Support your strongest asset

From boosting hourly pay to creating an empathetic work environment, here’s why employee appreciation is a core tenet at successful garden centers.

As garden centers across North America experienced record-breaking sales in 2020, much of their success can be attributed to the tireless commitment of their workers. Now more than ever, retailers are strategizing how to retain one of their most valuable assets: employees. Here’s how three IGCs are enacting winning game plans that are rewarding employees while boosting their bottom lines.

Eyes on the prize

Motivation and retail sales transparency go a long way in employee retention, according to Chris Cordrey, owner of East Coast Garden Center in Millsboro, Delaware. (No. 96 on the Top 100 Independent Garden Centers list.)

“First and foremost, we wanted people to feel as if they took ownership in their position and feel like they weren’t just another number in the company. We wanted to share information with them so that they could really have a true understanding of what was going on in the company,” he says.

Employees of the month are named and recognized on a corkboard at East Coast Garden Center so they can receive recognition from fellow associates.

One of the ways they achieved this was by tracking daily sales goals, a project they started in 2019. By compiling and gathering data from the previous year as a baseline, they set a new yearly goal increase of 10%. Now, Cordrey tracks daily sales and shares those numbers with staff on a giant dry erase board, which gets employees excited about increasing the numbers, he says.

“If we reached our goal, it would be in green, and if we didn’t, it would be in red, so they could see how we were doing. And then we’d also send out daily texts where you could see the numbers for 2021, 2020 and 2019. So if we had a bad day, then we’d try to make it up the next day. We also go over our numbers once a month to get a bigger picture view of that,” he says.

Sales numbers are shared with everyone at the company, rather than confined to management teams, because goal-setting motivates employees who otherwise might not have taken an interest, he says. Cordrey believes that if a person has a “why” behind the work, with a tangible goal in sight, they’re more likely to be motivated to help improve the company as a whole.

Employees are incentivized with different rewards for short-term and long-term goals. Rewards range from things like catered lunches to prime parking spots to clothing or even gift certificates. Within each department — landscape or the garden center — they also reward the “crew of the month” with a prime parking spot in the front of the building. The company employs 175 staff in total, with 50-60 employed in the garden center.

The company also has an employee of the month program where each winning employee’s name and photo is posted on a corkboard for all to see, as well as an employee board where the company tracks compliments from customers throughout the month.

Boost financial incentives

During the holiday season, East Coast Garden Center decked the halls with inspiration from Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Staff members were encouraged to dress up and participate in Whoville-themed festivities, and sold holiday plants and décor throughout.

At Woodley’s Garden Center in Columbia, South Carolina, General Manager Robin Klein says they’ve upped employees’ hourly pay $1-$2 an hour, and they’ve also provided four to five small bonus checks throughout the year. Additionally, staff members have the option to pick up any overtime hours they want.

She says staff retention can be a struggle, considering the majority of employees are high school and college students on spring and summer breaks. Woodley’s Garden Center is especially busy in February and March, and it was challenging this year due to limited staff.

“We had some overtime hours this year until the summer staff could get out of school, but it’s so much transition, training and rehiring all year long. But I had to go with that because that was really my only option, especially with the unemployment benefits,” she says.

Klein notes that while they lost a few employees to government assistance, most people stayed. To keep business running smoothly with a limited staff, she focuses her efforts on training support staff instead of sales staff.

“You can hire salespeople who know plants, but that’s a very small pool of knowledge. So we tried to hire as many cashiers and support staff as we could so that they could get customers through the line quickly,” she says.

However, most of the employees aren’t there for the money — they’re there for their love of plants, she says.

“A lot of the time I would interview people and not know where I was going to put them. But if their résumé looked like they had some consistent employment and they weren’t jumping around in jobs, I would interview them and think about it and talk to them to get a feel of where they would feel more comfortable,” she says.

According to Klein, if employees are more comfortable in their positions, chances are they’re going to be more successful and stay longer. She matches employees with tasks that best align with their personalities. So outgoing people are placed in cashier or retail positions, while shy people are assigned to watering plants or other roles off the sales floor.

She notes while they’re still looking at different ways to attract a younger workforce, many employers have a “this is the job description and this is the pay, take it or leave it” mentality — something she cautions against.

“Those days are over. We have to look at the employees as an asset and something that we need to take care of if we’re going to grow our business,” she says.

The Great Outdoors in Austin, Texas, (No. 85 on the Top 100 Independent Garden Centers list) raised employees’ wages as well.

“We live and work in a city — it’s expensive to live comfortably here,” says General Manager Elizabeth Lane. “I would love to keep pay on an incline to reflect this and continue compensating my team for the hard work they do. Thankfully, plants are a profitable business right now. Clearly, it’s a relatively pandemic-proof industry, and raising pay always helps with morale and helps people feel appreciated and supported.”

