways. We’re looking to find the right staff that fits.”
Once the IGC finds a good candidate who meets the criteria, an average of three or four staff members take part in the interview process to make sure the candidate is a good fit. Including staff also helps create a sense of camaraderie, Ken says.
Watters very rarely has to fire an employee, thanks to meticulous hiring and management. But when conflicts do arise at Watters, the garden center’s philosophy is to talk through problems before they start to fester, whether it’s an issue with one employee or several. The management team finds that most problems can be fixed with a simple apology or a simple conversation.
“The other thing I really, really push a lot is having grace and mercy for each other because we all have days where maybe we’re cranky or we say something wrong,” Lisa says. “It’s just telling team members that we all have to be here together.”
Watters also tries to get out ahead of potential problems in their weekly manager meetings in which the top managers come together to discuss potential issues. The full staff also meets every other week to stay connected and get out ahead of conflicts, encourage growth and foster a better understanding of the business.
“Virtually every meeting we start we tell them, ‘We want you, when you leave Watters Garden Center, to feel that you are a better person when you leave than when you started. So you know more about business. Not just business, but plain skills,” Ken says.
That includes understanding gross margins, sales units and more. The company shares all numbers with every team member from cashiers to watering staff to salespeople to managers.
It’s part of the motivational process as well. Each team has its own scoreboard and weekly accomplishments to fulfill. Teams share their progress, and in turn, the company shares overall numbers and goals. It helps create camaraderie and gives teams the tools to track their performance independently. When big goals are met, the team is recognized, whether it’s a party or a bonus or just a shout-out.
“So they feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves because they are,” Ken says. “And when they leave this place, I truly think they’ll find a difficult time finding a better place to work for. They might leave for more pay or, you know, they finally graduated from college and now they’re off to their real job that they trained for. But you’ll never find a better place to work than Watters Garden Center.”
With nearly 60 years in business, the garden center is a community staple, thanks in large part to its outreach and volunteer efforts. The garden center frequently partners with the local Rotary clubs and just last month, hosted a donation drive for the local food bank in partnership with a local high school club.
But the garden center chooses its partners wisely. “We’re trying to selectively choose the nonprofits that have the same values as Watters Garden Center and not only give them donations, but give them our resources, our writing talents, our advertising, our mentoring program,” Ken says.
The goal is to simply make the community better by pooling resources, and the garden center has plenty of knowledge to share through speaking engagements, The Mountain Gardener Radio Show, magazine columns and classes as well as social media and their website.
“It’s tough to garden here in Arizona. So if you can make it easier for people to garden and give them that inspiration to be out there working in their yards and making it prettier and better out there, we truly believe that many of the world’s issues would be solved if more people would garden,” Lisa says. “And that’s what’s happened in the past year.”
Before COVID hit, Lisa estimates that 50 to 100 people would show up to classes at the garden center with 10 to 30 joining online. Now, they have 30 or so in a class but 200 more joining online via Facebook or YouTube.
And those classes really bring customers in. Lisa says the garden center sees sales of products mentioned during the classes, sometimes on the same day. The IGC’s podcast is performing well too, growing from hundreds of downloads to thousands. “I don’t know what this means for the future, but it’s definitely changing under our feet,” she says. “It’s changing as we speak how people are interacting with our content.”
Getting through tough times
Last year, when COVID hit and garden centers were uncertain if they would be able to stay open, the Watters management team made it clear that they would all get through the pandemic as a family. They told staff that no one would be facing layoffs, even if the owners had to go without pay.
Watters Garden Center also created a community food bank to help employees going through a tough time. Ken cleared out a closet in his office and gave a team of employees a $1,000 budget to stock it. Every morning, team members would go out to different grocery stores and search for whatever staff needed from toilet paper to flour to salt.
“I just created a team and they started helping each other instead of being isolated, looking outwards. We created ways to help the team help each other,” Ken says.
Anyone on staff could take whatever they wanted with no questions asked, either for themselves or for others in the community who were in need. And, of course, any donations were also accepted. Now, more than a year later, the closet is still packed with food items.
But it didn’t take a pandemic to pull the Watters team together. When a coworker was dealing with a heart issue, staff pulled together to take groceries to his house and check in on him during his recovery.
“This is what Watters Garden Center is,” Ken says. “We’re not a church. We’re not a nonprofit. We’re not a business. We’re an organization that looks after each other and wants the best for all. I think that’s how you define us, but it’s way beyond business. It’s something deeper as a community.”