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Succeed This Holiday Season

August 11, 2010  By Andrew Hind

For a garden centre to evolve into a true four-season operation, it must
by definition embrace seasonal, or holiday, sales in the form of
Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and most especially, Christmas giftware
and décor. Such items are vital to bridging the gap between growing
seasons, and provide valuable additional revenue.

For a garden centre to evolve into a true four-season operation, it must by definition embrace seasonal, or holiday, sales in the form of Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and most especially, Christmas giftware and décor. Such items are vital to bridging the gap between growing seasons, and provide valuable additional revenue.

That being said, it’s one thing to acknowledge that seasonal sales are important, and another thing entirely to know how to be successful at it. Some centres either can’t be bothered with the effort or have simply failed to make it work in the past, and as a result operate only from May to September. Most, however, recognize the potential rewards and have dipped into the holiday décor trade.

On-trend, quality products can help separate your seasonal selection from the cheap mini lights and flimsy décor your competitors have on offer.

Christmas sales far outweigh those of other holidays (in some centres, it can be as much as 50 per cent of the summer trade), and for that reason in this article we focus our attention on the yuletide season. However, the keys to success – buying, merchandising, and selling – are the same for any season, and lessons learned at Christmas time can be equally applied to Easter, Thanksgiving, or Halloween.

The first thing to realize is that on most items you can’t compete with big box stores. Customers that want a bargain will shop elsewhere. Accept that these people aren’t your target audience, and don’t fret the loss of bows, mini-lights, and bulk tree ornaments.

Instead, focus on the reality that most people who shop at a garden centre want something unique and high quality, and that they are willing to pay more for it. These are the same customers who frequent garden centres over warehouse centres for their planting needs during the summer months. They value quality and uniqueness of selection over pricing, and what’s more, are buying into a lifestyle. To succeed, it’s up a garden centre to deliver what they want.

What to buy
The first step to a rewarding holiday season is buying smartly, which begins even before you ever visit trade shows and showrooms.

You only have a month or two to sell holiday décor, so focus on those items that will definitely move off the shelves. After all, there’s a cost involved in packing items back up, warehousing and inventorying them, and then cleaning them up again next season. You may be tempted to stock a large number of high price (and therefore high profit) items, but it does you little good if these showpieces never sell.

Knowing your customer is vital to determining what items to stock. You can use statistics such as average household income and housing prices in your area (readily available at municipal offices or Chambers of Commerce) to track the relative affluence of your community and therefore reason what you can afford to offer them. Even more useful is to track sales from previous years.

Colin Atter, owner of Plantation Garden Centre in Calgary, makes a habit of tracking sales from previous years by variety, as well as which products sell out the quickest, to help in the ordering process. “With our limited space I must find product that will turn over quickly and produce the most dollars for the space they are taking up, so I tend to focus on the higher-end product that is totally unique and which the customer won’t find anywhere else.”

Modern shoppers are better educated and have more product options than ever before, thanks in large part to the Internet. As a result, garden centres must be acutely aware of comparable pricing within the range of products they carry and be sensitive to those issues when setting their own price point. Spending time comparative shopping and keeping flyers from your rivals will give you an idea of their pricing and merchandising strategies, and will prove invaluable when buying your own stock.

“I stay away from things like mini-lights, cheaper artificial trees, electrical décor, and other things we can’t compete with the big stores on. Instead, we try to keep things special,” says Deborah Sirman, owner of Greenland Garden Centre near Edmonton. “I spend a lot of time on the road looking for unique items because a garden centre hoping to be successful at Christmas must do that to separate themselves from the big-box stores.”

The most important thing is to listen to your customers. They’ll tell you, through their purchasing habits if not their words, what they want to buy from you in terms of holiday gift items.

Selling the image
It’s not enough to have the right stock in hand; you also have to know how to sell it. The key here is to remember you’re not just selling holiday décor and giftware, you’re also selling an image.

“Christmas sales are becoming more important, but you have to go all or nothing,” says Sirman. “It’s not something you can do half-heartedly and still expect to succeed at. You have to turn your garden centre into a Christmas destination store. You can’t sit on the fence in consumers’ eyes.”

A Christmas destination accurately describes The Evergreen Store, at Drysdales Tree Farm, near Cookstown, Ont. It carries a wide selection of home accents, holiday décor, and gifts. Walking through the doors you enter a place where yuletide cheer comes alive: the warmth of the fire in the hearth, Christmas trees lit up like twinkling stars, bushy wreaths dressed up with bows, and sparkling ornaments bringing out the spirit of the season. It’s a Christmas inspiration, exactly what a good garden centre must become during the holidays.

Owner Doug Drysdale is proud of the store: “The Evergreen Store is one of the best Christmas shopping experiences you’ll find anywhere. It sells truly unique items, and our buyer, Jane, is ahead of trends so she’ll find hot items a year or two before you’ll find them elsewhere. But a lot of its success comes from the atmosphere; it feels magical, just like Christmas should be, and I think its successful because the store . . . the entire farm, with our seasonal events and attractions . . . puts people into the spirit of things.”

One of the best methods of luring people into your store and getting them excited about your product is to plan an event to kick off the season. For the past several years, Bradford Greenhouses, in Bradford, Ont., has kicked off the holiday season by hosting an evening open house as a special reward for loyal customers. Making good use of a point-of-sale system that tracks sales and customer information, invitations are sent out to those who frequent the centre. Attendees get one-night only discounts and first crack at exciting new products, and are treated to drinks and appetizers, and yuletide entertainment.

Other garden centres host after-hours preview parties for the Chamber of Commerce or other prominent local groups. Regardless of the target audience, make sure staff dress up to add to the celebratory feel, include hors d’ouevres and drinks, special sales, and some sort of unique twist, whether it be a decorating seminar, wine tasting, live reindeer, family photo opportunities, or live music.

And don’t stop with the one night: consider other events throughout the season. Many garden centres have found that decorating seminars are a huge draw and lead to impressive sales. “It’s about inspiring people,” says Sirman. “I do a number of demonstrations and classes throughout the holiday season: tree trimming, decorating mantles and banisters, wreaths. Each one results in thousands of dollars in sales, for an hour of time and a little bit of prep-work and pre-planning. It’s a real success for us.”

The key to selling holiday décor – whether it is Easter, Thanksiving, Halloween, or Christmas – is to be original and create a niche for yourself.

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