Lane notes that retaining staff is tantamount to maintaining the flow of business, as well as their high quality of customer service. She operates in a similar manner as Klein and matches employees with roles best suited to their talents.

“There are a lot of moving parts here, and everyone has their own strengths and passions — I really focus on playing to those strengths and making sure people are in a position they are passionate and interested in,” she says.

She also stresses the importance of reliable staff and during the hiring process, she scouts for people who have a genuine passion for the role. “Plant knowledge, previous nursery work and customer service experience are a huge bonus, but my philosophy is to first look for people who truly want to be here and have a willingness to learn, as well as a team player spirit and friendly disposition,” she says.

Dependable hires

East Coast Garden Center owners Chris, left, and Valery Cordrey. During the peak of COVID-19, the IGC donated aloe plants and masks to its local hospital to support the staff and boost morale during difficult times. “Aloes are our Cordrey Charities plant and have many beneficial attributes. It is a great houseplant that the staff could enjoy,” Cordrey says.

Cordrey also says hiring has been one of the biggest hurdles they’ve had to contend with. He says it’s particularly difficult to find people because they’re competing with the challenges of COVID-19 as well as unemployment assistance. He’s bolstered his hiring efforts by implementing a referral program.

“I think one of the best resources is using your staff to have them help you find people. So instead of just me looking, I could have 175 people looking. Plus, I want people that are like them, such as their family, friends or other people that they would recommend,” he says. “Once they refer somebody, they get paid. If they get hired, they get paid again, and if they stay here after 90 days, they’re paid again.”

Automated text reminders for open positions are sent to employees in the directory, and quite a few current employees were referrals.

“I think first and foremost, you have to have good staff to be successful. So as far as the referral program, I think it makes a huge difference getting good employees so that we can do all the work that we need,” he says. “It also allows us to build our management teams so that we can expand and first promote from within.”

Finding good people to take positions allows them to move up, which allows the company to grow and bring in sales, he says. Cordrey also offers a bonus program in which any profits that extend above their sales base are shared with employees, usually around the holiday season.

“So that makes a huge difference, and that makes them think about the bottom line and have skin in the game,” he says.

Moving into 2022, he says they’re going to split the bonuses so that employees are motivated not just by the winter bonus, but by a summer bonus as well, considering many employees are tired in the summer months after working a busy spring season.

The staff at The Great Outdoors celebrate Pride Month.

Supporting your staff

When The Great Outdoors shut down in the spring of 2020, Lane says that many of the staff, opted to stay home to protect themselves and their loved ones, which left a fluctuation of 40-60% of the team. The employees who stayed handled the curbside/e-commerce model they developed in order to continue making sales without having customers in the store, she says. Employees with a large skill set — or even a willingness to learn — are trained in a few different areas so they can move around where they’re needed, depending on the needs of the day in question, Lane says.

“Since opening back up, we’ve had steady business year-round and thankfully spring 2021 was our busiest yet. If that continues into 2022, the natural ebb and flow of staffing has proved to be enough to keep things running efficiently, and everyone is great about being flexible and willing to cover where needed,” she says.

Cordrey, Klein and Lane all stress the importance of strong staff support, especially considering the stress of COVID-19 and busy days. All of them reported an increase in staff in 2021 and 2020 compared to 2019. Many IGCs are in a similar boat, and with an expanding workforce, it’s crucial to meet their needs.

Klein starts from the bottom up to make sure her staff is getting exactly what they need. She says the last two years have taken an emotional toll on employees, so they’re more consistent about giving bonuses or other tokens of appreciation to keep them going. She is deeply attuned to the needs of her employees and tries to give them the time off that they need so they aren’t burned out.

“They would tell me they were tired or grumpy, and I would check in and say, ‘Hey, you want to come in late tomorrow?’ ‘Do you need a day?’ ‘What’s going on?’ It was hard while they were gone, but they came back and they had their spirit built back up,” she says.

To boost morale, Cordrey says his IGC provides employees with gift cards to local restaurants and hosts monthly appreciations events. These include closing the office for a half day (while providing employees with a full day’s worth of pay) and hosting cookouts where management teams cook for the staff, bringing in an ice cream machine or even catering breakfast.

Throughout COVID-19, Lane has made it her mission to balance being as flexible and empathetic as possible while also running a profitable business. She notes that many of the people they’ve taken on in the last year either lost their jobs or had their lives uprooted as a result of the pandemic.

To help support staff during stressful times, she says she tried to keep the atmosphere light: “Being able to laugh things off is huge.” She also enforced mask mandates as well as limited store capacity so everyone could feel safe. This helped to boost camaraderie, but also helped the staff to feel supported and protected, she says.

“The biggest thing, though, is making sure my team feels listened to and that they know their frustrations are valid. I work very hard to take action to lessen these frustrations when I can, but the pandemic has definitely led to something of a crash course for everyone in dealing efficiently and politely with difficult people in difficult circumstances,” she says.

September 2021
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