State Of The Industry: Customer Traffic Jam

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Download: The Complete Today’s Garden Center State Of The Industry Report

You’ve read the highlights and analysis, but there’s much more information available from the 2010 Today’s Garden Center State Of The Industry survey.

Click here for our 17-page State of the Industry white paper and find out in their own words what retailers think are their opportunities and challenges, and the hottest trends for 2010.

There are no if, ands or buts about it – 2009 was a tough and interesting year. We heard many garden centers across the country experience a banner month of May, but a dismal everything else.

Don’t fret. The following business strategies were highlights in 2009 for many garden centers that took part in our State of the Industry survey – highlights they will carry with them into 2010.

A Great Place To Work
For Rita Randolph, the hiring process at Randolph’s Greenhouses in Jackson, Tenn., is simple. “When people call and ask for a job, my first question is have you ever been here?” If they say, “no,” then that’s where the call ends. “The joke is, people come in the door and say, ‘This would be such a great place to work,’ and the other employees start laughing, because that’s what they said.”

Randolph says that hiring current customers as seasonal workers can be a blessing when it comes time for layoffs. “They know how the seasons work. They know what they’re getting into.”

Eric Hill of Autumn Hill Nursery in Woodstock, Ga., agrees. “The reason we’ve hired customers is because we get to know them before we’ve hired them,” he says. “We get a general feel for people. And they’re usually a good fit because they’re enthusiastic about gardening.” Hill adds that he keeps his hired customers scheduled as part-timers. “I don’t want them to get burned out and ruin their hobby.”

One huge perk to hiring a customer who happens to be an avid gardener is the volume of dirt-under-the-fingernails experience they have.
“They end up taking home plants left and right,” he says. “Trying them out in their yards. When you’re walking with a customer, trying to explain a plant’s performance, more often than not, someone on staff has it in their yard. Everyone has a story to tell about different plants.”

Hill says his employees can also relate, since they’ve previously been in the customer’s shoes. “They know what’s important. They the know the value of the dollar. They tend to know the right questions to ask.”

Some additional benefits with hiring reliable customers include the power of word of mouth. Susan Wolf of Wolf’s Blooms & Berries in Bowling Green, Ohio, who has had continued success hiring her customers, says customers definitely help bring new customers to your store – their family, friends and neighbors. Wolf has never had to advertise to fill empty job openings. She actually has a waiting list.

Also, these customers-turned-employees are big fans of the employee discount. Chuck Porto of Iowa City Landscaping & Garden Center has seen many of the customers he’s hired spend a significant portion of their paycheck at work. “Gloves or plants, it certainly helps when your employees are users of the products you sell,” Porto says. These same employees are generally easier to work with when it comes to scheduling, he says. “We’re in a college town and have typically hired college kids for seasonal work. But finals week is around Mother’s Day and they usually need time off for that. And many don’t want to start until after school is done.”

For Heather Klose at Ken Matthews Garden Center in Yorktown, Va., her major staffing challenge in 2009 was cutting back on her typical seasonal hires. “Our experienced, knowledgable employees were doing more tasking around the garden center this year,” she says. “Because we didn’t have the extra help for things like watering, and aesthetic up-keep, there was a little stress.”

To remedy the sometimes unbalanced demands of tending to plants and also customer inquiries, Ken Matthews rearranged their busy-season hours.
“We slid our opening time back an hour. The staff was able to come in at the normal time that they used to, and get the morning watering done without any interruption,” Klose explains.

All Signs Point To …
While many retailers “went small” with square-foot gardening this year, particularly with vegetables, Bill Butcher of Red Barn Greenhouse in Centreville, Mich., has continued to drive new traffic to his location by doing things a little bit bigger.

Since 1994, Butcher’s garden center has used billboards with great success. So much so that it has become his primary form of advertising – ditching newspaper altogether and reducing airtime on a popular, local radio station.  “It’s made a difference, especially since we’re not on a main drag,” says Butcher. Covering the peak season, all five of the Red Barn’s 10 feet by 30 feet signs go up the second week of April and come down in mid June.

They are laid out in a circle, which has drawn new traffic to the garden center from all directions. When Red Barn first started using the billboards 13 years ago, it cost Butcher $425. “Now it costs us about $740 a month to have them up,” he says. “But it’s still worth it because they’re up 24 hours a day and some locations are lighted.”

