Satisfaction Guaranteed

August 14, 2012
Written by
Do you guarantee your plants? According to the 2012 Canadian Garden Centre & Nursery Reader Survey, 64 per cent of garden centres do. If you think running a return program for a perishable product involves too much staff training, incurs too many hassles at the front counter, cuts into your revenue and welcomes abuse by customers, then you may want to consider why some garden centres back up their plants and what benefits they reap from the practice.

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Perhaps the best reason to guarantee your plants is that it opens a conversation about best growing practices.
 

Why guarantee?
Developing a guarantee policy not only makes for good customer service, but it can also have unexpected benefits. For many, it’s a necessary cost of doing business that does no harm to their bottom line. The garden centres we spoke with reported a very low percentage of returns on purchases, often well below five per cent, making this a low-risk venture.

Henry Eising, owner of Eising Greenhouses & Garden Centre near Simcoe, Ont., says standing behind his products means peace of mind for customers: “I don’t want them wondering whether the plants are guaranteed.”

Paul Bongers, owner of The Country Basket in Niagara Falls, also sees a clear return policy as a simple matter of customer retention. “What’s a customer cost to gain and what’s a customer cost to lose?” he says. A lot, he tells staff who occasionally question the practicality of accepting returns, when you consider the money and time spent on advertising, loyalty programs, referrals and other strategies required to get a customer through the door.

Jenny Scott, hydroponics and assistant manager at Scott’s Nursery in Lincoln, N.B., points to a recent phenomenon that has made a returns policy a necessity for them: the rise of social media.

“In the world of Facebook and Twitter it can be so detrimental to have someone be upset with you . . . so we go above and beyond whenever we can.” With customers able to take a picture and send a negative review in seconds, she says, it’s important that staff try to keep people happy.

Chance to educate
Perhaps the best reason to guarantee your plants is that it opens a conversation about best growing practices.

The first step, says Eising, is for staff to reassure the customer the problem will be solved and they will be taken care of. Only after reassuring the customer do his staff begin to ask questions about care with the goal of finding a solution.

Bongers says he and his staff look on each return as a chance to educate customers, asking them open-ended questions: “How often do you water, when do you water, and how do you water? Show me how you water. When do you fertilize?” Asking questions, he says, leads to teaching and selling opportunities.

Scott also sees a plant return as a chance to educate her customers, but emphasizes preventive care. To head off disputes, and avoid cross-contamination, staff ask customers to bring in a sample in a baggie or troubleshoot over the phone whenever possible.

A tale of three programs

The Country Basket, Niagara Falls, Ont.
The Country Basket’s guarantee, based on the Sheridan Nurseries two-year “no-hassle guarantee,” allows returns up to two years from the purchase date on nursery stock, evergreens, shrubs, trees and vines, and up to one year for roses and perennials. The website says, “Replacements or gift cards will immediately and cheerfully be made upon presentation of receipt and defective or dead plant.”

“Country Club” members need not bring in receipts, says Paul Bongers, as their purchases are on record, and eventually will all be filed electronically. The store tracks returns along with reasons, through its point-of-sale system.

The centre has had a good returns policy for its 17 years in the business, but over the last 10 or 12 years Bongers and staff have “hammered it down.”

The Country Basket has softened its policy, since staff can now offer customers Basket Bucks, the centre’s version of “Canadian Tire money.” 

Bongers says they have a reasonable expectation that customers have followed instructions and are returning the product in good faith. There is a certain amount of abuse of the policy, says Bongers, but they operate on trust. “For every 100 customers, there are 99 great ones. I don’t think you can base your return policy on that one person who abuses the situation,” he adds.

Scott’s Nursery, Lincoln, N.B.
According to its website, Scott’s Nursery guarantees nursery stock 100 per cent in the first year, “if through no fault of your own nursery stock fails in the first year. Although disease, animal, insect, and physical damage are not covered be sure to contact us to discuss prevention or cure.” Annuals, broadleaf evergreens, hanging baskets, perennials, rose bushes, bulbs and other plants not considered hardy in the area are covered for the first growing season, but not over the winter. While the policy is somewhat conditional, a chat with Jenny Scott reveals that staff interpret the policy loosely, and almost always in favour of the customer.

For example, although they normally replace a plant or offer store credit, they will offer a cash refund if pushed, just to demonstrate goodwill.

