They pick, you plant

Consumer expectations and desires for convenience are driving dramatic pre- and post-pandemic retail change.

Safety concerns have led to even more emphasis on convenience and IGCs are trying different ways to provide for consumers whether their projects are DIY or DIFM.

When Garden Center explored the emerging Do-It-For-Me (DIFM) movement in late 2016, forward-thinking independent garden centers were already responding to consumer preferences for convenience-related services. Though Do-It-Yourself (DIY) was thriving, IGC customers were hungry for services that would save time and improve results.

Katherine Cullen

National Retail Federation (NRF) research on consumers and convenience, released early this year, solidified the significance of this trend. Katherine Cullen, NRF senior director of industry and consumer insights, explains that that ‘convenience’ began bubbling up in consumer data, where price and quality had ruled before, prompting the new research. “Convenience was starting to become a key component of how consumers were looking at value,” she says.

Among the illuminating results, NRF research found that many consumers don’t understand how important convenience is to them until it’s absent: While consumers note quality and price as the most important factors in buying decisions, 97% say that inconvenience has caused them to back out of a purchase they had planned. In addition, 52% of consumers say the convenience factor influences more than half their purchases.

Data says it wasn’t always this way. More than eight out of 10 consumers in the NRF research say that convenience is more important in shopping than it was five years ago. To top that, more than 90% say they are more likely in some degree to choose a retailer based on convenience — with 33% significantly more likely to choose their retailer with convenience in mind.

Cullen points out that consumers vary in how they personally interpret convenience. And, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has redefined convenience for ICGs everywhere. But as the meaning of convenience evolves, so do the buying decisions of the convenience-attuned consumers coming through your IGC’s digital and physical doors.

Factors behind the convenience trend

If you’ve been listening to consumers, it’s not surprising that NRF researchers found that more than one-third of consumers feel they have less free time now than five years ago. “Consumers say that things like work and family and commuting were all taking up more and more of their time,” Cullen says. But the perceived need to compensate for lost time is only one factor driving consumer desire for convenience and DIFM.

Alonso Johnson, general manager of The Gazebo garden center at New Garden Landscaping & Nursery in Greensboro, North Carolina, believes lack of experience intensifies time restraints and makes education an essential convenience service.

“A lot of people don’t know the questions to ask or don’t feel comfortable asking the questions,” Johnson says. The IGC’s “Weekend Warrior Workshops,” social media videos and other educational resources conveniently help fill the void.

Bobby Lewis, vice president at Washington, D.C.-area Meadows Farms Nurseries & Landscape, views consumers’ precious free time from an uncommon perspective. Lewis says that, though IGCs often talk about competing with Home Depot and “other mom-and-pops like us,” the real competition during normal times comes from soccer games and family activities with the kids.

With pandemic restrictions on school and other activities, Lewis says the essential IGC’s 18 retail locations won big. “Our main competition as far as leisure time has been completely taken away and allowed us to dominate in a way. It’s almost like we’re the only show in town,” he says.

Cullen agrees that COVID-19 has put a new spin on retail. “The coronavirus pandemic obviously has kind of put a halt to the period of economic expansion we were in,” she says. “But it’s actually accelerated some of these trends that were coming out as a result of convenience.” In addition, she points out, safety and convenience have become linked.

BOPIS takes the lead

For many retailers, Buy Online Pick up In Store (BOPIS) has become a standard part of doing business — one directly tied to the need for convenience and speed. According to NRF research, 70% of consumers say BOPIS improves their shopping experience. Cullen adds that, as of March, 77% of consumers say they have tried BOPIS and more than one-third of those consumers say their use is directly related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Cullen explains that many older, less digitally savvy consumers are BOPIS newcomers. “They’re finding that things like Buy Online Pick up In Store or home delivery are not just safe, but they’re convenient,” she explains. “People are trying it now because they have to or they’re more concerned about safety, but they’re discovering that they really like it and it’s really convenient for them.”

In past years, many garden retailers expressed doubt about whether consumers would order plants online, sight unseen. IGCs that invested in e-commerce are ahead of the game as consumers swarm garden center websites, but even IGCs without online ordering are finding innovative BOPIS avenues, including social media and web-posted availability and email ordering.

Cullen emphasizes that purchasing is only part of the BOPIS equation. Online, convenience matters most during early research phases of the shopping experience. In store, convenience matters most at the final checkout or pickup stage.

Convenience requires that consumers know in advance where and how to check out or pickup easily — whether that’s at a register, a special kiosk, customer service desk or curbside. And, incidentally, though convenience services are most prevalent in urban areas, NRF research found almost no difference between urban and rural areas when looking at BOPIS.

Curbside pickup and delivery

Curbside pickup, one BOPIS option, has special significance in the shadow of COVID-19, but this convenience service was enjoying pre-pandemic popularity. Especially favored by young parents with kids in tow, curbside pickup appeals just as much when rounding up annual flats and pollinator plants instead of cereals and snacks.

Johnson says that adding curbside pickup as part of The Gazebo’s pandemic response was enlightening. He plans to keep the service after the pandemic subsides. “We’re working through the kinks, but it’s really working out,” he says. “We found that this is a service we should have been offering all along, especially for elderly or clients with disabilities.

