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Top 100 garden centers share the tactics that set their businesses apart from the competition in 2021.

The 2022 Top 100 garden centers have valuable insights to share about how they’re retaining good staff, ways they’re setting themselves apart and initiatives to build community. We spoke to three IGCs for their best tips on making the most of the gardening boom.

Editor’s note: Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Photo © Adobe Stock | FollowTheFlow

Birds of a feather

Flamingo Road Nursery in Davie, Florida, (No. 60 on the Top 100 List), last made an appearance on our 2017 list and returns this year to share some innovative initiatives. The garden center made a big push to grow its Flock loyalty club last year through a big membership drive. Owner Jim Dezell shares details on the program, renovations and more.

Garden Center magazine: What are some of the benefits of the Flock membership program and how do you promote it?

Jim Dezell: Creating a long-term customer relationship and sense of community through Flock membership is a very important goal and a metric we monitor in our hourly business reports which all managers receive. We know that approximately 27% of our daily business is done with existing Flock members and every cashier and associate knows that our goal is to sign up 30% of the non-Flock customers. We call this our FCR (Flock Conversion Rate).

We communicate with our Flock through our weekly (Wednesday) Flamingo Flyer email blast which is sent out to 22,000 members and is growing by approximately 500 per week. Because we have a loyal membership and we provide real value in terms of weekly BOGO or other attractive promotions, our open rate averages 37%, which I’ve been told is triple typical retail.

Photo courtesy of Flamingo Road Nursery

GC: How did Flamingo Road decide on its tropical theme?

JD: We opened up in 2005, just days after Hurricane Wilma ripped through South Florida. It was an especially active hurricane season and the local television stations were fixated with [the message] “There’s trouble in the tropics.” My managerial team brainstormed, and we combated this negativity with the subline on our logo: “Celebrating life in the tropics!”

As a new business, I was most interested in a name which would be easy to remember and be locational. Being located on Flamingo Road offered the perfect name and all the benefits that come with the official funky icon of Florida — the pink flamingo!

Photo courtesy of Flamingo Road Nursery

GC: How did you decide to build five new tiki structures on the property over the past year?

JD: Our goal is to be experiential retail, and this requires a physical space that transcends traditional retail. All of our retail buildings are surround a central landscaped pond that features brightly colored Caribbean-inspired cabanas. Tiki huts accentuate this tropical vibe and support our mantra “Celebrate Life In The Tropics With Us.”

GC: What sets your garden center apart from the competition?

JD: We are one of the only full-service garden centers in our market offering plant care products, gifts, pottery, plants, delivery and installation services. Nearly all of our competitors sell only plants.

Photo courtesy of Flamingo
Road Nursery

To further differentiate ourselves, we have a full-time farmers market/café which adds to the shopping experience tremendously as people can spend more time enjoying food and our famous smoothies. In fact, the farmers market has become a destination in itself with people purchasing garden center items out of impulse.

Our greatest differentiator and strong source for social media buzz is our seasonal events. No other garden center in our market offers an Easter Celebration, Fall Festival (pumpkins and hayrides) and Christmas (live tree sales and Santa). With the downfall of the regional malls, we have become the place where families celebrate the seasons and take memorable photos, year after year.

GC: How is your garden center working to connect with newer gardeners and keep them coming back?

JD: As with all garden centers, we were blessed to see many new customers in 2020-21. We signed up as many as possible to join our Flock. We also have garden talks throughout the year every Saturday and Sunday focusing on different plants and gardening techniques. This information is very helpful to beginners. Since succulents have been such a popular category with younger gardeners, we built an entire greenhouse full of them rather than devoting just part of our shade house. This also freed up space in the shade house to have more houseplants — another fast-growing category. Of course, the most important thing we do to keep younger gardeners coming back is to be friendly and encourage them. You won’t hear any Latin plant talk at FRN!

Building connections and community

After realizing its onboarding process needed an overhaul, Abide A-While Garden Boutique in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, (No. 95 on the Top 100 List) shifted its focus to engaging new hires and keeping them excited throughout their first month. Bruce Donaldson, president, shares some of the first-time Top 100 IGC’s best practices.

Garden Center magazine: What are some successful tactics for onboarding younger employees?

Bruce Donaldson: First, our office manager emails new them a ‘Welcome Letter’ a few days before their start date encouraging them to ask questions like what to wear, what to bring, how the first day will go, etc. We found that this was a good start for the curious ones and gave them a source to ask more questions. We also simplified the paperwork and handbook down to about 30 minutes.

Once they have a locker, shirts, timecard and a brief tour of where everything is, they meet their manager who introduces them to their team and reviews their job description with them.

They’ll shadow a more experienced employee for their first week. We have found that younger employees are very social and appreciate being allowed time to interact with others.