Most employees, she says, are empowered to use their discretion on returns, but the less experienced may need a supervisor to step in and make a judgment call.

Scott notes that the guarantee program is not static but always adjusting as plants get hardier and market conditions change. For example, roses aren’t included in the centre’s guarantee, but “some varieties are getting really hardy so we are able to cover some of them,” she says.

She touches on another benefit, and responsibility, of guaranteeing plants: “We are “maybe a little tougher on our suppliers to help back that up than we used to be. It’s expected on the wholesale side of things . . . . Our own [wholesale] customers are harder on us . . . . We get on [our wholesalers’] case more now than we used to.”

Eising Greenhouses & Garden Centre, Simcoe, Ont.
Eising’s returns program was developed gradually but deliberately. Trees and shrubs are 100 per cent guaranteed for two years. The centre will replace the full amount with a gift card, good for one year. No cash refunds are given. Roses, fruit trees, butterfly bush, grasses and perennials are guaranteed until Thanksgiving of the purchase year. Tropical plants are guaranteed for three months.

A note about the guarantee and planting instructions are stapled to each receipt. The centre’s POS program, Smart Vendor from Multipost, tracks returns by registering them as a negative figure. Staff must register a return as “dead” to show it is plant material as opposed to giftware.

Eising’s also offers a five-year extended guarantee for its trees to those who buy a tree-planting package consisting of a bag of triple mix to enrich soil, any bag of mulch to cool roots, inhibit weeds and conserve moisture, and transplant fertilizer or bonemeal to establish good roots.

“It’s a way to force staff to explain the proper steps for care,” says Henry Eising. It gets customers on the right track and improves sales with minimal outlay on the part of the store.

How to design a guarantee policy
Karl Stensson, president of Sheridan Nurseries, headquartered in Georgetown, Ont., advocates a common-sense approach to setting up and running a guarantee program. When he took over the retail business more than 25 years ago, he noticed its guarantee policy was “complicated and absolutely ugly.” There were conditions, he says. You had to replace a plant with the same plant, and you could only replace a plant once. Stensson set about making the policy more pleasant, staff-friendly and above all else customer-friendly.
 
The process, says Stensson, grew out of the complaints he heard early on. Like a detective, he set about analyzing those complaints and eliminating the things that caused them. The result: a two-year no-hassle guarantee, which, he says, not many people have. After its implementation, he noticed no appreciable increase in plant returns.

His loyalty is firmly with the customer, whom he calls his guest. “People don’t buy plants to kill them on purpose,” he says. “Plants are like people: Some die of diseases, some die of accidental causes, some die of natural causes . . . . There is a natural percentage of attrition, which varies by category. As long as you know what that it is, you can build it into your price and you can say ‘my warranty is now complete.’”

As for fraud, Stensson says, it is not a big issue among returns. He suggests working on other areas of your business, such as improving plant maintenance to avoid scrap, and bolstering zone coverage to avoid theft.

It’s clear that backing up your plants is a great, and perhaps necessary, way to keep customers happy, and therefore, keep customers. To those garden centres mulling over a guarantee program, Stensson has some sage advice that, not surprisingly, is focused on customer satisfaction.

“If it’s not guest-friendly, don’t do it.”

Getting a Guarantee Program Off the Ground
What to keep in mind, if you guarantee:
Conditions: will you require a receipt and dead plant? Can you eliminate the need for a receipt by keeping a customer database?

Currency: Will you offer a straight exchange, store credit or cash refund?

Length of time: How long are you willing to guarantee a category of plant?

Communication: How will you advertise your policy to the public? It’s wise to post the policy in plain view, whether it be on your website, in your centre or on your receipts.

Tools: Will your POS system assist you in the process by tracking customers? By showing the number of returns per item? By holding customer data indefinitely? (Be aware that some systems purge automatically.)

Employee empowerment: Will you allow your staff to make judgment calls when dealing with customer returns? Will they require the OK of a supervisor?

Flexibility: Be prepared to make allowances for questionable batches of stock and variations in weather.
Supplier support: Consider what steps you might need to take to ensure your suppliers are backing you up with high-quality stock.

Suitability of plant offerings: Will you cover only what is hardy in your region? Look at your products. If you’ve chosen to avoid stock that is not hardy in your area, gardeners will have a greater chance to succeed, and thus less reason to return stock.


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