When Instagram first launched in 2010, it was probably just a blip on most retailers’ radars, chalked up to another social media fad like its Facebook, Twitter and Myspace predecessors. However, Facebook eventually flourished, and the user-friendly interface made marketing a breeze for most garden centers. Even now, most garden centers conduct a fair amount of marketing through Facebook to reach the baby boomer demographic, many of whom are still active on the site.
But as Instagram became the prime tool to post showy blooms or exciting houseplants, garden centers started to unlock the app's full potential. By using every function Instagram offers, many IGCs are establishing a rapport with the coveted millennial and Gen Z demographics. As the industry barrels toward the future, it’s no secret that these two groups will soon wield the most purchasing power in the market.
Engage, engage, engage
If your business isn’t using the story feature, it’s high time to incorporate it. Instagram stories offer a quick snapshot for 24-hours through the lens of a smartphone camera or brief video, which users can broadcast to their followers.
Wyatt Keoski, store manager at Louie’s Nursery in Riverside, California, says the feature has propelled business significantly. It offers a quick snapshot of all the plants and products currently in stock.
“I think we can push a lot of content out there without flooding people's timelines,” he says. “People want to click on our profile and view a story they can access.”
Since they try to post multiple stories a day, running the Instagram account is a team effort, and duties are split between Keoski and two other employees. He notes Instagram is especially convenient when they sell out of hot-ticket items — David Austin and English roses, houseplants and citrus trees, for example — because they can immediately post to their story when new stock is available. Likewise, a story featuring popular items is enough to bring customers in the door the day of posting.
“It’s just an easy way to let a mass amount of people know at once without individually calling people or sending individual emails. It's kind of like a bulletin outside, but for everybody to see,” he says.
Additionally, since Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012, posting across social media channels is even easier since businesses can choose to post the same content on Instagram and Facebook simultaneously, a strategy that has been beneficial for Louie’s Nursery.
At Parkway Garden Centre in London, Ontario, the marketing duo of Maili Walker and Ryan Ferland work in tandem to run the company’s Instagram account, both sharing how the use of Instagram stories has bolstered the IGC’s online and in-store presence.
Ferland, head of marketing and social media, recalls the three-year journey to grow the account’s initial 400 followers to the 4,000+ followers it has today.
“At that time, just like any other marketing, the social was sort of done when they had the opportunity to do it and they had a nice photo to take,” he says. So Ferland channeled his focus into providing more engaging and interactive content with the audience, rather than just passively posting photos of plants or flowers. Now, Walker primarily runs the account.
“When I first come in in the morning, I usually like to do stories right away. I find that stories get a lot of engagement, especially when you do polls or different kind of quizzes on Instagram. I find that a lot of the customers really like to engage that way and it's kind of a fun way to get them learning about different products around the store as well,” Walker says.
Like Keoski, Ferland points out that once a hot-ticket item is featured in the garden center’s stories, it usually sells out within the day. Recently, stories featuring rare tropicals and mushroom growing kits have been quite popular in bringing followers to the store.
Additionally, garden centers can get double the mileage on stories by pinning them to the highlights bar of their Instagram page. Once added to the highlights bar, the stories have an unlimited timespan and can be viewed by curious newcomers. Story highlights help connect to how the marketing team sees people engaging in the physical store — featuring those “sections” to bring customers back in helps build out the business and gives customers a better picture, Ferland says.
For example, Parkway’s pinned highlights feature an array of previously shared stories, ranging from new or seasonal items, pottery and follower-favorite Tux (who sadly recently passed), a beloved stray cat the garden center adopted years ago. Tux could often be found patrolling the aisles and modeling for Instagram photos, popular amongst staffers and customers alike.
Driving the trends
While some IGCs offer direct shopping in the app, it may not be feasible for smaller IGCs, since they may not have the means or workforce to operate it. However, some garden centers set up online shops via a Linktree or website link, especially if it’s merged with an e-commerce-friendly POS system.
Outside of gift cards, Louie’s Nursery doesn’t offer any online purchasing, although it is something they hope to develop in the future. However, the app has proven invaluable in the online sphere by driving in-store traffic, Keoski says.
Over at Parkway, Ferland set to work integrating the garden center’s social media presence with its e-commerce presence two years before the pandemic but notes it’s not without its challenges.
“When the pandemic hit, it was almost like, ‘Oh, thank God we have this’ and everyone's focus was basically putting product on the website,” he says. “The website's still not where I would like it to be, but it takes so many resources to keep everything running at a high speed. We've had to pick where our energy goes, but I think we would've died without it during the pandemic.”
Customers can buy plants, décor and other items through Parkway Garden Centre’s Linktree featured in their bio, but Ferland again notes the challenges of keeping up with inventory. Live plant products are much harder to supply than things like T-shirts or hard goods, but it also gives garden centers a unique opportunity to influence customer purchases.
“I feel like a lot of the time, it is a discussion on what we have in the garden center that sort of drives what we're putting on Instagram. And we try to have conversations with the department heads or our general manager to see what direction she's wanting,” he says. Walker agrees and says communication between general managers and department heads is crucial, especially during the slower seasons to get more products out the door.
The Ward’s Nursery & Garden Center team in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, launched its Instagram account in 2014, and Eva Ward, co-owner, says houseplants have a significant presence on the app.
“We love to post about all the new things arriving. Houseplants are a big one, but as we move into the outdoor gardening season we see a lot of excitement when we post about the incoming perennials, annuals, trees and shrubs,” she says.
In-store sales are easiest to track with the specific houseplants they post, noting that people often call to see if the plant is still available. “We have seen some engagement that way,” she says.
“We use the #whatsinstore to push images on to a gallery on our website. This allows us to show our customers on multiple platforms what we have available now,” she says. “Also, since gardening is so visual, it makes Instagram the perfect platform to connect with our customers and new customers.”
The next wave of social media
Ferland advises other garden centers to lean into all of the app's Instagram features and suggests setting realistic expectations. While it might seem intimidating at first, consistently posting will help businesses find their stride, and they’ll surprise themselves with how much engagement they get.
“I know we, on a daily [basis], compare ourselves to other Instagrams that have more followers or have maybe stronger photos here or there. Push that to the side and just decide who you are as a brand and just start trying stuff,” Ferland says. “Not everything's going to hit. You're not going to get a million followers right away.”
Ward advises garden centers to post often and post multiple photos so people can spend more time on posts swiping through, especially during the busier seasons. “Planning ahead or cutting our specific time to work on a post can help,” Ward adds, noting that she and another team member split posting duties.
Walker says they don’t try to push products too hard on their customers and instead aim for a balance of creativity and education. As social media evolves, she hopes to tap into the video side of the app.
“When I start working up full-time again, I'm hoping to do more Instagram Reels and TikToks because I think it shows a really fun and creative side of the garden center,” Walker says. Ferland agrees and notes if garden centers have the staff to create videos, it’s a worthwhile effort.
“I think going forward, just the way that the world acts now, you have to do more than just sell. You have to entertain as well,” Ferland says. “That’s what gives you a consistent and a loyal follower — not only treating them well when they shop, but also knowing that they're someone that they can turn to for information and for entertainment.”