The Philadelphia Flower Show, which was hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society June 3-15, featured dazzling displays at this year’s event, which was themed “Habitat: Nature’s Masterpiece.” Held outdoors for the first time in the show’s 193-year history, it featured more than 75 installations and floral displays spanning over 15 acres of space in Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. Here are some of the show-stopping exhibitions that caught our eye.
Growing and thriving as an independent garden center means making meaningful connections and engaging with our customers on a level that feels authentic and natural. For our own sake, and that of our audience. When it comes to customer targeting and marketing, what feels natural to women and men often differs greatly. When deciding on whether to cater to one or the other, your choice and strategy should reflect your core business goals and values, and, of course, the products and services you think can garner you the most profit.
Typically, garden center customer demographics are so varied that it behooves most businesses to develop multiple customer avatars, then target each one when and how it makes the most sense. That said, there’s nothing wrong with going all-in for one primary customer profile — or sex — if putting all your eggs in that basket makes sense for your business.
Generally speaking, men tend to be loyal to specific brands they can relate to, while women tend to be much more loyal to good service, regardless of brand. Good service for men often equates to being able to find exactly the product they need quickly and without assistance. For women, good customer service is often far more nuanced. The experience and trust-building become more important. How you speak to women and the experience they’ll have, not just the products you have on hand, is a crucial differentiator. So, are you a product- and convenience-focused operation, or are you more experience-focused?
While the bulk of our IGC customers have traditionally been women, I’ve been asked if it’s a smart idea for garden centers to cater directly to a male audience. More specifically, how would a garden center know if this is a good strategy? Well, I suppose that depends on your goals, specific products and services, and your location within your city or region. Your local demographics, and from how far you tend to draw customers, should always be a major factor in who and how you target. It’s also important, when choosing a target customer, to consider overall consumer trends related to what you offer. The percentage of Americans engaged in lawn care plus gardening activities bottomed out big time in 2019. In 2019 The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey showed a historic low of only 8.7% of Americans 15 years and older engaged in lawn care and related gardening activities (tilling, hardscape, etc.). More and more, lawn care and such heavier gardening tasks often taken on by the male gardener of the house, have been outsourced.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, decidedly swung the pendulum in the opposite direction, nearly doubling the number of first-time gardeners in 2020. That said, flower gardening, vegetable gardening, wildlife support and houseplants (versus lawn care and traditional heavy DIY landscaping) headline the consumer conversation. So, taking a male-centric approach to your IGC marketing could be a risky endeavor if you expect to grow sales in traditional lawn and landscape products. If, however, you’ve pivoted to offer more edibles, wildlife-friendly plants, and indoor gardening plants and products, then you may have more success.
Conventional generalities aside, I’ve seen a visible uptick in young male gardeners making their new plant passions public, especially when it comes to their houseplants and vegetable gardens. I’ve also observed plant-related interests becoming more homogeneous between the sexes. Women appear to be doing a lot more landscaping and garden building, and men are digging into a lot more flower and indoor gardening. Therefore, differentiating between a male and female audience within your customer base — at least when it comes to product and service categories — will probably become less important over time. Younger gardeners of both sexes also tend to ally more closely with brands they feel they can trust, from a big-picture standpoint.
Sustainability, transparency, authenticity and lifestyle relevance all play heavily in building trust with the next generation of gardeners — male and female alike.
Ultimately, figuring out how to target both women and men distinctly and appropriately within your customer base comes down to understanding their pain points and how they correlate to your business goals. What problems do women need solved, versus men, when it comes to the products and services you have to offer? Time is a critical pain point for most people but women who are juggling primary childcare duties, domestic duties and an outside job bear a distinct burden. This is one of the reasons the experience they have during the time they give you is so important. Convenience and productivity are often classic male consumer pain points, so having what they need when they want it on demand is non-negotiable. Again, these are generalities — and these pain points cross over to both sexes — but generalities exist for a reason.
When deciding whether to cater primarily to either men or women — or both equally — always fall back to your primary company mission and goals. Having a clear company identity, value system and brand will always help guide you to the right customer.
Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com
I became a volunteer master gardener with our local cooperative extension a year before I became an employee at a local garden center. When I started work at Hyannis Country Garden, one of my fellow master gardeners made it a point to loudly complain about my new workplace. It seemed that the previous spring one of the employees had identified a six-pack of marigolds as tomatoes. When I learned the details about this misidentification, I was more annoyed at my fellow volunteer than my IGC’s employee. It turned out that this master gardener, a rather cranky guy to begin with, had taken a six-pack, removed the label, and asked the teenager who had been hired as a summer laborer to identify the plant for him. Unfortunately, the high school kid decided to guess. Clearly, this was a case of entrapment. The master gardener had zeroed in on the youngest, most inexperienced person, and that kid had been set up to fail.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a peevish plant expert to illicit misinformation out of some employees. I was recently on a design consultation, and the homeowner told me that she’d purchased several shrubs at another nursery. She was told by one of their staff that these shrubs needed to be fertilized weekly with one of the blue-liquid fertilizers, using a hose-end sprayer. She purchased both the sprayer and a large box of the fertilizer on his recommendation. I was outraged on her behalf.
