With 2022 ending and a new year approaching, it seems like a good time to discuss independent garden centers and what customers want and expect from them. All businesses strive to be better, or if they don’t, they probably won’t survive.
At one time, garden centers had almost a captive audience of customers wanting to buy plants and garden supplies. However today, that is no longer the case. Today, the choices and selections of places to purchase plants are numerous, particularly during the spring and summer months. During those months plants are readily available at drug stores, grocery stores, farmers’ markets, garden club sales, box stores, independent garden centers and online.
Choices, choices and more choices
I participate in a small writing group as part of The Hardy Plant Society of Oregon. There are eight of us, and we all strive to become better writers, with gardening as our primary theme. We meet virtually once a month, read something that we have written and then discuss it as a group. At our November meeting, instead of reading, I asked the question, “What do we as consumers want when shopping at a garden center?” Everyone in this writing group is a gardener and they are probably more knowledgeable and more intensely involved in their gardening than the average gardener. However, they are representative of the average consumer and their responses were similar to what one would expect from any other consumer.
Having a knowledgeable consumer-oriented staff was high on the list for everyone. It is acknowledged that hiring staff is difficult in these times, but when going to an independent garden center, the service level expectation is higher than it is at a grocery, drug or box store.
It is important to have a staff that is familiar with where specific plants are, or if they do not know where they are, to say so, offer to check and then actually go find out and come back with the answer. To point in the direction of where a plant is does not fit the idea of consumer-oriented service.
Consumer-oriented service was mentioned more than once in the group. People have been solitary for so long that there is a strong desire for in-person contact. This type of service is important for any type of business and not just the nursery industry.
For example, at a local restaurant, it is common practice for the manager on duty to stop by the table and ask if everything is satisfactory and to say “thank you” for choosing them. That practice is somewhat unusual for some businesses, but it certainly makes a very strong statement of appreciation to current customers and is a simple way to appeal to all consumers.
Plant labels and signage are other important features. Signage above groups of plants can be very helpful. The signs can be straightforward: for instance, ROSES, HERBS, NATIVE PLANTS, LOW WATER PLANTS, SHADE PLANTS, SUN PLANTS, NEW INTRODUCTIONS, POND PLANTS, etc. Grouping like plants together is helpful for consumers.
Changing displays with the seasons seems like it would be a logical business move, but that is not always the case. Some garden centers wait too long before introducing the appropriate seasonal plants. “I don’t want to see marigolds, long past their prime, in a display in October,” said one member of the Hardy Plant Society group. “In the fall, or in the spring or summer, I need to change my containers and I like to get new ideas for plant groupings,” said another. For local garden centers, the changing seasons are a wonderful opportunity to show off new plants, pots and accessories.
It was not many years ago that the opportunity to order plants online was nonexistent. Now it is not unusual, but I still find that most gardeners prefer to visit a local garden center and view and touch their plants before purchasing them. Plus, the opportunity to visit with garden center staff as well as other gardeners is a secondary benefit.
It is usually difficult for gardeners to visit a garden center and only leave with the one plant they came to buy. This is all the more reason to have displays that cater to the season and new introductions. It is impossible for gardeners to bypass attractive displays.
The electronic age has dramatically changed the way many of us buy not only plants but almost everything. The one area that everyone in the group agreed upon was the importance of an up-to-date website for any local garden center. This is especially true when one is looking for a particular plant and, in particular, if it is a plant that may not be commonly grown or available.
“I don’t want to drive from one garden center to another in order to find the plant that I am searching for. Having the plant listed on a website, and its availability and size of container is very useful information,” said one member of the group. “If I see that it is available, I will often actually call the garden center to confirm and then ask if they will save a plant for me.” This is another aspect of good consumer-oriented service.
None of these responses is new, but sometimes it is good to reinforce what we already know but that may have been neglected or forgotten. With the continued shortage of labor and rising labor costs, as well as the increased costs of plants, soil, utilities, water, fuel, fertilizer and other supplies, the basics matter more than ever. Good, old-fashioned consumer-oriented service is essential — and hard to beat.
Happy New Year!