Listen To Your Garden Center Customers

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“No man ever listened himself out of a job.”–Calvin Coolidge

Listening to your customers is a critical business tool. They’re the ones buying your product, so you have to know what they want. We all listen. We field the questions, suggestions, complaints. But, how actively do we pursue that information? It might seem difficult, but there are ways to do it.

Take Today’s Garden Center, for example. With our print magazine, short of conducting an extensive survey or getting feedback about a particular article or product you saw in the issue, there’s really never been a reliable way to tell exactly what you’re reading, what you like and what you don’t.

The Internet is changing things, however. With our Retail Scan e-newsletter (you can sign up at, we get a report that tells us what types of stories are the most popular each week. (For the record, it’s usually variety information, how-to topics that provide useful tools for your business and pretty much any story with bad news about Home Depot.) The benefit both to our editors, and to you as readers, is that we can focus more on the topics that matter to you.

Want The Truth? Ask For It

There are always surprises. In that report, e-news items I think will be big hits sometimes get relatively little attention, and vice versa. But I guess it’s not all that unexpected, really. It’s human nature. We all think we know what’s best for our businesses, and if those fickle customers would just open up their eyes and see how great we are, they’d never go anywhere else, right?

Well, maybe. But I’d say it’s just as likely that no matter how great your garden center and everything you sell there is, you’re probably missing out on some major opportunities by not listening closely enough to what your customers are telling you.

That’s why I was so impressed with the program put together by this month’s cover subjects, Michael Beeck and Jeffrey Buser of Otter Creek, Plymouth, Wis.

Flip to pages 12-13 and read about Otter Creek’s customer advisory board. These guys get it right. They bring a diverse group of customers together a few times a year for a nice evening of wine, dinner, and – oh, yes – a discussion about their garden center. Beeck and Buser find out what the customers like, what they don’t like and what they want. In the end, the advisory board gets a garden center gift certificate, a free meal and an enjoyable night out. Otter Creek gets knowledge that should help it become a more profitable business.

Lessons To Be Learned

You don’t have to go quite to the extent that Otter Creek does to get input from your customers (although why wouldn’t you?). You sure ought to be asking some questions, and listening hard to the answers, however. Survey your patrons. Get a few phone numbers from your customer loyalty program database, call them to say thanks for their business, and ask them what you can do better. Better yet, just walk up to them in the garden center and chat for a few minutes. You’ll be amazed what you learn.

You don’t have to come up with all of the answers on your own. In fact, you’re likely much better off if you don’t even try. You’ve got a whole customer base of great teachers just waiting to give you a lesson on variety selection, merchandising, displays, staffing, and just about everything else you do. All you have to do is listen.

Richard Jones is the group editor for Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.

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