There are no guarantees in life

Departments - Retail Revival | Store improvement tips from the Garden Lady

When plants don’t grow as expected, these five reminders can steer an unhappy customer conversation into one of acceptance.

October 11, 2021

Remind your customers that plants are living things that can be affected by all kinds of factors.

I recently got a question from a Facebook friend who wanted my opinion on whether she and her husband should expect a refund from a nursery they’d purchased trees from last year. One of the trees wasn’t doing well this year, and the couple thought it was due to a bad graft. My friend reported that the nursery owner told them to dig up the tree and bring it in, and the IGC would give the couple half off of a replacement plant. “Do you think this was correct?” this woman asked via Facebook message, adding, “BTW, we have been customers at this particular nursery for well over 20 years. What do you think?”

This woman felt that she should be given a new tree without charge, and anyone who has worked at a garden center has dealt with similar situations. Whether it’s a hanging basket that has dried to a crisp, a shrub that failed to thrive or a declining tree, many of our customers think that a nursery should replace ailing plants without hesitation ... or further cost. IGCs are additionally challenged by box stores that offer full refunds within one year of a plant purchase.

Most businesses have a guarantee and refund policy in place, of course. We write up what seems reasonable and post it on the website for the public to see. We show this policy to new hires every spring so that everyone is on board with the same response when a customer wants a replacement plant. Some IGCs guarantee a plant for the first three months, others for one year. Some don’t guarantee plants through the winter, or offer returns on annuals a week after the sale. Nurseries that give discounts to landscapers often tell those companies that in exchange for the discount, the landscaper assumes any guarantee on the plants. And some garden centers don’t offer any guarantees at all.

No matter what your policy is, however, customers will come looking for a refund or replacement for a plant that died. At this point, management has to make a call. Do you stick to the policy, knowing that a disgruntled customer can kick up a fuss and bad-mouth you online? Or do you give in and provide a replacement, even if you’re 99% sure that the plant died because of improper care?

These difficult decisions are usually made by the seat of our pants, and the response is often determined by how well we know the client and how worn down we feel, and whether or not the customer’s attitude strikes us the wrong way. Realistically, we know that there is no one correct way that’s going to leave everyone happy.

Yet beyond these day-to-day and situation-to-situation decisions, it occurs to me that we have many opportunities to help the public to be more accepting when plants don’t succeed. As garden professionals, part of our task is not only to spread excitement about plants but to help people develop some measure of acceptance that they are living things and living things are quirky. We can do this in many ways through several channels. From face-to-face encounters to our signage, social media and web presence, there is light-hearted but accurate information to be spread. Here are some ideas you can use to start conversations with your customers.

It’s complicated

Find opportunities to remind the public that beyond the basic care required for a plant to thrive, there are unseen forces at play. When a plant dies, we might be able to determine a cause, but sometimes there isn’t a single insect, disease or cultural condition responsible. “When plants don’t do well, it can be a combination of this, that and the other,” we need to remind them. “Let me give you an example. Last year’s drought, plus compact soil, plus a borer that we didn’t notice might have been responsible for the death of a tree.”

It’s out of control

Connect plants to other things in nature that people don’t expect to be able to control.

“How are plants like clouds? They are constantly changing. Sometimes we look at them and marvel at their beauty, and other times we don’t like what we see. Plants and clouds are part of the natural world, and they can surprise us in a number of ways.”

Are you just like your siblings?

Customers often wonder why plants that are supposed to be the same grow at different rates. One might be thriving while the same type of plant that’s growing right next to it is half the size. “I know you think that the locations have exactly the same conditions, but perhaps there are subtle distinctions in soil compaction or pH. And in addition to slight variations in the locations, sometimes there are differences in the plants’ genetics. We all know families where despite having the same parents and growing up in the same home, the kids are completely different, right?”

Plants aren’t furniture

People sometimes think of their yards and gardens as the inside of their house; they want to arrange the plants in a pleasing manner and have them stay that way. We need to remind them that plants are always growing. “I know it’s tempting to hope that your landscaping will reach a point where it stays exactly the same, but that expectation is more realistic for your living room than for your gardens. Just be glad that your furniture doesn’t continue to grow as plants do! Can you imagine what it would be like if your sofa was alive and constantly getting bigger?”

Life doesn’t come with guarantees

Like it or not, we all have to come to peace with the knowledge that anything alive will ultimately die. In between birth or germination and death, there is any number of ways that life can progress, some of them desirable or miraculous, and others disappointing or even tragic. I tried to convey this to my Facebook friend when I answered her question about the failing tree. “Expecting a nursery to guarantee plants through the years,” I responded, “is like expecting a hospital to guarantee the ongoing health of babies that have been born there.”

C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at