These two situations show how poor information gets spread. In the first case, an inexperienced employee didn’t want to admit that he didn’t recognize the plant he was looking at. In the second instance, bad advice was given out of ignorance combined with the desire to make an add-on sale. Those who’ve been in this business for a long time know that giving customers the bum steer about plants will come back to bite you.
Twenty-five years ago, that grumpy master gardener could only complain to his neighbors and friends. Today, unreasonable customers can badmouth us on online review sites and social media. And customers who are given bad cultural advice are very likely to come back to the store with that fertilizer-burned plant in their hand, asking for a refund.
So how can a garden center make sure that employees with different levels of knowledge and skillsets are on the same page when it comes to guiding customers? Here are some talking points for your staff; these policies can be shared with new hires during their onboarding process, and repeated in team meetings with experienced staff.
• First, do no harm. When it comes to the environment, we need to adopt the saying that’s attributed to the Greek physician, Hippocrates. Staff members can be encouraged to always start by recommending organic or least-toxic products. We all know that there are customers who won’t be satisfied unless they have something to spray on a plant, even if we tell them the damage they see doesn’t need treatment.
Giving such clients a bottle of insecticidal soap in such cases, for example, is a good practice as it’s not likely to cause further problems. Remind your staff about your company’s go-to products and practices.
• It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.” Most customers respect someone willing to admit that they don’t know the answer, but are willing to help. “I don’t know, but I’ll find someone who does,” is the perfect response. If an employee doesn’t have the answer to a customer’s question, encourage them to not only seek out the staff member who does, but to stay and listen to the answer so that next time they’ll be ready with a response.
• Read the label. Encourage your staff to read the label on pesticides to make sure they are effective for use on the customer’s problem. Sometimes our clients will remember what we say instead of reading a product’s label, making it even more important that we know that our recommendations are in line with the product instructions.
• Know suggested products. Provide your employees with a list of soil amendments and problem solvers that are typically recommended to customers. Since many situations are seasonal, this information is perfect for a weekly team huddle or staff meeting. “The XYZ insect is out now, so our customers might be in asking about the damage on their roses. Here’s what we recommend for these folks right now.” As the year goes on, appoint one of your staff to keep a list of typical seasonal questions and problems, along with your go-to solutions for customers. Such a month-to-month calendar will not only be helpful for new employees but can be used for blogs and social media posts in the future.
• Encourage regional resources. Keep a list of the best regional sources for good information such as Cooperative Extension Service websites, and the Missouri Botanical Garden plant listings. (bit.ly/RegionalPlantListings) Print these out and have them available by the registers or in your customer service area. This will be useful for your staff and your customers.
• Educate about add-on sales. Provide your staff with training about what add-on sales are appropriate. For example, your business might feel that time-release, synthetic fertilizers are useful when a client is putting annuals in window boxes or pots, but that a granular, organic fertilizer is better for shrubs and perennials. Don’t assume that everyone on your staff knows such information. Make it clear so that everyone is on the same page.
If you find that someone on your team has been sharing bad advice or misinformation, use this as a learning experience for everyone. Provide that staff member with the correct information without shaming them for giving poor guidance. As I frequently remind my customers, one of the best things about plants, gardens and science is that there is always something new to learn.
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 www.GardenLady.com
70 Years: Hillermann Nursery & Florist
The industry has seen some big anniversaries this year, marking decades of growth, change and adaptation. We wanted to take a moment to recognize some of the biggest milestones IGCs have hit in 2021. If your garden center is celebrating a big anniversary, we’d love to hear about it! Email Editor Kate Spirgen at email@example.com with the good news.
Hillermann Nursery & FLORIST, a large family-owned nursery/garden center in Washington, Missouri, celebrated its 70th anniversary during the month of April. “We are so honored and excited to celebrate this longtime milestone! We are grateful to all our customers who have supported us over all the years. We could not have done this without our customers, and of course, founders Don and Bernie,” said Sandi Hillermann McDonald, CEO. In celebration, the company offered giveaways and prizes to their customers each week in April. Many wonderful prizes were given to customers with help from the company’s suppliers, and some prizes were directly from Hillermann.
Founded by Don Hillermann in the spring of 1951, Hillermann Nursery started out as a hobby. Don’s brother Bernie joined him in 1953 and a partnership was formed. One year later, having been laid off from their factory positions, the two became full-time nurserymen. The business was started at the old location on West 5th Street in Washington. From these beginnings, Hillermann Nursery & Florist has flourished. The company moved to its current location at 2601 East 5th Street in November of the year 2000.
