It was sunny, 85 degrees and Christmas was in the September air!
Those who know me will be the first to note that I am not exactly “Mr. Gift” (or Santa’s best helper,) so please know that this is NOT a strategic advisory to get into a big Christmas gift and décor category if you don’t already do that. *(I also grew up in a culture that called the coming season “Christmas” and had a “holiday” in summer so forgive the odd dash of political incorrectness here.)
In the last few years several clients and local garden center (LGC) leaders have started selling Christmas merchandise in September, with “open house” kick-offs being brought forward into October.
This brings Christmas up against what the traditionalists would say was a classic gardening season as in the “fall is for planting” slogan of yester-year. Why, I asked, were they doing this? Didn’t they jeopardize a busy late Sept/October garden selling season? Did they lose significant fall and Halloween sales in the rush to get the glitter out? And what about alienating those loyal customers who shopped there precisely because they were NOT a corporate chain starting Christmas a few days after Labor Day? What about the “bah humbug” crowd who wanted nothing to do with that kind of creeping commercialism?
Well it turns out that some LGC owners, way smarter than me, had rationalized these very questions and decided to go ahead putting out their ‘holiday’ offer earlier than they used to, earlier than many of their own staff would have wanted. The results (this year anyway) have varied from a nice margin uptick to spectacular. Hmmm!
“Our fall planting used to be more than just replacing summer color with Mums and Kale. People bought lots of big ticket landscape products like trees and shrubs and we all know what happened to those lately. Fall is now about cheap decorating at best.”
“Halloween has lost its appeal to many of our customers, meanwhile it’s become a loss-leader for every grocery store and gas station, so we had less and less customers looking for it.” (Another nail in the fall coffin so to speak!)
“We already HAD the inventory, paid for and in storage, in some cases since July. It was just a matter of rescheduling the set up and sales labor.”
“I am looking at the cost of doing business, making payroll, paying bills that are rising and a traffic count that was falling. But every day thousands of local consumers drive by, or Facebook each other; why not give them something to talk about?”
“The later we leave our open house the more we compete with our customers’ own busy lives. By Thanksgiving they all have their holiday décor picked out and we want them to buy it from us, so the earlier the better here”.
“In this part of the country our fall is put away by November so some of our holiday customers never did see our beautiful outdoor plant material; now we get to show what we have”
“We have five chain retailers down the street discounting Christmas from the get-go; why not beat them to the punch and grab a few weeks of great margins?”
“As a third generation nurseryman I wasn’t thrilled, but this is a business and for now I love having the holiday money in the bank. If fall comes back for gardening, we can always change back again.”
The Results (as of Nov 14)
One warm-climate local garden center I know had an early October open house (with no competition) and has been selling full-margin Christmas product for almost 6 weeks. Meanwhile, their gardening business continues as is and the place offers a dual-purpose visit for the consumer.
It could just be the year that consumers finally started spending again, but we know of several LGCs that have beaten all-time records for open house or first Christmas weekend sales volumes. Three more recorded new customer count records … and no bah-humbugging!
Gross margins are also at levels not seen since before the recession. In a perverse way, the gloom in Washington DC seems to inspire some shoppers to treat themselves; for instance, buying a fully decorated tree as shown in the store.
A spike in Facebook and Pinterest mentions together with increased website traffic.
Early excitement from most staff (you know your bah-humbugger) happy to know they are working for a company that changes with the times.
The Final Word
As I said at the outset, this is NOT a recommendation to get into Christmas if you are not already in it (that is a subject for another day, another blog.) But if you ARE already invested and fall gardening has been flat for years, why not? This is a business decision about use of assets and paying bills. Just be prepared that you’ll be ready to kill the Christmas carol “musak” by early December…!
PHOTO CREDIT: Roger’s Gardens, all lit up and selling … in October!