Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog

LowesGreenhouse_2017_cropped LowesGreenhouse_2017

Reading The 2017 Tea Leaves

I took a few months off the blogging trail, so we didn’t distract our massive readership from the 2016 election! Then I waited a few more weeks to see what the election had done to the retail garden business and voilà, here we are now well into 2017.

Happy New Year

I do believe it will be a happy 2017 for the retail garden business and the supply chain that supports it. The business signs are quite positive, always allowing for the usual weather challenges and a (mild) cyclical recession predicted for 2018. The fourth quarter of 2016 ended very well once the consumer’s attention was re-focused after the election. Garden center teams or independent garden retailers I spoke to after Christmas said the last two months had been very strong in sales and the consumer’s attitude to spending. Average sale per customer was well up over the last few years and all operators I spoke to focused on the same observations (albeit anecdotal).

Simply put, the biggest, most expensive end of the range of almost everything, sold out first. It didn’t matter whether it was wreaths for the front door, “everlasting” Christmas trees or swag for the mantle, the most expensive selection sold out first. The $2000 everlasting tree sold before the $800 one, the new clever lighting set sold before the cheaper one designed five years ago and the biggest table-runners went first. Even the sadly “footballed” Poinsettias were elevated for a few weeks with the bigger pots and higher priced specimens selling out early.

It is at least 8 years since garden retailers told me that they sold out of cut trees by Dec 18th and no consumer seemed to want a plain, decorate-it-yourself wreath. They wanted them fully decorated and ready to shine. So the end of a dominant election, a record-high stock market and finally, rising household income, do seem to have combined to loosen the purse strings.

Spending Can Be Fun!

From the “Do It For Me” side of the aisle we saw a strong and increased ticket demand for “Christmas Porch Pots,” outdoor lighting, tree installation and interior decoration. All signs of a more relaxed consumer.

So, does this mean a fabulous year ahead as consumers spend like fools? I am not sure about that, remember that the media giveth and the media taketh away, but the signs are very good. Garden retailers can bet on a consumer who is much more open to persuasion than even two or three years ago.

“Your wage rise is my price rise”

Another factor in the mix is the national conversation about the increase in minimum wage either by legislation or just through simple market forces. What this means is that most customers know someone in their circle of family or friends who is getting a raise, so they should not be shocked to see prices increase as a consequence. As one garden center owner said, “For the first time in years, my customers are expecting me to raise my prices, so I am not going to disappoint them!”

What’s your price rise strategy?

So in the spirit of “Sharing is Caring”, who among you has added 4%, 8%, 10% or more to some lines (which lines?) you will be carrying? Most of our blog readers are not in competition with each other, so let’s hear what you are looking for in your price increases this year. Who’s going to start the bidding? Do I hear 5% to start please….?

Photo Credit: Ian Baldwin, taken inside the classy new expansion at Lowe’s Greenhouse and Florist (Chagrin Falls OH),

showing the owners’ confidence in the next few years!

Feb 15, 2017 10 Comments
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National Gardening Survey: What’s Not to Like?

As regular readers of the blog probably know, this is my fifth year of analyzing and commenting on the National Gardening Survey’s annual 250+ page market research report of the what, who, where and how-much of the nation’s gardening industry. I wrote an article published this month in Green Profit magazine on what we found … you can click here: GreenProfit_July2016_NGSOverview – to download the full article. (Sneak peek: “a bold, exciting future for garden retail!”

Once you’ve read it, let’s chat:  leave a comment letting me know what you see on the horizon from your store’s viewpoint!

Aug 12, 2016 10 Comments
HerbswithFish

Inspiring Summer Customers Without A Word Being Said

 

As temperatures climb and that manic spring customer flow slows to a trickle some days, it’s always tempting to take a deep breath, look at sales YTD compared with last year and relax… ”it’s over”. There used to be a day when that was somewhat true, retail garden companies (and many of their suppliers) could put a “Gone Fishing” sign on the door and literally, go fishing.

Of course that’s still the case if you are living entirely on seasonal pop-ups – good for you, tell me how you make it work!

But for the thousands of owners, managers and team-members who have been in overdrive for the past 12-16 weeks, the reality is that you can’t afford to take your foot off the pedal. The costs of being in business don’t take a summer break.

Now that the consumer has found, bought and planted what they need (hopefully), we have to sell them what they might like. And given the summer temperatures and competing activities, we have to make the shopping experience as enjoyable and successful as possible.

Traditionally that has meant a customer finding an employee who, by a series of questions and answers, narrows down what they think best suits the customer’s situation.  This assumption is now seriously challenged by such developments as on-line research before customers leave home (over 60% for L&G shopping) and You-Tube videos on their tablets as they walk the aisle.  Let’s not forget the other reality – the cost and availability of knowledgeable labor. 

Hand-Holding May Not Be “Full-Service” Anymore

The full-service Local Garden Center channel is still far too dependent on knowledgeable employees. Even if you can find and hire them to hand-hold every customer, shoppers today are used to (and sometimes more comfortable with) “discovery” on their own. With on-line research increasingly common there is a lot less need to start every conversation from scratch. Customers just want to know if they are interpreting things correctly for their own situation. The retail center becomes a validation center.

