The gift department at Gethsemane Garden Center only accounts for about 10 percent of the company’s sales, but many of its customers know and love the retailer primarily for its Wild Pansy Gift Shop. With a constantly evolving customer base and an economy that can be challenging for a higher-margin category, gifting can be a tricky business to do well. Owner and manager Kathleen Chefas has learned a thing or two over the last 15 years about what it takes to maintain a successful gift department.
Gifts and home décor can be a great way to augment garden center revenues year round – but it’s not a category that’s right for everyone. We asked Chefas to identify a few questions retailers should ask themselves if they’re considering increasing – or decreasing – their focus on gifts. Is gifting right for you?
1 How well do you understand your customer base?
Knowing your customer is a basic tenet of the garden center business, but it’s even more critical in the gift category. Choosing the right plants for your area is one thing. Understanding the trends and the ever-changing tastes of gift shop customers is something else entirely.
In fact, Chefas says, her gift shop has a completely different clientele than the garden center itself. And once you have it figured out, it doesn’t necessarily stay the same. The customer profile in Gethsemane’s Chicago neighborhood has completely changed two or three times over the years, she says.
“You have to figure out who your customer is and what they’re attracted to,” she says. “And if you’re just thinking of getting started in this category, you need to know whether they’re even interested in buying gifts from you. Gifts can do a lot for your business, but not if your customers don’t care.”
2 Can you afford the investment?
Buying gifts isn’t like bringing in plants from a grower, where you may be able to take delivery three times a week and only carry what you need.
“You have to decide what you want, and then order and get it in. These days there’s no getting a quick reorder from anybody,” Chefas says. “If it’s coming from overseas, you almost have to take it on the earliest date you can so you’re guaranteed to have it. If you wait longer in the season, you’re not going to get it.”
All of that means you’re likely to have a lot of money tied up in inventory. You have to have the product on display and backup inventory on hand.
“It’s always a gamble. If you don’t have the money to gamble, right now may be a poor time to do it. I don’t know if I would put the extra pressure on your garden center,” Chefas says. “We sit on a lot of inventory. And we hope we picked right.”
3 Can you commit the effort to buy the category correctly?
Buying for a gift department is a different task than buying for much of the rest of the garden center.
“I think you need a dedicated buyer for gifts. If you’re going to put together displays that merchandise well, you almost have to have just one person doing it,” Chefas says. “Everyone has different tastes and you’ll end up with a hodgepodge that doesn’t come together very well. I see stores that have five people traveling around and I always wonder how that works.”
Another trick to buying gifts is finding merchandise that’s unique, that you won’t find in the next garden center, box store or traditional gift shop up the street. That often means traveling to buy, and looking in out-of-the-way places.
“I never stop looking. We go to the January market in Atlanta for almost a week. I’m going back to New York. I go to gift shows in different areas of the country because you’ll find different vendors there,” she says.
While you’ll want to have a base of vendors and lines you know you’ll be able to count on for sales year after year, you’ll want an equal balance of fresh items and artists to entice your customers and keep them coming back to see what’s new.
“You can’t order everything from one or two companies – you’ll bore your customers,” she says.
4 Are you or one of your staff members a great merchandiser?
You can debate whether straight rows of plant tables are OK for flower displays in the greenhouse. That kind of a display should never even be part of the discussion for the gift department, Chefas says.
“When you merchandise well, it slows down the customer. They want to stop and look. We never just have things lined up on a shelf. Even if it’s a display from a single vendor on four shelves, we work flowers into the displays,” she says.
It pays to broaden your imagination in coming up with interesting merchandising ideas, Chefas says.
“When I go to a show and see something I like, the next thing I do is start looking for things I can merchandise with it,” she says. “It’s never just one thing by itself. I have to have add-ons that will add another dimension to the item.”
For example, one display table in her shop currently is all birds: bird tiles from England, bird reverse glass plates from South Carolina, bird stationary and stamps, bird whistles and bird picture cards. “All those things come together in a really beautiful display, and it’s not just one manufacturer,” she says.
“If you have a good feel for the merchandise and you merchandise things right, you can sell just about anything.”
5 Can you commit to the customer service required?
“In many ways our expectation is not really different for the gift shop than it is for the rest of the garden center, but customer service is everything when someone walks into your shop,” Chefas says.
Just as an employee in the annuals department has to be able to walk a customer through everything they need to know to care for petunias or begonias, the staff in the gift shop needs to know the story behind every piece in a display.
“We have a lot of unique things our staff has to learn. Why is this piece special? Who made that?” she says. “People enjoy hearing that we met the person who designed an item. They’re more likely to buy an item like that than one mass-produced in China.”
Size doesn’t matter. Chefas says you need to be able to talk about an item that costs $3.99 as well as you can talk about a $400 lamp.
“We have a million stories,” she says. “It works.”
So, Is Gifting Right For You?
With all that in mind, is gifting the right place for you to put your efforts for your garden center?
“It’s a hard business right now,” Chefas says. “You have to commit and make a space – it doesn’t have to be big, but you have to commit to the space. Know your customer. Buy thoughtfully. Take the time to merchandise everything really well. And maybe don’t plan on making money at this the first year.”
If you can do all of that and you want to try it, Chefas says, “Go for it. And hang in there. For success in this category, there’s a lot to just hanging in there.”