Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog

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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
AutoMall_Generic

Has Your Retail Kept Up With The Rest Of The World?

It’s good to know that some things are just like they used to be. In an era of the rapid, irreversible change that the digital world has brought us, there are some things in life upon which one can depend. Don’t you sometimes wonder if there are some aspects of shopping which, despite our fears that the “on-line” world would have completely turned things upside down, have remained as they were, solid, dependable and seemingly un-fazed by 2015….?

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you (ta daa!): the auto mall!

Yes. For those who worried about car salespeople becoming an endangered species, fear not. They are still very common in auto malls (and with what looks like a good crop of youngsters coming through too.)

Yes, they still operate under that same assumption that everyone wants to “deal”. Still spouting that rapid-fire of features jargon from brake horse power (eh?) to bluetooth. Still the total lack of interest in the customers’ situation, needs or even current vehicles. Still that same derisory offer on your pride-and-joy trade-in. Still that disrespect for the competition. Still that testosterone-infused showroom with high fives, private jokes and the all-knowing, all-powerful “finance guy”. (Gosh, we even spotted one in a blue shirt with a white collar – memories of Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street”!)

After two (long) days we changed our mind and invested in our current fleet instead, realizing why we keep our cars a long time. Replacing a car is such an unenjoyable experience. We were prepared to spend as much in one afternoon as many of those people make in months – which in itself is an interesting observation – yet we felt like pawns in a game. Their game.

So the auto industry failed to relate to us and make the sale, but it did get me thinking about how retail home and garden teams are keeping up with the times. I would be interested to hear from readers as to how you and your companies have modernized the sales process to reflect today’s consumer lifestyles.

First Impressions Are Now Digital and Increasingly Mobile

  • Is your website mobile-friendly? (or does it feature impossible to navigate crowded screen pages?)
  • Do you offer any on-line Q&A (in real-time) and problem solving?
  • Are there mobile-friendly how-to videos of solutions to at least the top twenty garden questions?
  • Are in-store classes filmed and filed as a library for loyalty club members?
  • Can customers bring their garden pics to be put on a big screen for discussion and suggestions?
  • Are garden/landscape designers available in retail at weekends (not a given at all)?
  • Is there a “fast-track” for on-line order pick up and pay?
  • Can customers never shop on-site and still spend lots of money easily and happily?
  • Does your company offer personal shoppers, coaches, or in-home consultations?
  • Is there a VIP program for “spendy” loyalty club members (credit card on file) to avoid register lines?
  • Has the inventory been expanded to fulfill one-stop-shopping for most common garden projects?

But The Local Garden Center Is a People Business

  • Does your retail team put the customer before a task? (50 years and counting on that one!)
  • Has your company adopted a strategy of “It’s Showtime!” between say 10am and 4pm?
  • Are there separate teams for receiving/maintenance/merchandising and for one-on-one selling?
  • Does everyone on the team recognize shoppers’ time value and do their best to get them in and out?
  • Does your team’s Product Knowledge relate to Gen X and Gen Y needs and inspire them to buy?
  • Does your layout encourage “Silent Selling” through merchandising, signage, product groupings and solutions?
  • Do your company image and facilities (and team!?) look/feel/smell/sound different to 1995 or even 2005?
  • How has your overall shopping experience improved since the advent of smart phones in 2007?

It Better Be Better!

The shopping experience has to be better than “good” in the days of Yelp to at least avoid a bad review and it makes no difference whether the product is a $40,000 car or a $40 shrub. Hopefully your store doesn’t create an unsatisfying experience like ours at the auto mall. The final judgement about the shopping experience (and consequently the company’s brand value) comes from the customer’s reflection: “Was the end result worth the process and cost?”

Let’s start a dialogue here, I’d love to know how many checks (or ticks for the Brits) your company scores on these questions, and where you see opportunities for improvement. Thanks!

 

 

Oct 5, 2015 8 Comments
MonarchCafe3 MonarchCafe2 MonarchCafe1

Is It In Our Nature?

Being one of those Nature Nerdy lads (actually more of a football-crazy Nature Nerd), I always paid attention to people who raised awareness before it became mainstream.  Rachel Carson was an early influencer (as was Sir Peter Scott for my English mates) and like many people in the garden business, I grew up in the outdoors.

The garden retail community embraces nature in gardening (after all we are very good at helping consumers succeed). But our industry seems way behind the ball in its sensitivity about the wider garden around us, outside of the manicured lawns and perennial beds.

Sure, we support Arbor Day … but we do so with any tree that grows well locally, looks good and makes a bit of money.  I still don’t think the garden supply chain wholeheartedly supports Earth Day with its assumed political agenda and 1970’s culture. Meanwhile garden retailers dislike fertilizer regulations aimed at cleaning up the very rivers, lakes and coasts they frequent with their families in their spare time.