Photo © Glenn Clark I GC Photography

GC: How do you retain those younger employees?

BD: Our management team goes to great lengths to create and maintain a warm, friendly work environment —a place for everyone to be friends … which makes it easy for new hires to settle in. When asked what we are doing to keep younger employees, a seasoned employee remarked, “a beautiful place to work and a great community culture.”

Ideas that work for us [include] refrigerators kept stocked with free sparkling water of different flavors and brands, Gatorade, water, light snacks like fruit, crackers, popsicles or yogurt. We also hold seasonal after-hour dinners or plant workshops just for staff.

GC: How do you find and retain more established employees?

BD: We try to promote from within whenever possible by allowing people to learn more about what they are interested in or what brought them to our business in the first place: gardening and plants. Some staff start out as a cashiers or loaders in one season and move into sales or a leadership role. We are trying to do a better job of communicating with our staff to help them see a career with us.

GC: What sets your garden center apart from the competition?

BD: We are a 65-year-old, family-run garden center with a high-end gift shop, surrounded by large oak trees in a beautiful setting. Customers can still purchase the tried and true while finding inspiration in exciting new houseplants, flowers and gifts. But most of all, it is our people, who are happy, engaging and knowledgeable!

GC: How is your garden center working to connect with newer gardeners and keep them coming back?

BD: Our community is rapidly growing with lots of competition for people’s time. COVID kept us apart and our free plant care classes and workshops are bringing new customers to us every day. Our beautiful setting with garden displays helps a customer see what a plant, garden or fruit tree might look like five years down the road. Our marketing team promotes what we are doing primarily on Instagram and social media with current and relevant posts and stories.

Photo © Glenn Clark I GC Photography

Customer confidence

Making a comeback to the list this year is The Farm at Green Village, which hasn’t appeared since the inaugural Top 100 List in 2011. The 32-acre New Jersey garden center (No. 46 on the Top 100 List) boasts an impressive selection of plants and hard goods, making it a destination for shoppers from all over the state.

David Brill, vice president, will be taking the reins of the 43-year-old garden center over from his parents in the coming years and shared how they’re creating a happy workplace, what’s selling well and how to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Garden Center magazine: How does The Farm at Green Village retain good staff?

David Brill: Aside from compensation, I believe some of our customer service policies help retain staff. If it’s easy for a sales associate to keep a customer happy, it’s easier for them to be happy doing their job.

Nothing good ever comes out of a situation where a customer has a problem with a product they’ve purchased. And since plants are usually the issue, we allow our staff to make them happy without breaking the bank because most of the time it’s something under $100. Plus, giving the staff the ability to handle customer service issues on their own makes the store run more efficiently. They’re not tying up a register waiting for a supervisor for a simple situation.

It sounds strange but we’ve had some staff come over from other garden centers and they’ll say, “This is so much more enjoyable than my old job where I was constantly telling people no.”

GC: What sets The Farm at Green Village apart from the competition?

DB: We focus on primarily being a retail garden center. We’re not a wholesale yard, which I think helps us differentiate from a lot of companies. We also have extensively used a point-of-sale system for over a decade now. And a lot of our competition, I believe, does not have that. So just pulling reports, figuring out your customers, what they’re buying, and everything you can get from a point-of-sale system helps us differentiate ourselves for our customers, especially with guarantees/store credits, and buying.

Photo © Glenn Clark I GC Photography

GC: How is your garden center working to connect with newer gardeners and keep them coming back?

DB: COVID was a wild ride for all of us. We’ve all had exponential growth during these past two to three years. As a result, now that the world is getting back to normal, we’ve had a significant drop in customer count for this calendar year. People are back to normal and they’re traveling, and they’re also becoming a little hesitant to spend with the way the economy is right now. So keeping them coming back is going to be interesting over the next two to three years.

We spend a lot of money advertising with billboards, online and direct mail through our advertising agency. So hopefully that will help retain our increased customer base. We’ve been with them for about four years now, so before COVID happened, we already had an advertising campaign set up.

GC: What have been some of your best-selling products and plants over the past two years?

DB: Over the past few years, our annual department had very healthy growth in 2019 to 2020. It was insane growth, but the fact that we were able to grow on top of that from ‘20 to ’21 is very impressive.

But a lot of people were buying the raised bed mixes; they were mulching their properties themselves because they were all trapped at home. There were so many new buyers too, since the house market boomed and people were moving out of the cities.

Houseplants more than tripled in sales volume from 2019 to 2021 and over those two years, our nursery stock almost doubled. I mean, everything had incredible growth.

Pottery was pretty impressive as well. It more than doubled in two years. We always have a good inventory of pottery because you can’t sell it if you don’t have it. So in 2020, we were able to sell a lot of old stock that was on the floor.

Since we keep good working inventory year round, we were able to fulfill a lot of demand.