Win Customers Back

September 28, 2011
Written by Michael Lascelle
Looking back on it, 2011 has been a trying season for most independent garden centres as we deal with anxious consumers, a shaky economy and box stores that seem to continually increase their market share of horticultural goods and plants. While some seem willing to wait for better times, I think we need to ask ourselves if the box-store shopping experience is really the ideal – is there any way that we might improve upon it, to the point of winning customers back? I’m of the opinion that we can, and here are a few simple ideas that any local garden centre or nursery can utilize to stand out in an increasingly impersonal world.

customersback  
Clockwise from top: Be sure to display the products you grow or specialize in; seasonal displays put your customers in a buying mood; point out those collector plants (such as Helleborus ‘Swirlin’ Skirts) as soon as they arrive; helping your customers solve their disease problems (such as black knot of plum) will also lead to increase sales; and custom planters add a personal touch.
 

Be yourself
Every independent garden centre or nursery is a little bit different, so why not celebrate that difference? If you specialize in ornamental trees, perennials or exotics, make sure you feature these plants prominently in store aisles or the landscape beds that surround the nursery. At the garden centre I manage, we grow our own bedding plants, fuchsia trees and Brugmansia (angel’s trumpet), all of which are used extensively in the landscape displays and are often the impetus to increased sales.

Be a problem solver
After every weekend I usually return to work to find bags of diseased leaf samples or photos of trees with split bark left by distraught gardeners looking for some sort of diagnosis. Sometimes these diseases can appear quite ominous – as in the case of black knot of plum or pear trellis rust – but when we are able to tell these customers that these are fairly common problems and offer them solutions, they are put at ease. If they trust you to solve their disease problems, they will also trust you to sell them plants.

Be seasonal
Even if you don’t do a lot of sales on seasonal merchandise (beyond the plants, that is), you should still be decorating your nursery from time to time. There’s a reason department stores and malls decorate to the hilt every Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas: it’s to put consumers in a buying mood and remind them of their social obligations. So whether it’s a bouquet of flowers to bring along to that Thanksgiving dinner invite or perhaps a rhododendron as a house-warming gift, those sales are well within grasp.

Be personable
When you think about the average box-store shopping experience, there is nothing personable about it. You are just one of thousands struggling to find a parking spot, jostling the cart through crowded aisles, trying to locate a clerk who knows something about the generic products they sell and finally waiting in the endless check-out lines. You can make a big difference in your store by simply remembering your regular customers’ names and tastes. I remember names by using word association, and since I love hockey (or at least circa 1970s hockey), a Brad becomes a Brad Park (at least in my mind) and a Paul, a Paul Henderson, giving me the ability to remember most of my regular clients’ names. Similarly, when I know someone who collects ornamental grasses or hellebores and I have some new stock come in, I always take a moment to point it out to them and more times than not, they end up buying something.

Be convenient
Convenience is a subjective term, as every customer has their own set of priorities, but there are still many common denominators. Ample parking space, flexible store hours (longer in the busy spring season), clear store signage, adequate staff or tellers, and affordable delivery are all simple means of staying convenient and keeping your clients coming back for more.

Be memorable
There is nothing memorable about the products or individual stores of national retailers, in fact most are made to look exactly the same from town to town. So instead of being forced to choose from the few prefabricated planters that often sit at the entrance to box stores, why not offer your customers the option of creating their own container gardens. A custom-made planter will not only impress your clients, but will also increase container, soil and fertilizer sales. That memorable planter will serve as a constant reminder of where they purchased it.

Be a part of the community
You should start by reaching out to garden clubs, either as a sponsor or by offering a store discount when they show a membership card. We recently gave the local community garden some plants and greenhouse space so they could grow some specimen tomatoes for a display garden at the Pacific National Exhibition. They, in turn, gave us credit in a recent newspaper feature. Donations of gift certificates or gift baskets to local charities will also help to raise your profile within the community and possibly win the respect and business of the next generation of gardeners.

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