To Market, To Market

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For many garden centers across the country, the category of outdoor living has become a strong revenue generator. This can be an exciting category to explore, but the purchasing end can be daunting for those retailers with little experience with this product line.
Before meeting with a sales rep or heading off to one of the major markets, every buyer should have a solid grasp of several purchasing guidelines.

Know Your Customers

After all, you are buying for them. Novice buyers often make the mistake of purchasing things that appeal to their personal tastes, forgetting they are not buying for themselves. An understanding of your core customer will help you winnow down what can be an overwhelming slate of products. Although hard to predict, be aware of economic trends in your market and how they might affect your customers’ purchasing habits. Certain product lines, such as furniture, are ordered and shipped months before they are sold, which means that unforeseen economic conditions may require early discounting in order to move through inventory. This factor is one that every buyer must monitor carefully and react to accordingly. Over time, your store will become a reflection of your customers’ tastes and preferences and will mirror the market.

Know Your Sales Floor

Every buyer should develop the ability to know where the product will be placed on the sales floor before it is purchased. Of course, it is impossible to intuitively know the exact layout of the floor ahead of time, but you should at least have an understanding of the size and limits of your sales areas. A very skilled buyer once told us that she never buys anything unless she can visualize where it will go in the store.

Know Your “Open To Buy”

The “open to buy” is a tool that sets parameters to assist the buyer with investing inventory dollars. Simply stated, it combines sales goals with margin targets and calculates the overall inventory needed to reach both. It then subtracts current inventory amounts, leaving you with how many dollars you should spend on new product to achieve those goals. The further you can break a category down into classes, the easier it is to decide where to invest. Although your open to buy is an extremely useful tool, it is not an exact science. Inventory that is front-loaded, reorders and slow-moving products all  affect this ever-changing component of the business module.

Basics And Fashion

“Basics” is a term we use to describe the part of our product mix that is, well, basic. These are tried-and-true items that sell reliably and consistently, even though they may evolve and undergo slight changes over time. Every category has them, and as a buyer, you must know what they are. This is important because these items should comprise 80 percent of your product mix. The remainder falls into a category that we refer to as “fashion,” which is the element of your product mix that might be new, have a color or pattern that is different from the mainstream, or be the start of a trend. We would never downplay the importance of “fashion” in the product mix, but the “basics” pay the bills.

Color Stories And Themes    

Now to the fun part! Successful buyers rarely select an item unless it fits into a color story or a theme. Color stories transcend all product lines and are a key motivator when a consumer makes a purchase. Outdoor living lasts, for most, from March through October. Color stories, therefore, follow this seasonal progression beginning with the lighter side of the color wheel. Red turns to rose, deep blue turns to lilac, orange turns to peach and so on. These colors continue with the product mix into the summer by accenting with darker variations of the same hues. As fall approaches, the palette changes to rich browns, deep reds, burnt oranges and golden yellows. Green, in all of its shades, is a constant presence throughout the season.

The very concept of themes is a great tool to help organize your purchasing. When you conceptualize a theme, you can easily understand what belongs (and more importantly, what doesn’t) in an area. A great one, for example, is outdoor cooking, because besides grills and accessories, one can include bar-height tables and chairs for guests that keep the cook company.

Key Outdoor Living Categories

Furniture. Typically, this is the largest category when it comes to volume, and it therefore carries all of the burdens of storage, display space, assembly and theme organization. Developing consistency in your product offerings from year to year allows your customers to add onto their particular settings over time.

Garden Accessories. These are items designed to add interest to the garden. They can be used as a visual anchor, as with a gazebo, arbor or a large fountain. They can also include small accents such as bird baths, wind chimes or sundials.

Pottery. No landscape is complete without the use of outdoor pottery. The shapes, sizes and colors will complement any setting and add flair to even the most basic patio or garden. Pottery in the garden center should be the most cross-merchandised of all outdoor categories. It is invaluable in its ability to convey color stories in any department.

Your product is only as good as it is displayed on the sales floor. It is crucial that buyers work closely with merchandisers and department managers to
convey the intended visual message. You had a vision when you made your buy – see it through to the very end. 

Scott Daly is the merchandising manager at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, Md. You can eMail him at sdaly@homesteadgardens.com.

Jeanne Rowell is a lead buyer at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, Md. Contact Jeanne at jrowell@homesteadgardens.com.

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