Today Hillermann, a 2020 Top 100 Independent Garden Center, is a large, diversified company, employing more than 80 people and providing a wide variety of services. Departments and services include garden center, nursery, florist/gift shop, landscape and irrigation design, installation and maintenance, landscape lighting, grading and seeding, snow removal, spraying, and lawn and garden equipment sales, parts and service. You can shop for local wine, wine- and beer-making supplies, beekeeping supplies, bird and wildlife items, and beautiful décor and patio furniture along with a great selection of plants and lawn and garden items. There are always unique items and displays to discover.
Several greenhouses are in use at the current location where the company grows some of the plant products that are available in the nursery and greenhouse. Hillermann staff members also create beautiful container gardens and hanging baskets. The company strives to make all of its plant items the best quality possible.
Second-generation family members actively continue the business. It is through the inspiration of Don and Bernie Hillermann that they can continue on with many years of service.
Learn more about Hillermann at bit.ly/igcanniversaries.
75 years: Wedel’s Nursery, Florist and Garden Center
Wedel’s Nursery, Florist and Garden Center had its beginning in 1946 when Harley Wedel opened a produce store in Kalamazoo. Stocking the shelves with what was grown on the family farm, “Wedel’s Fruit and Produce Store” got its start. In 1953 some evergreens, trees and shrubs were planted behind one of the farm sheds. Harley soon had the love of plants in his blood, and it wasn’t long before he put his entire effort into the nursery business. He and his boys, Dick, George and Roger grew most of the plants at the family farm.
By 1955 all produce was cleared out and Harley opened Kalamazoo’s first complete one-stop garden center and retail nursery sales lot — “Wedel’s Evergreen Gardens.” The store nearly tripled within three years and forced Wedel’s Nursery and Garden Center to move in 1969 to its second location, 5922 S. Westnedge in Portage. Three years later, Wedel’s moved its nursery stock growing operation from the Portage location to an 80-acre farm in Galesburg, where they now grow most of the nursery stock sold at their garden center.
Wedel’s opened a florist department led by Joyce Wedel in 1982, and in 1988, it underwent a major overhaul in which they modernized the offices, check-out area and several buildings.
Once again, Wedel’s outgrew its location, so in 2000 a new store was built on 25 acres. In 2001, Wedel’s Nursery, Florist and Garden Center opened Southwest Michigan’s Premier Horticultural Center. The new facility incorporated more spacious display areas, covered walks into and out of their nursery area, display gardens, bulk landscape materials, expanded annual and perennial display and a larger florist department.
The founder of Wedel’s, Harley D. Wedel, passed away on April 27, 1998, at the age of 91. Dick ran the nursery growing operation until his passing in 2008, when his son Larry took over. After being CEO and the store’s general manager for decades, George passed away in 2020, as did his wife, Joyce, and daughter Bonnie, who ran the floral department together for over 30 years.
Roger, with the help of George’s son, Andy, who is now the general manager, George’s daughter, Terrie, Dick’s son, Larry, and Roger’s daughters, Kay and Karen, are now running the business. The green thumb is truly hereditary, since some of the fourth generation, Andrea, Zach and Caleb, are now joining the business.
Any time you visit their store, you see how the love of plants has grown in this family.
After spending a week touring the California coast, exploring the newest plant introductions and chatting with industry folks, I’m happy to say that the excitement about plants is palpable. It was the first in-person event for many of us in over a year and I couldn’t wait to have face-to-face conversations after far too many Zoom calls.
What I heard time and time again from plant experts at the trials was how easy it has been over the past year or so to get their friends and families involved in gardening. They’re fielding questions left and right about plant selection, fertilizers, pesticides, pruning and all sorts of challenges new gardeners face in their first few years. Their curiosity was peaked last year and they can’t wait to grow even bigger, better gardens this summer.
I’ve noticed this in my own circle as well. As I’ve learned more and more about plants over the past few years, I’ve shared that knowledge with my friends, family and even neighbors, who often share their tips and tricks with me as well. We’ve all been through the same struggles of wet springs, tough clay soil and pesky critters like rabbits, squirrels and deer. The more we talk, the more we learn and the more excited we get about new plants and techniques to try.
Even people who had never dug in the dirt before last year are now talking about their thriving geraniums and showing off their budding tomato plants on social media. They’re officially hooked and they can’t get enough.
While last spring may have been the introduction to the garden for many, those new plant enthusiasts are looking for more and more and more knowledge wherever they can find it. Of course, you can find a lot of information online, there’s nothing like a real, in-person chat to fuel that passion for planting. And what better place to have those conversations than the local independent garden center? So how are creating a space for conversation? I’d love to hear all about your efforts to create community and retain COVID-era gardeners!
And if you’ve been hosting events, educational sessions, workshops, happy hours or get-togethers of any kind, I’ll bet you’re seeing some of that same excitement at your garden center.
I’ve been hearing great things about spring sales from ticket sales to customer numbers to gross revenues. I hope those numbers look just as good going into the summer and beyond.