Customers who have spent time researching their project, product, size, brand or budget, need much less “discovery” conversation with employees. What they need is guidance, validation, assurance and confidence-building.  Merchandising can do much of that too. Garden shopping is changing from an assisted treasure hunt to a focused project. The mantra might be “Research on-line, validate in store.”

Silent Selling Can Be Compelling

So, if you are able to take some time off and tour some of your peers or your competition, see what you can find in the way of exciting, persuasive merchandising or “Silent Selling” with a compelling value-proposition. Take lots of pictures (if allowed of course) and build a training session around them because exciting, persuasive value propositions are still hard to find. But that’s what shoppers want right now. A simple clear vision of the end result, the products, the how-to “recipe” and the price of the project (or the cost of not doing it!).

Despite all the “merchandising training” and the digital media now available it’s hard to find merchandising that inspires summer spending in this way – without a word being said. 

See what you find out there and let us know in the comments section below. Happy value-propositioning!

Photo by Ian in an English Garden Center 2008

 

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Reading the Mid-Spring Tea Leaves

For garden retailers in the warmer climate zones, the week after Mother’s Day is slowing down, over the peak, saying “now we have to work harder for it.” In most colder climates, Mother’s Day sales were down (this year at least), in some places seriously so, as May swapped weather with March. But in both climates it’s no time to relax (May everywhere pays wages for weeks ahead). It IS time though to read some mid-spring tea leaves in case you are staring at that still-massive inventory number….

What’s selling?

Succulents, succulents, and oh did I mention succulents? Any shape, color, size and style are flying off the shelf this year, and if you were smart enough to invest in added-value versions in planters and arrangements – even better. Aligned with that, I see all things naturelle with wood, stone and moss in those added-value lines. Small, simple and intense – which may reflect the influence of TV and other media on the under 35’s, with their minimalist homes and no-clutter styles. Surprisingly then is the strong demand for garden art and deco, maybe that’s the Boomers getting their own back. Another significant tea-leaf, off-the-charts demand for “Do It For Me” tree and shrub planting suggests that despite TV news and politicians, a lot of Americans feel good about spending the money on things they no longer want to do.

What’s not?

The DIFM surge might also be causing the fall in tree and shrub sales after a great year last year, but poor weather is also a factor. The earthy stone/wood trend above might also be the cause of reports that finally, after 20 years, sales of high color, high gloss, large ceramic pottery, is flattening out. Garden décor is hot but in a matte-finished, earthy or rusty way it seems.

Unsurprisingly, independents are reporting a drop in “hard goods” or garden supplies especially in controls or “chemicals” (as us old lags still call them). I think householders are using less in total anyway and most independents have lost the battle with the home centers for various reasons, the biggest of which is the (incorrect) perception that every single product on every single shelf must have a 50%+ gross margin. In fact, the home centers have used that victory to now present themselves as the one-stop shop for hard goods AND green goods, but that’s another blog for another day.

Serious tea-leaf analysis needed!

I talked to an owner who was questioning the strategy of his “chemical” category after he pulled a POS report (yes in mid-May!) showing that the 202 items sold in the “Insecticide” sub-class took 68 Stock Keeping Units (SKUs). Think about that: after the busiest weekend of the year, each SKU had only averaged 2.9 sold (out of, presumably, a case of 12). As he said, he was amazed at the sheer volume of SKUs to generate moderate sales. Food for thought and a validation for a comment from Jim Sullivan on my last post.

So, sharing is caring … leave a comment letting us know:  what are your mid-May surprises?

Photo Credit: Upscale, “stone” succulent arrangements made in-house at The Greenery (Taken by Ian)

May 13, 2016 12 Comments
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Helping Customers Succeed – The First Time

I know most people are up to their neck in spring and don’t have time to read my ramblings, let alone hold meetings to implement new ideas. But I wanted to record what I am seeing out there just in case some readers were able to use it to help their customers succeed – the first time. The industry is changing because the customer is changing, as my analysis of this year’s National Garden Survey data shows.

Walk any type of garden store (I’ve seen 12 in the last few days) and watch shoppers, especially the younger novices. You can see confusion bordering on panic on some customers’ faces as they read every bottle or plant label, asking each other “what’s the difference between these two?” They have bought into the concept of outdoor fun with the kids or healthy home-grown food but matching the dream with reality is another matter.  “Fear of failure” is the main drawback to increased garden spending at times like this.

So, keeping it brief for Mother’s Day weekend, here are some questions/queries to use for your training or critiques in the next few days:

  • Do displays/signs assure first-timers (e.g., ‘Easiest succulent we carry!’)
  • Is wording simple and encouraging, or botanical and fear-inducing?
  • Are there simple bundles such as “Perennial Success Kit” or “Fresh Potatoes Without Digging”?
  • Are the top 15-20 selling plants accompanied by their essential tie-in products and how-to info?
  • Are guarantee signs positive and pro-customer, or defensive and pro-company?
  • Is there an information desk? Is it always staffed by happy, competent people?
  • Are customer success stories and reviews shared online or on site?
  • Are online how-to videos promoted at the point of purchase for customers to access as they shop?
  • Is there help line/website reference or at home consultancy available for after purchase questions?

How much money from the customer’s “Fear of Failure” is being left on your table for another year?

Let us all know how this questionnaire played out!

Photo by Ian, taken at Family Tree (KS)

May 5, 2016 5 Comments