Schooling Your Customers

February 26, 2008
Written by Michael Lascelle
It is getting harder and harder to lure people to their local garden centres out of the spring season. The reasons for this are varied, but essentially, it all boils down to most having a very busy schedule that results in a “nesting” trend.
20It is getting harder and harder to lure people to their local garden centres out of the spring season. The reasons for this are varied, but essentially, it all boils down to most having a very busy schedule that results in a “nesting” trend – where people spend what little leisure time they have left in the comfort of home. You may have wonderful displays, beautiful flowering plants and knowledgeable staff, but unless you can find a way to attract customers to your nursery in the off-season, it is all in vain.

Using on-site seminars or informal garden classes as a means of bringing people out to your nursery is a relatively inexpensive means of marketing. In exchange for setting up a classroom, advertising and organizing a seminar, you attract both established clientele and new customers to your garden centre, where they will see and buy those seasonal products. Different seminars can be run weekly (a 1 p.m. Saturday time slot is best) either during the pre-season months such as February and March or in the fall. This series of classes can be advertised as a gardening school, which definitely encourages people to attend multiple classes. Either way, here are a few tips on organizing such an event:  

Creature Comforts
Your seminar or classroom setting should be as comfortable as possible, even if it is just temporary. First, make sure there is good access so that people can get in and out without bumping into each other. The washrooms should be nearby, the chairs comfortable, temperatures moderate and try to keep the background noise to a minimum. Remember, these folks have come to learn and not to listen to the sounds of your cash registers or favourite radio station. Be sure to offer beverages of some sort and if your seminar is over one hour in length, plan for a 10-minute break. If you are utilizing slides or a Powerpoint presenation, make sure your classroom is dark enough for a clear presentation. In essence, if your customers are comfortable and enjoy the seminar, they will want to linger and shop afterwards.

Handouts
Handouts are an important component of any seminar, and you’ll know just how good they are by the number discarded at the end of the class. Key information to include is the plants or products mentioned, as well as the nursery name and contact numbers. Always have extra pens on hand and try to leave room for people to make their own notes (this is easily achieved with a one-sided handout). Quite often, attendees will use their marked handouts as a shopping list at the end of the seminar, so be sure there is adequate staff on hand to help them find what they are looking for. Lastly, if you are going to promote any plant or product, be sure that you have ample stock on hand, so as not to disappoint your already eager customers.

Topic Is Key
It is one thing to organize a seminar; it is quite another to find just the right topic to attract people to attend. You will have your best successes by keeping your topics broad enough to appeal to a wide segment of the gardening public. By way of example, we recently ran two landscape design seminars entitled “Revitalize Your Garden” and “Garden Designs Big & Small.” Granted, these are rather vague titles and they probably meant different things to different people, but both classes were well attended by novice and experienced gardeners. Seasonal topics should also be addressed. This autumn we held a “Fall & Winter Planter” and a “Designing with Spring Bulbs” seminar, just to inspire our customers with some new planting ideas – both resulted in brisk sales immediately afterwards. In general, I have found the best topics to be centred around practical garden design, pruning, container gardening, specific plant groups (i.e., ornamental grasses, aquatics) and holiday-themed crafts such as creating a wreath or table centrepiece.

Advertise and Register
In order for people to attend your seminars, they will have to find out about them first. You should be advertising all of your classes in the local newspaper at least a month before the first one begins. This will allow potential attendees time to check their schedules, call their gardening friends and make firm plans. By requesting pre-registration and taking the person’s name and phone number, you will know how many people will attend each class and you will also be able to give them a friendly reminder phone call the day before. Have small handout flyers listing the classes at each cash register, and make sure your staff mentions those upcoming seminars to every purchasing customer. For the classes, like craft seminars, that require a fee, be sure to take a deposit upon registration and try to keep your costs to a minimum. If you are just providing people with information, I think it best to use the free seminar approach because the resulting boost in sales from the class will more than pay for your costs. As well, you will also be attracting new customers that bring with them a great potential for future sales.

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