Building repeat business and loyal customers isn’t easy – but it works wonders
Brenda Powell’s great-grandparents started Garland Nursery in Corvallis, Oregon, 84 years ago. The retail nursery, which sits on six peaceful acres in the country, has passed down through four generations and is now owned by Powell and her siblings, Lee Powell and Erica Powell Kaminskas.
Over the decades, the nursery has built a solid reputation as a knowledgeable, friendly place where people can outfit their yards and also escape to a bucolic setting for an afternoon. That combination, along with the family’s longstanding presence in the community, has also brought a long list of loyal customers back again and again.
“We have a lot of people who have shopped with us for 50 years,” Brenda Powell said. “There are a lot of people who knew our parents, who were super involved in the community and the industry, and we still get people who come in who had gone to high school with them. That’s going away somewhat, but it still happens.”
Not every nursery has the luxury of an 84-year history and notable family members to help inspire loyal customers who shop with them for decades. But there’s no denying that regular, repeat customers can be a big piece of a retail nursery’s good fortune — or lack thereof. And while there are ways to try and cultivate those repeat customers — think rewards programs, regular and engaging communications or even just top-notch customer service — there’s no straightforward recipe for success.
“To me, a customer is someone who customarily visits. Loyalty is a completely different magical unicorn,” said John Karsseboom, owner of The Garden Corner retail nursery in Tualatin. “Customer retention or customer loyalty — that is an ongoing challenge.”
Get with the program
In the past decade or more, large and small companies alike have launched rewards programs or exclusive clubs as a way to try and groom repeat customers. Companies like Starbucks, McDonald’s, Target, REI and countless others all have rewards programs of some sort that allow customers to acquire points they can use for future purchases or get discounts on a future buy based on how much they spend.
Retail nurseries have gotten in on the rewards game, too.
For example, Al’s Garden & Home offers Al’s Color Dollars that are worth $1 for every $10 spent. Al’s then schedules various redemption periods throughout the year when customers can spend their Color Dollars. Al’s also has a free rewards program that gives customers rebates based on how much they spend, as well as invitations to special events.
Garland Nursey’s Garden Club works similarly: Customers sign up for free and get a $5 reward rebate for every $200 they spend. There are also member-only sales and appreciation events. Powell said the nursery has more than 20,000 reward members, 13,000 of whom have spent money at Garland in the past two years.
Once a year, members also get a magazine with a coupon for $20 off a $100 purchase. And because members sign up online and the program is run through the nursery’s point-of-sale system, Garland is able to track purchases and offer more customized service.
“We are able to look up purchases for 18 months, so we can see what they bought and make a recommendation if they want another one or something different,” Powell said. “It also makes it so they don’t need a receipt if they need to return something, which is convenient.”
Sid Raisch, a nursery consultant and president at Horticultural Advantage, said rewards programs can be fruitful, but they do come with an expense.
“If it’s being effective, that’s fine, but if it’s not, then you’re just giving away money,” he said. He noted that some companies might be better off building and strengthening their brand before they try their hand at a rewards program
Additionally, while rewards programs might try to build customer loyalty, Raisch said there’s a difference between loyalty and simple repeat business.
“I am a frequent user of Starbucks, but I am not a loyal customer,” he said. “I’m a customer of convenience because I travel a lot and Starbucks is convenient and they are in good locations. It matters to get the points, but it’s not loyalty. I would be loyal to my independent coffee shop when I’m at home.”
Katie Dubow, president of Garden Media Group, said another version of loyalty programs includes subscription services like Amazon Prime, where customers actually pay to get access to something that other customers don’t. She said some horticultural consultants are offering subscription services that give access to webinars, classes and other educational content.
“Those are more industry focused, but I don’t see why a retailer couldn’t do that,” she said. “It’s just getting an idea of what a customer would be willing to pay a premium for just to have access to something exclusive.”
Keeping in touch
Keeping in regular contact with customers can also help keep your name in their minds so they’ll come back to you when new nursery needs arise.
The Garden Corner has two weekly email newsletters — one focused on its products and one that offers ideas to try. Garland has a weekly email that shares news, events and also popular updates on the nursery’s cat, Mrs. Fanta Claus.
Along the same lines, social media has become an important tool for building repeat business or just keeping customers engaged with brands.
“There is huge opportunity with social media,” Dubow said.
Not only is social media a way to connect with younger customers, but it’s a relatively easy way to engage with just about anyone. Dubow said it’s important to interact with customers who may have mentioned your business on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
“At the very least, you need to be thanking them,” she said. “Those are customers out there who are essentially being ambassadors for you — and you’re not even having to pay them or ask them to do it.”
Go old school
One of the best ways to build repeat business and loyal customers is about as far away from rocket science as you can get: offer people good customer service and an enjoyable experience.
Powell said Garland has always prided itself on its selection, quality and good customer service. Many employees there are good at remembering customers’ names, which offers a personal touch. She also said they try to keep refreshing their displays so that things don’t get stale for customers, and she and her siblings try to get out and be active in the community – being part of the chamber or making donations, for example — so there’s recognition like their parents had.
“I think just being the experts out there in the community has helped us a lot,” Powell said.
For Karsseboom, building repeat business starts behind the scenes by eliminating as many tasks for his employees as possible — things like watering plants and turning on the lights. Automating those functions frees employees up so they can focus on more important things.
“It’s eliminating anything that would take them away from interacting with customers,” he said. “The extra time gained is something they can be doing for the customer instead, maybe offering them a coffee or just chatting with them. To me, loyalty is about getting to know a customer by name, knowing their personality, their likes and dislikes.”
Karsseboom said he also works every day to make the Garden Corner a business that would be missed if it were gone.
“If we were to think of a business that one day suddenly vanished and we would entirely miss them, what business would that be? That’s where my mental state is,” he said. “So if we were to disappear, would we be missed? We strive in small and large ways to become that business who would be dearly missed if we went away. It’s a great exercise for any retailer.”
Jon Bell is an Oregon freelance journalist who writes about everything from Mt. Hood and craft beer to real estate and the great outdoors. His website is www.jbellink.com.