An International Wake-up Call

October 31, 2008
Written by Brian Minter
At the recent International Garden Centre Association Congress in Vancouver, our West Coast garden centres played host to some of the finest garden centres in the world. It was quite an experience. As part of the Congress, we visited garden stores in the Lower Mainland, the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island.

Most venues raised the bar by creating great fall displays, value adding and display merchandising. All stores were very clean, tidy and well stocked with seasonal products.

The reaction of our international guests was varied, but overall very supportive. In personal conversations with the representatives of elite garden stores in Holland, Germany and Britain, they had a consistent comment. They wanted to know why most garden stores did not continually reinvest in their stores. From the outside it appeared to them that we did not do this on a consistent basis. They were also curious as to why ‘all’ of our plants were not front facing, labelled, spaced and of the highest quality. Although their impressions were favourable, they often pointed out the lack of attention to detail. In their summation, the elite stores felt we were ten years behind the best in Europe. Their comments were meant to be constructive and helpful and something all garden retailers in this country needed to hear. We often measure our stores against Canadian competitors, when in fact, we should be using the world’s best as our benchmark.

In fairness, we have vastly smaller markets; our box store competition for many lines is well beyond what they face in Europe; the participation in outside recreational activities in our country versus gardening is far greater than in Europe; and our interest in gardening started in the late ’60s and ’70s, while it’s been a passion in Europe for over 400 years.

So what are we missing? From their perspective, here are our top ten challenges:

The entrance to our stores.
1.  Do they have the ‘wow’ factor? Do we have intriguing storefronts that increase expectations and create a welcoming feeling? Do our outdoor plantings inspire? Are our parking spots well marked and well laid out?

First inside impression.
2. 
The interiors of our stores should be warm and charming, with great sensory feeling, the appropriate music and wonderful fragrances. 

A good ‘race track’.
3. 
The overall layout of our stores should draw folks in, leading them to the right and onward to enjoy a series of great experiences.

‘Wow’ displays to inspire.
4. 
As customers move through our stores, are they inspired by creative, fun and inventive displays that change at least monthly?

Housekeeping.
5. 
No excuses even on busy days. We can have the most amazing look and feel in the morning but after a busy day, the trick is to keep the level of cleanliness high. It does make a lasting impression. This means attending to weeds under the benches, slippery areas, dust, cobwebs and messy products on the shelves.

Signage.
6. 
This is a huge issue. European stores are more designed for self service, and their signs and labelling are superb. From directional signage and plant area designation to bench signs and individual plant tags, signage is critical and as was pointed out to us, is one of the major issues needing our attention.

The quality of our plants.
7. 
There should be no tired or poor quality plants in our stores. All should be well spaced, with labels front facing. Our inventory must be appropriate for the time of year. Plant maintenance in terms of watering and feeding is huge. Two of the stores on the tour excelled at this beyond the others and it was duly noted by our visitors.

Although it sounds mundane, washrooms are important.
8. 
We have too few of them, and they need to be exceptionally clean, fresh smelling and if possible, have some flowers. With an aging population and young moms with kids, this is a bigger issue than we might think. The best washrooms win!

Customer service.
9. 
The Europeans were somewhat surprised with our level of customer service. While the larger stores are focused on self serve, we tend to provide better customer service. It’s an opportunity to sell more, sell up and provide a personal touch. We got high marks here.

The overall experience.
10. 
When walk out the doors of our garden centres, was it an experience they will want to enjoy again? It’s really the bottom line, determining whether or not our customers will be repeat customers.

The added side benefit of this tour was the same in all stores. As we were making the upgrades, we realized this is something we should all be doing on a regular basis. Our staff felt excited and inspired to make this an ongoing process. Our customers were the true beneficiaries of this event, and many stores were immediately experiencing a
significant increase in sales – a telling fact.

One very encouraging comment coming
from these visitors was that 12 years ago they visited the garden stores of South Africa, and they were where we are now. Last year, South Africa’s best had moved up to be among the world leaders in garden stores. Maybe this is the jumpstart we all need.

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