Delighting Holiday Shoppers

September 25, 2007
Written by Andrew Hind
A crackling fire, fresh-cut pine, boughs of holly… these are the things that stoke the embers of the holiday spirit. It seems the simpler the tradition, the more it brings back the nostalgia of yesteryear and the better it reflects the true meaning of Christmas.
18bA crackling fire, fresh-cut pine, boughs of holly… these are the things that stoke the embers of the holiday spirit. It seems the simpler the tradition, the more it brings back the nostalgia of yesteryear and the better it reflects the true meaning of Christmas.

The big box stores, obsessed with prices and selection, simply don’t understand that shopping at Christmas is an emotional experience. Their utilitarian shopping environment is at odds with the warmth of the yuletide season.

This oversight on the part of large retailers provides an opportunity for garden centres and nurseries. By delighting holiday shoppers and appealing to their emotions as much as their wallets, garden centres can reap impressive Christmas profits. 

Etti Mountain, manager at Botanix in Barrie, Ont., has a unique philosophy about garden centres and Christmas retailing.

“If you’re going to put the effort into Christmas, you need to approach it in the right way,” she says. “You need to realize you can’t compete with the big box stores in a lot of ways, so you need to identify those ways that you can compete or even exceed them.

“I remember a great quote from a trade show that seems to ring true,” continues Mountain. “Someone told me, ‘people come to expect things will cost more at a garden centre, so don’t disappoint them.’ I think that’s true; at Botanix, our prices might be higher than at a big box store, but we offer something unique in return, which is especially important at Christmas.”

18The secret to holiday-sales success is identifying that “something unique” to set your garden centre apart from your goliath competitors.

As always in retail, success begins with customer service. During the hectic holiday season, harried shoppers appreciate that extra care and attention and will reward stores for it with their loyalty. With so much competing for their time and attention – everything from writing Christmas cards and wrapping gifts to decorating the home and attending Christmas parties – anything that the retailer can do to save customers a few valuable minutes and alleviate stress is appreciated.

One effective way of doing this is to have easily recognizable seasonal uniforms. It could be as simple as red scarves or Santa hats; anything that will instantly set staff apart from customers and allow time-pressed shoppers to find the assistance they need quickly. You’ll also find that most staff will embrace the idea and through their enthusiasm create a more festive atmosphere.

It’s also vital to note that more than 70 per cent of Christmas shoppers are women. What does this mean in terms of identifying ways to improve the retail experience? It means a well-shovelled front entrance. It means carry-out services. It means wide, clutter-free aisles – after all, no woman is going to leave behind the infant in her stroller or a shopping cart with their purse, no matter how badly they want that item midway down aisle six. Instead, you could appeal to her young ones as well by including attractive visual displays that excite the imagination and entertain kids.

In fact, a beautifully decorated store is vital to encourage customers to develop an emotional connection with your store over the holidays. Remember years of yore, when every major department store had lavish animated displays that drew appreciative crowds? Remember how exciting that was as a shopper?

Sadly, those days are gone. Today, the big box stores that dominate our retail environment simply don’t have the ability or interest in reshaping themselves into unique holiday destinations that truly delight shoppers. Garden centres, smaller and generally with more than an entire month to prepare (thanks to traditionally slow Octobers), can more easily make this transition into a winter wonderland that will delight the senses and pull at the heartstrings of nostalgia. The end result is increased sales.

Traditionally, garden centre Christmas sales have been based upon poinsettias and Christmas trees, so build upon your selection. Griffin’s Greenhouses in Lakefield, Ont., has done just that and to great success.

“People have come to expect something different from us; we’ve created a reputation that has led to incredible success over the holiday season,” says Victoria Whitney, manager of the family-run business. “We take a strong focus on natural Christmas, shying away from Santas and snowmen and other commercialized things that you find in big box stores, instead focusing a lot on birds, berries and natural pine and cedar boughs.”

Holiday urns are an important element in Griffin’s Greenhouses’ Christmas profits. They succeed against the cheaper varieties available at mass-market retailers by providing a unique twist.
“Our urns are handmade and unique, and we use a lot of natural materials that we harvest ourselves,” enthuses Whitney. “We’ll take a day in October, when we might see only a handful of customers at the store, and spend it in a swampy area nearby harvesting an entire seasons worth of red dogwood. We also cut Ilex berry, or ‘Canadian Holly,’ and harvest a lot of seed pods, Echinacea flower heads, milkweed pods, and cattails. When used in arrangements, they make them spectacular.”

Like Griffin’s Greenhouses, Botanix has eschewed most of the traditional holiday décor and focused on natural items for their Christmas identity. What giftware they sell is unique and handpicked to offer something different than might be found in big chain stores.

“Fresh greens are important to our sales. We can’t compete with the larger retailers when in comes to standard boughs, so instead we bring in the best selection of fresh, imported boughs from B.C., Florida, Oregon, and California,” explains Mountain. “Similarly, we sell only high quality Christmas trees. We display them in a unique way that allows you to come out of the cold while selecting and we even offer a delivery service.”

Quality and customer service, Botanix has discovered, often times prevails over cheaper prices.

 Nowhere is this better illustrated than in case of poinsettias.

Poinsettias are a Christmas staple, and every big box retailer seems to offer them for sale. Worse, these large operations order their poinsettias in quantities that ensure their price point is unbeatable to smaller stores. How then does a garden centre compete?

“We do a brisk sale in poinsettias because we order from one of the best growers, which ensures the quality is incredible,” Fountain explains with obvious pride. “They arrive weekly, so they’re always fresh, we care for them properly with the correct light and temperature conditions, and we dress them in attractive and unique ways. We also take the time to educate people about poinsettias – what to look for to ensure quality, how to care for them, and so on.”

Immersing the customer in the holiday experience is important. Consider creating annual holiday traditions that involve the community, or hands-on workshops focused on wreath-making, decorating poinsettias and designing holiday urns. Both Griffin’s Greenhouses and Botanix, for example, offer custom wreath-making services, where customers select the materials to be incorporated into the design.

Other garden centres host Christmas parties for kids or bring in Santas for a meet-and-greet like many malls. Anything you can do to create an emotional connection between you and your customers will help make you the destination of choice come Christmas.

There’s no doubt that the big box stores are difficult to match in price point and volume. Their gross sales will always be higher than even the most successful garden centre. But you can carve out your own yuletide niche by providing a different experience from what is found in large retailers.

The key to this is to put the holiday spirit in the hearts of your customers. During the nostalgia-filled holiday season, emotion wins out over the wallet almost every time. 

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