Become a Game Changer

June 13, 2011
Written by Brian Minter
Weather has been the lead story in garden retailing this year, and it’s been quite interesting to see the season unfold. The harsh winter, especially in the west, has damaged and killed far more trees, shrubs and perennials than usual, resulting in folks being more cautious in their hardy plant purchases.
Weather has been the lead story in garden retailing this year, and it’s been quite interesting to see the season unfold. The harsh winter, especially in the west, has damaged and killed far more trees, shrubs and perennials than usual, resulting in folks being more cautious in their hardy plant purchases. Canadians have been living a little beyond their means according to credit card companies and two years of challenging economic times have forced many folks to reassess how they spend their discretionary dollars. Garden retailers are seeing some spending adjustments, particularly on larger ticket items.

If you haven’t noticed lately, more growers are selling direct and also to schools and other groups who are trying more fundraising with plants. In our region we’ve had a Home Depot and a new Walmart Superstore open this spring, both with significant garden centres. Add these to the already crowded box-store plant selling, and the competition factor is rising on a steady basis as all major players search for new retailing opportunities. 

All of this is compounded by the changing demographics of boomers downsizing and a major disconnect with generation X on traditional levels, so there are significant challenges in the next few years for the garden retailer who sticks with traditional thinking. The opportunities for the new generation retailer, however, are bright and shiny. Traditional thinking has been on the way out for many years as the need to become more relevant in a new retailing environment becomes paramount.

The key is to create a shopping environment that is fun, unique, personalized, warm, friendly and inspirational. It begins with people who have the right attitude, and lots of it! This alone will differentiate your store from at least 90 per cent of the industry. Folks who greet customers with a smile, are helpful and provide accurate, easy-to-understand solutions to problems are needed more than ever. Sure we get beat up with weather, competition and daily challenges, but frankly, that doesn’t matter to customers – they just want to shop in a place where people are nice and seem to care. Attitude, high integrity, honesty, openness and transparency are the critical factors in the new retailing model.

Embracing youth is another important challenge in today’s retailing. Young people are intimidated by traditional garden stores due, in part, to a snobbish attitude towards them because they know so little about gardening. When they ask the most basic questions, often they have been treated like dummies. They’ve also been allowed to make bad choices with plants, resulting in a bad experience. They share these bad experiences with their Facebook friends. They don’t understand our being busy, and when they want help, they want it now. I learned a valuable experience on a very busy day – you know the one when everyone peppers you with questions at the same time that you’re trying to help restock and to keep each area looking good. A young lady was placing things on a cart, but she seemed to be lost. I asked if she needed a little assistance, and she said yes. Mentioning that I would be just a minute to help her as all of us were responding to a myriad of questions coming from all directions, she walked out, abandoning all her plants on her cart. Feeling I had let her down, I tracked her down in the parking lot, apologized for not helping her sooner and got her back into the store. I asked her questions about the location of her planters, but from her novice gardener responses, I couldn’t even determine whether she had sun or shade. Finally I asked if she would trust my judgment to choose the best plants within her colour range to get the look she wanted. She said sure. So I quickly put a great look together with the right soil and slow-release fertilizer and I truly think she will become a future customer . . . but only if she gets the help she needs. There are so many young folks like her that we all need to work harder to please. The effort we put in now, investing in a youth market who will soon be mainstream, will make us better retailers.

Retail sameness is no longer acceptable, and we must differentiate our inventory not only from the boxes but also from other independents. We all buy from similar suppliers, but we need to dig far deeper. The cool places to shop are the ones that have the neat stuff, whether it be giftware, fertilizer, perennials, tropicals or shrubs. The 20/80 rule is broken. Do you know what your best customers are looking for?  Frankly, they want items in their gardens that make them the envy of their gardening friends. Are you the store that caters to this demand? From hanging chairs, retro furniture, yellow peonies, organic soils, new organic pest controls, combination tropicals to the funkiest of cool trees and mouth-watering succulent gardens, are you that “go-to place’? Food gardening is also “in” like never before, but not the mainstream products. Do you have goji berries, pink blueberries, haskups and dwarf sour cherries? Can young folks find Caribbean hot and habanero peppers or Simply Salad lettuce blends, along with the colourful foliage lettuces and swiss chards? Do you have an over-the-top selection of basil and other unique herbs for added value to the new demands of the culinary world? We need to give credit to Ball, Proven Winners, Monrovia and so many other firms that not only introduce but market widely great new products. Are you aware of these new products and do you stock them? I think we are now in a 35/65 world where approximately one-third of our products bring in two-thirds of our volume. The bottom line is: we need more cool “must-haves” to differentiate and be successful in the new marketplace.

Many other factors go into creating the new retailing opportunity but these are the main ingredients. It’s a new time with great challenges and opportunities. Break the old mould, embrace our new future and be a game changer. 

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