Head for the Hills!

Most people I know in the garden business love the outdoors in their (limited) free time. They backpack with their kids, fish their rivers, hunt their deer or escape to their cabin. These people not only love plants but they can’t wait to be connected with nature on their first day off. They don’t go to the movies, they go kayaking!  Yet ironically the garden industry has not shown the leadership and influence around “nature” that we could and should. Americans are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. We face an entire generation fearful of stepping outside their own back door.

As a lifelong bird watcher I may be more sensitive but why, 50 years after “Silent Spring”, do we have to wait for non-profits like the National Wildlife Federation to tell us how back yards can help disappearing songbirds?

It should be the garden business, not CNN, raising awareness that plants sustain the bees or offset droughts. Even Dr. Charlie Hall’s excellent review of the economic power of “green” practices, from health care to clean water, failed to shake us up.

Money Is Green Too

So I think it is time to frame this differently – business opportunity!!

Twenty years ago working with Hines Nurseries we used a photograph of a monarch wing to signify “Plants for Butterflies,” not knowing this ubiquitous summer icon would now need our help. Several years ago I saw and promoted the “Save Our Monarchs” website but didn’t get much traction from retailers. Only now, after TV news reports the population crash, do we see Monarch plants and programs in the garden business (kudos to those companies, like the Monarch Cafe’ program, carried by Family Tree, pictured above!)

Almost 50% of American households watch birds (a lot more than watched Breaking Bad!) and Facebook is full of cute ducklings and baby owls. But apart from bird food manufacturers, very few suppliers (and no major plant breeders that I know of) have taken leadership on a “bringing nature to your yard” theme.

We are losing this fight: take a look at those landscape-in-24-minutes shows on TV where homeowners are talked into spending big money on outdoor living, almost none of it nature focused. Some of it is almost anti-nature! Who wants to be a Robin in that yard? Homeowners just fall for what they see and the way it is told. They are wide open to persuasion. Don’t we call that selling?

As Go the Birds…

This is an opportunity. U.S home gardens constitute a huge area of land. One in three USA homes grow food; 48 million households watch birds. Garden retail and landscape is worth around $70 billion dollars a year, employing millions. We are not small fish.

Just as the small breweries leveraged the consumer’s boredom with “corporate” beer and the food industry has exploded with innovation, the garden business should be strutting around as the savior of suburban nature. We should be selling ourselves as the go-to place to save the Monarchs, or the bees, pollinators or maybe even the modern human.

Most of us are in this industry because somewhere in our upbringing we just connected with a plant, fish, insect or bird and never let go. Why leave it to others to set the agenda with our product? That’s never a good idea as any politician will tell you. Let’s get out there and lead the homeowner back into the woods, starting with their own little patch of nature outside the back door.

Jun 10, 2015 19 Comments
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Mom’s The Word!

With due respect to those in earlier climates (who might see Mother’s Day as the start of things slowing down), for most of Northern America the fun in garden retail is just starting with Mother’s Day.

Not only is this the busiest weekend of the year for many retailers, it is also the first big weekend, so it is a baptism by fire for many (INCLUDING the customer who may not have been there since last Memorial Day and won’t have a clue where “the annual greenhouse” or even the bathroom is.)

Here are a few winning tips from veterans which might help those newer people who have not been through the crazy season yet:

 Managers

–          This may be the first time some customers have even been to a retail gardening store; deer-in-the-headlights time, so they don’t need equally stressed employees!

–          No matter how pressured you feel, you MUST run short meetings focused purely on immediate business, ad specials, rules, reminders, positive cultural re-enforcement. Repeat policies about breaks, cell phones, etc. that staff last heard 5 weeks ago on orientation day.

–          Remind staff that although this is the week to be great hosts, they still have to make the sale: no one is going to return next week having had a chance to think about it!

–          As there will be little time to think, the “Top Five Common Questions to Expect This Week” reminders need to go out early and be posted everywhere (see my previous post for more details)

–          Ensure in advance that each department knows what is looking gorgeous or is the ‘hot product’ in the other departments; Saturday morning is too late.

–          Make sure every employee is assigned to their core task. (I once watched a nursery’s main “Plant Expert” spend all Mom’s day on a bobcat as he was the only loader scheduled on-site that day.)

–          Practice MBWA (Management By Walking Around) – don’t get stuck selling trees or directing traffic.

–          Be ready with the rah-rah, cold drinks, bathroom breaks, checkout-helpers, more rah-rah and lead the team with a smile yourself. (It’s your job to absorb the stress of a poor April, sorry!)

Team Members

–          Don’t expect early lunch! (Remember that this one weekend might bring in more business than the whole month of January!)

–          This week will bring a lot of non-gardening customers so be aware of your use of jargon and technical phrases (“Do you want six inch or one gallon?”)

