Boosting Winter Sales

April 28, 2008
Written by Brian Minter
A very successful garden centre operator mentioned to me the other day how difficult it was to get Christmas sales up to the level of other seasons and still maintain margins.
How to Get the Most Out of the Winter Season

A very successful garden centre operator mentioned to me the other day how difficult it was to get Christmas sales up to the level of other seasons and still maintain margins.  It was a very key comment in light of today’s high energy costs and our two main winter sales products, poinsettias and Christmas trees, being turned into commodities by the major discounters and home improvement markets.  Recently, there have been some fairly good garden stores in the U.S. who have elected to close in the fall and reopen in the spring to eliminate four months of losses in winter.  These are very difficult decisions to make and are based on financials not emotions.

We do not have the data in Canada to compare, but the amazing thing in the U.S. is that, in spite of the incredible growth of the discount and home improvement sector, independent garden stores have hung on to about 50 per cent of the dollar volume spent in the green market.  This is a significant finding because even under a huge competitive threat, the independent garden centre industry not only hung on, but maintained significant market share.  The message is clear:  our market is going to be there if we keep doing what we do, but we simply must get better at what we do and how we do it if we want to grow and be more profitable.  It means taking some risks, being a little outrageous and moving from good to great!

Christmas is a prime example.  Despite the commoditization of lights, novelties, poinsettias and Christmas trees, there are lots of opportunities, and we need to be in all or most of these markets, but with a unique twist.  Remember, what we need to  do is create a great shopping experience.  It’s not about the individual parts, it’s all about the whole.

From the first impression of the store outside, including the parking lot and the store front, to the feeling as you walk in, the greeting, the eye contact, the sensory refill, the quality of the products, the style of service and the checkout, all are integral parts of the experience. 

We do a great many things well, but one of our most important failings is in display merchandising.  In small or large stores, it’s often the difference between sell throughs and stock left over.  It all begins in having the right innovative products, but presentation is everything.  I must say, it is the most significant difference between good and great garden stores.  Most of us are not good display merchandisers, and we need to bring in professionals to do it or to train us – it is rocket science!
As garden centres, we’re not in the Christmas light game like the giants, but there’s still opportunity.

Specialty lights from major suppliers are often not sold by the big guys.  Great salespeople are terrific guides in this direction and can give you fairly good advice on where you can find a niche.  Even the cream bread-and-butter stuff will keep you in the game if you adjust your margin.  Here again, it’s all about display.  Copy the show rooms where we buy them.  Light boards, backed with black cloth, are very effective.  Christmas is emotion and lights play a huge role in all departments.

Decorated trees are no longer the way to sell tree ornaments.  It’s tired.  Versatile display units are the way to go.  Folks can more easily see and purchase the product especially when it’s grouped in themes and displayed with flair.  It’s all about creating that “sense of buy‚ rather than the sense of look.”
The hot new trend in poinsettias this year is colour.  Book lots of white because it’s all about blues, purples, hot pinks and colour blends applied as a dye or spray.  At the Ohio Short Course last July, this was the hottest new thing at the show.  Please don’t turn up your nose because it is potentially a huge opportunity.  The trick, however, is to take some risks and go into it big time.  Don’t dabble!

Cut Christmas trees are an opportunity to showcase Christmas.  The look and fragrance are what they are all about.  The big guys do not display well, if at all, so this is a huge opportunity.  Quality is the number one issue, so go where you can to get the very best quality and more narrow shape to fit modern living spaces.  It’s also important to differentiate the varieties from the other folks.  We find Fraser firs have the best ‘in home‚ lifespan’ so we focus heavily on them for that reason.  The big guys generally cover the five to seven foot market; we need to focus more on the two to five foot and seven to ten foot  market.  Christmas trees need to be displayed on stands or hanging in groupings like a forest.  The tags should be professional with tips on care and a story about the tree.  Quality tree stands, tree bags and fire retardants should be displayed as part of the value-added package.

Offering a tree drilling and tree bagging service is huge for many folks to keep their cars and houses clean.  We offer free tree drilling and stand placing.  It’s become an entertainment factor as folks love to watch how the pros do it.  Because of this, we sell stands to folks who already have stands and many folks purchase their trees from us because we’ll put last year’s stand on this year’s tree!

We also flock trees, which has become half of our tree volume.  It allows us to sell trees as early as December 1st and gets us into the local commercial market as well.  Price is not an issue – $100 or more for a tree is the norm today for our best customers.  To be profitable, try to gauge your buying and pricing on a 90 to 95 per cent sell through.  Merchandising cut trees should become an event that differentiates your store from all others.

All Christmas plants need to be mass displayed by pot size and colour with overhead spotlights to really show them off.  We have found the greatest success in value-adding with everything from special pot covers, glitter, novelties, unique, twiggy branches and lots of ting ting flowing out of the flowers.  Go tiny and go big because the commodity is four- and six-inch pots.

Birding and bird feeding is chasing gardening in terms of popularity, and we need to be a huge part of that.  This doesn’t mean dabbling, but dominating the category.  Bird areas need to be developed with all the bells and whistles – literally!  From differentiated feeds and a wide selection of the best birdhouses and feeders to personnel qualified to provide advice, it needs to be a well-merchandised package.  Bat houses, mason bee nests, hummingbird feeders, squirrel feeders, excellent books and all the accessories is where you need to be.  The inventory does not need to be huge in volume, but it needs to be complete and displayed in an inspirational manner.

Our display merchandising needs to be at the level where we become a destination for all seasons, not just Christmas.  It takes a huge amount of determination, effort and education, but it will secure a great future.

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