Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog


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:


–          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

Anticipating Common Questions: A Real Win-Win

In the last posting, I talked about retail being theater and how we are all players on the stage. Garden retailers have a challenge to help their customers succeed the first time. I call it a “challenge” because so many garden shoppers lack knowledge and confidence, they fear failure.  I say “the first time” because with so many alternative uses of their time and money, consumers are in no mood to spend a lifetime mastering what we sometimes take for granted.

Garden retailers have an opportunity to build loyalty and trust in the customer’s mind when they come to your store, buy what you suggest, do what you say, succeed beyond their expectations and love you for it. The newer garden customers want the end result they see on TV or on social media, but without the trial and error they saw absorbing their parents’ lives.

Few homeowners want a concrete lawn and plastic flowers and are increasingly paying others to “Do It For Me,” (or Do Some of It For Me), because they don’t know what to do and don’t see the value in a 5-10 year learning curve.

That’s where garden retail teams come in, even if you are only one small step ahead of that customer approaching you as you look up and smile.

Even though you may not feel confident, you probably know more than you think and a lot more than many customers. It is a matter of confidence. Confidence to greet, engage, listen, validate and then decide if their question is something you can handle – no guessing or making it up – or something you should ask a veteran team member for help on (and give you a chance to learn for the next shopper).

What Do I Need To Know This Week?

But we can spend years in gardening and still not know everything, so how does a newer employee stand a chance? Owners and managers need to focus on the few specific questions that the customer might ask each week (a technique we call “The Year’s Top 50 questions”). The 80:20 principle applies here! Right now you can predict the top 10 questions from customers this week; “Can we plant tomatoes yet?”, “When do I feed my lawn?”, “Should I prune shrubs that have flowered?” and so on. Much of this information has a short window, few ask about crab grass control In June.

Predicting this week’s main questions, addressing the problems and projects that drive customers to your store, encourages team members to engage customers, rather than putting all the load on the shoulders of a few “experts.” It also shows employees that they are not expected to carry a whole year’s information at any moment, making them more self-confident, while passing off the deeper or oddball requests to the veterans. The customers get the impression (it IS theater after all) that ALL the team knows its stuff and trusts their words more – probably increasing the average ticket in the process.


Weekly meetings should outline the expected questions, “retiring” some and introducing others as the season progresses. Daily huddles or one-on-one coaching will prepare even the most nervous “newby” (assuming they were a correct hire in the first place) to help a customer succeed. Each week employees are encouraged to add new sure-bets to the list such as “Don’t you have Impatiens anymore?”.

Some managers add the top 5 questions of the week to the daily calendar or scheduling log-on, some use PK or Product Knowledge training to emphasize customers’ top projects or requests. Others make it the core of their morning huddle; “We have frost forecast all week, let’s talk about our crop covers”.

Help me “Like” Shopping Your Store

However they are conveyed, sharing a few focused questions with the team can be a major win-win, giving much needed self-confidence to employees, trustworthy answers to the shopper and a higher rate of success for the homeowner. What’s not to like?

Coming up next time: Listening!

Apr 17, 2014 6 Comments

Tales from the Trenches: Go Figure!

Every year I spend some serious observation time in the trenches by the registers and out into the parking lot. It’s amazing what you see. Only last week I watched a lady struggle out to her car against a strong wind with a heavily laden shopping cart. She had just donated over $100 to the store’s cash flow that morning and no one helped her – but I digress. This blog is about an oldie but goodie: tie-in sales, AKA, add-ons, attachments, adjacency items, link sales (hello Brits! “Think Link”!)…. the list goes on.

The sad truth

For years I have done a non-scientific survey of tie-ins counting the number of units of ‘helper’ products that were in the cart with the “main” purchase – usually plants. Sad to say but nothing much has changed in 20 years of doing this in independent garden centers, though I suspect the Home Centers have really improved their “attachment” rate. In the early 1990s it was about 1 cart in 5 with any such items – even one little bottle – in the cart and in 2013 it is about the same.