–          Identify 4-5 Mom-type gifts in your area for that question “What do you have that’s a bit different for my Mom?”

–          Identify the most gorgeous flower, the most fragrant houseplant, the biggest-impact hanging basket and know where they are, their price and the extras or tie-in sales (greetings card, nicer pot, easy basket watering device and so on).

–          Don’t expect the department expert or other managers to “come in” when you call them on the radio with a question. They may have 5 customers in front of them or be deep in the warehouse looking for that extra case of product.

–          Expect everything and anything! It could be a $50 gift certificate or a complete landscape design. Welcome people, share their excitement and give them what time you can, but also give them a way to ask for it later, online, or by phone. Most customers will recognize how busy you are.

–          Compared to bland malls or impersonal on-line shopping, this is THE time to make the annual task of shopping for Mom a delightful, fun experience.

Have fun and the week will fly by: who knows, you may win a customer for a lifetime.

Happy selling, happy Mother’s Day!

 

May 5, 2014 11 Comments
Business Closed

Don’t Bank on These Guys for Help!

You may have heard about someone going out of business lately, shook your head and said “That’s a shame” and continued with your day. After five years of recession, consumer fatigue, stalled housing and increasing competition, we all knew a shake out was inevitable.

Most people assume that failing companies are badly run, saddled with debt and just not up to life in today’s retail fast lane. And there is some of that, no question –  owners unwilling or unable to change their strategies and operations. When the national lawn and garden market shrinks 20+% since 2007 and the sales of trees and shrubs drop by 46% in 4 years (National Gardening Survey), retail decisionmakers had better be nimble … or else!

But sadly, there is more to it:  garden centers that are making money go out of businesses too. We know of two (over 100 successful years between them) who are currently scrambling to stay in business despite positive cash flow, increasing customer count and on-time bill paying.

The reason? National brand banks are turning away from their traditional role of credit-line supporter. Maybe there was a bankers’ convention about the dangers of “exposure” to small family-held garden retailers. Maybe being awash in cash, large banks have decided they can afford to drop these relatively small accounts – they probably never were very profitable with low bonus opportunities for the top cats anyway.

Let’s Blame the Fed

We know an owner who was excitedly taken on-board with an aggressive pitch and very competitive terms by a national bank in 2007. The bank won all his business, loans, merchant fees and credit line effectively tying up all their collateral against long term construction loans. Now he is told that the yearly rubber-stamp for a winter credit line (always paid back on time in spring) has been refused and their application sent to the bank’s own “Graveyard”.

There, bean counters who know nothing about their customer, will declare the business too risky according to their formula. Even more galling is a bank tendency to blame this on the Federal government’s post 2008 lending guidelines. The retailer said to me, “Didn’t I – the taxpayer – just bail them out? This is what I get in return!”

After many years of providing local employment, creating wealth and running many millions of dollars in sales through the bank year after year it’s over; but you can’t fight it. Today’s reality is to learn and move on.

A “DUH!” Moment

This retailer was told that as their company didn’t make a profit last year, they couldn’t have a credit line. Well, DUH! It is a privately held company, of course they didn’t show a Net Profit on their Profit and Loss statement! But if the bank was interested enough (obviously not) to do an EBITDA calculation from the same documents and spend about 15 minutes on the phone with the owner (as I did), they would see that there was plenty of Net Cash Flow (a much more accurate measure) generated last year.

The kicker is that with the national bank holding the retailer’s collateral, no other bank will give them a credit line either. So, like others we know, this retailer is now schlepping his business around town to see how community-minded these local banks really are. The owners are cheered by the attitudes of managers they are now “interviewing” for the privilege of being their customer, so they feel safe, at least until that local bank gets amalgamated into another national “brand” with lush ads and silly mileage cards.

No names mentioned here (to protect our own Net Cash Flow!) but that same national brand name comes up a lot these days in this discussion. Clearly as they grew from regional retail and community bank to international investment and commercial banking giant, they forgot to read their own “Visions and Values” (I am being kind), or are simply dumping the small businesses that once were their life blood.

The Moral of the Story

The moral, if that word fits in a banking story, is to find a bank who knows that your business matters to them financially. Remember, your weekend cash flow is their source of loan money next week! Now is the time to be a bigger fish in a much smaller pond. Be prepared with true Net Cash Flow documents, not just your own P&L or tax docs. Find a bank (still one that is insured and tested by the Feds preferably!) with a few branches in town, where the decision maker might even know your store. Most cities do still have a few banks living by their original values without visions of grandeur. (Who knows, the manager might just show up for that seminar on herbs!)

If you’re not ready to hang out that “Closed” sign for good, your banker needs to be an ally for you, not an adversary. It’s time for you to practice what you preach to your own customers: SHOP LOCAL. 

photo credit:  Michael S. Richter via Morguefile
Sep 4, 2013 8 Comments