Meadows Farms’ curbside order system was created specifically in case the retail locations were closed as non-essential businesses under COVID-19 restrictions, which fortunately didn’t occur. Lewis describes in-store traffic this spring as “intense,” with curbside pickup now available only to the IGC’s VIP Rewards members. Without e-commerce capabilities or online availability, the service has been challenging. But Lewis sees its merit.

“People are used to ordering without touching or feeling. It’s become more normal and the trend is to shop online,” he says. “I think you have to be able to facilitate the entire retail environment versus saying, ‘Hey, we’re a nursery. We can’t do that.’ We can do that. … It’s hard to get used to, just like any change, but we can do it.”

When it comes to home delivery services, convenience reigns there, too. And don’t assume consumers expect delivery to be free. With expedited and same-day delivery services becoming widespread, consumers have gotten used to quick, easy delivery at a price.

NRF’s pre-COVID research found that 66% of consumers pay for at least one delivery shipping service. As of January, Amazon Prime alone had more than 150 million paid members worldwide. But another finding surprised even the NRF team: 25% of consumers pay for at least two delivery service memberships.

“That really stood out to us,” Cullen says. “That speaks again to that value consumers are placing on this experience. It is something consumers value and not just in terms of where they’re choosing to shop, but what they’re choosing to pay. It can influence that as well.”

Johnson says that The Gazebo’s $20 city-limit delivery service instituted two years ago led to increased sales of the service and the number of items purchased per sale. “We have had increased requests because of COVID-19,” he says.

Convenience-driven DIFM and DIY

Alonso Johnson

For many IGCs, custom container design and planting has been a steady moneymaker for years now. Rather than buying pots and plants for home planting, more and more consumers turn to IGCs to design, plant, grow and deliver finished creations. But Johnson says The Gazebo experiences a growing demand for a DIFM-DIY blend.

“We’ve seen a change in demographics, definitely a younger millennial crowd coming in,” he says. “They are DIYers. They prefer to do it themselves, but they need a little assistance.” In response, the IGC created a convenient “planting bar” — especially popular with younger consumers, who bring children and plant up pots in-store. An older, more affluent demographic prefers the convenience of custom pots, done at their home and switched out every season.

Meadows Farms started offering container consultant Sharon Hadden’s Grab & Go program last year. “We’ve started doing that more aggressively this year,” Lewis says. “It’s been hard to keep up with getting the potting done more than anything.”

Delivering purchases to the curbside has become a staple at many garden centers like The Gazebo.
Pandemic restrictions have been good for business at Meadows Farms Nurseries & Landscape. Without leisure activities like soccer games and vacations, IGCs have been able to dominate.

Post-pandemic plans

Bobby Lewis

DIFM landscape plans and plantings have also been on the upswing. Meadows Farms offers a “Pick and Plant” service designed to fill demand for small landscape jobs. Customers pick out the plants, but the planting is done for them. “Before the virus hit and going into this year, the momentum was all with install,” Lewis says. “People want it done for them. They’re very busy.”

Lewis expects interest in the service will grow as a new, post-pandemic normal emerges and the shift from DIY to DIFM continues. “It’s kind of an evolution. Customers do some stuff on their own and then want it to be better. Then they call the landscape department and get it professionally done and that gives it that really nice look,” he says.

The Gazebo also offers the convenience of a “You Pick, We Plant” service, but the star of the season is their “We Plan, You Plant” program. Previously an in-store service, the program involves customers providing pictures of their small-project sites and in-store designers creating personalized plans. Then customers pick up the plants and plant themselves.

Johnson decided last fall to offer take the “We Plan, You Plant” service online this year — just in time for COVID-19. “Going online has taken it to another level,” he says, pointing to added convenience for customers and designers.

Lewis shares how stressful this spring has been for Meadows Farms staff. “Our operation — not only the pure business, but how we’re doing business — is much more difficult than our usual year,” he says. But the IGC is firmly convinced and committed to convenience-related offerings.

Like Johnson, Lewis expects to keep convenience services added during pandemic times, albeit improved and more efficient. “No. 1, I think it will be a while before we get back to whatever normal is going to be, but I also think the demand will continue. It falls more in line with the Amazon-type ordering that I’m seeing growing so much,” he says. “I think those things are here to stay to a degree. People like the convenience of it.

Many consumers have enjoyed the convenience of the buy online, pick up in store option, and curbside service is a trend that may continue in a post-pandemic world.

“We’re going to continue to add seminars, workshops, activities for kids — all hard to do at the moment — but we’ll pick up the direction we were headed in,” Lewis adds. “We have to give them the convenience, and when they do come out, give them an experience. I think both those methods can be developed and do real well for us.”

Johnson says that making the customer experience as convenient as possible reinforces that The Gazebo is responsive to customer needs and desires. “People appreciate that we appreciate them,” he says. “We respect our customers and honor their suggestions so that we can grow and continue to do right by them.”

While retailers need to be nimble, Cullen also emphasizes being focused and informed about convenience and its role in retail’s future. As consumers experience and enjoy convenience innovations, whether related to COVID-19 or not, they expect their chosen retailers to follow suit.

“Understand the fact that this issue of convenience is happening across the retail landscape, and retailers of all sizes in all industries are rolling out these solutions. You have to be able to keep up with that,” Cullen says.

“But the other thing we would point out is that it’s important to relate this to your own business and your own brand and what works for you and your customers. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, but making sure that your customers have as frictionless an experience as possible.” The IGC that understands that wins.

The author is a freelance writer specializing in horticulture-related industries. Reach her at

June 2020
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