Planning For Next Year
“With so many customers calling in the offseason with harvesting questions, freezing, preserving and canning is important. How can we educate our customers to be successful with this? We’ll probably do a canning class next year and have an extension agent come out for a free class and talk about what to buy, when to do it.”
-Susan Wolf, Wolf’s Blooms & Berries, Bowling Green, Ohio

“We’re looking at doing more, smaller customer incentives. Like free delivery for a week. Where a customer comes in and buys a certain amount
of plant material. Then we’ll deliver it for free. Small things like that, that we can offer on a weekly basis or every other week.”
-Heather Klose, Ken Matthews Garden Center, Yorktown, Va.

“Putting on free programs is the best way to interest and educate [customers]. Which is important in this economy when everyone is itching for anything free, entertainment-wise. This generation is used to being entertained everywhere we look.
“We’ll also be focusing much more on inventory control. We need to be more picky with what we accept from our suppliers. If a plant comes in and it’s not 100 percent retail ready to go on the shelf, we have the right to reject. Because no matter how much you discount a plant, if it doesn’t look perfect, it can still be very difficult to sell it to people.”
-Jennifer Schamber, Greenscape Gardens, Manchester, Mo
 

Depending on your jurisdiction, “The real beauty of these signs is if they don’t have the billboard space sold after you, they’ll leave your board up,” explains Butcher. There have been a number of times Red Barn billboards were left up an additional two months, carrying the greenhouse well through summer.

For those garden centers considering billboard advertising, there are five key points Butcher stresses for success:
1. Seven words and a logo. “If you have too much on a board, people driving by won’t be able to read it fast enough.”
2. Accept credit cards. “The best thing we did was put the Visa and Mastercard logo on there.”
3. Get in early. “Plan well ahead to get the best locations.”
4. Stoplights. Main roads and stoplights are a billboard’s best friends. Plenty of traffic and a reason to slow down and stop are a great way to get that sign noticed.
5. Facing the right way. “Make sure the billboard is facing the right direction, facing the traffic coming towards you.”
“We have a sign in downtown Three Rivers that fights for space with McDonald’s and Dodge,” Butcher says. “And while consumers might be within a mile and a half of Home Depot or Meijer’s, they see our sign at a stoplight and drive the six miles out to come see us.”

Square-Foot Solutions
Greenscape Gardens’ Jennifer Schamber says it best: “Veggie gardening is a gateway to other gardening for new customers. It’s our best method of luring them into garden shop.” And in 2009, vegetable gardening was, in fact, the “in” thing to do. To capitalize on this, many garden centers took something old and seemingly made it new again – square-foot gardening.

Kim Hartmann of Countryside Flower Shop in Crystal Lake, Ill., says square-foot gardening has become popular with gardeners who have downsized to townhouses or condominiums and have less gardening space to work with now. “So more and more Boomers will convert to this style of gardening as they continue to downsize their living areas,” she adds.

One way Eric Hill at Autumn Hill Nursery in Woodstock, Ga., took advantage of this down-sized concept was with spring and fall workshops, just to show his customers how simple and convenient a garden like this can be.

“We show that these gardens can be used virtually anywhere,” Hill says. “The workshop we had in the fall was very interactive. Attendees who had already done a square-foot garden earlier in the year were answering questions from others in the audience.” In addition to advising customers on soil choices and plant mixes, Autumn Hill sells a square-foot gardening kit. “The idea is convenience,” Hill says. “We have a kit that includes the wood, screws and soil. Then we help them pick out the plants.”

Keeping with convenience as a theme, the landscape design team at Ken Matthews Garden Center in Yorktown, Va., is all about making it easy for their ambitious do-it-yourself customers. “What I have seen this year is homeowners wanting to do it themselves,” says Heather Klose of Ken Matthews. “At least, in their minds they want to do it themselves.”

This Virginia garden center has patio design samples on display to inspire customers. “Then, if they want to put in their own patio, they can order the materials from us,” Klose says. “We deliver everything to them, instruct them how to do it and then it becomes their project. Something they can take ownership of.”

Ken Matthews offers different levels of patio design assistance. “We will do anything for them,” she says. “If a customer wants us to excavate and prepare for the patio, we can do that. We can also just put in the base material and then drop off the pavers and the customer can put them in. But typically, the customer ends up saying, ‘Do it. Just finish it.’”

Mihalek is a former Meister Media Worldwide editor.

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