I understand that some of those shoppers bought new gloves recently, own a perfectly good trowel or still have half a bag of plant food at home from last month’s visit. I also know that some of these customers were about to drive to the loading zone for their bags of mulch; but one tie-in for every five carts brimming with gorgeous plants? Come on, retailers, that’s just depressing. It’s not setting the customer up for success, but more importantly it’s not setting you up for profitability.

I am not advocating “loading up” every customer with things they don’t need, nor asking every shopper if they “want fries with that” like a fast food place. But we can do better than one in five!

This is not another nagging rant about cross merchandising, employee training or a finger-wagging to Think Like Customers (ooh I like that phrase) and give shoppers what they will need to succeed. It’s about cold hard business. It’s a numbers game.

And it goes like this

A garden center doing $2 Million in sales a year at $50 average sale has about 40,000 shops (Ka-Chings) a year.

At least half of those Ka-Chings (20,000 shoppers) will buy at least one unit of annual/perennial color, veg or herbs

  • If just 20% more of those 20,000 shoppers buy ONE plant food, that is 4000 extra units (333 cases): got your attention?
  • If 20% more buy just 3 bags of soil in a year, that’s 12,000 more bags of soil or mulch (or both!): truck-loads of the stuff – any takers?

At least 25% of the Ka-Chings (10,000 shoppers) will buy a tree or a shrub

  • If 20% more of them buy 1 plant food that’s 2000 more units of plant food
  • If 20% more buy just 3 bags of mulch, that’s 6000 extra bags

That’s not to mention repellents, gloves, kneelers, pruners, watering cans, soaker hose, stakes, support frames… need I go on! The shoppers will need this stuff anyway and will just go and spend that money in a competitor’s store when they discover they don’t have everything they need for the project. I am not advocating filling every cart with all the hard goods they will truly need to succeed, even I don’t buy that. But these are very conservative incrementals, just one bag/bottle or thingy for a few more shoppers.

Money is left on the table, bed or shelf every day by retailers and there are a hundred reasons why I’ve heard that “tie-ins” can’t be done. Maybe these numbers will finally appeal to someone to drive a tie-in culture down from the top?

Garden retailers spend millions of dollars and hours of work trying drive more people in the door but seem to roll over when it comes to driving extra sales from those already there. Go figure – literally.

Someone cheer me up and give me a tie-in success story, please!!


Jul 30, 2013 9 Comments

Tales from the Trenches: The Invisible Ladies

Picture the scene: two smart well-dressed ladies in their fifties, who love to shop together for their garden, home, grandkids or sometimes just themselves, drove into the parking lot of a large, family-owned grower-retailer “somewhere in Amurrica”. It was a bright sunny mid-week morning, spring was in the air and shopping was on their minds as they each grabbed a flat-bed 4 wheeled cart. These girls were here to spend!

Imagine the pressure for the store: it was a late, cold, wet spring in this particular part of the country, especially after 2012’s early, gorgeous, record beating weather.  So owners and managers were already on-edge awaiting sunshine, warmth and impulsive customers.  Already, their “numbers” were way behind last year – that expected 12 weeks-to-pay-for-the-whole-year was already down to 9 weeks.

The Tale

The ladies had lived through the cold, wet, spring too: they were excited to finally be shopping. In the following hour and ten minutes they spent wandering through a gorgeous, full greenhouse with that magic smell of spring, no one, not one employee spoke to or even made eye-contact with them. All the picking up and putting down, the ooh-ing and aah-ing, all the high energy comments and “likes” drew absolutely zero interest or action from what seemed a busy but ample group of employees all around them.

The hanging baskets were a particular challenge for the two ladies as they craned their necks up trying to decide what they were, how much and how the heck they got them down. “I think those are still growing, where are the ones for sale?” one lady thought out loud. Then the other one spotted a basket lifter on a long pole, so they eventually chose several 10 inch beauties but no staff ran to help, or even seemed to notice them struggling.

An hour after arriving our shoppers were ready for home so they pushed the two overflowing carts, to the waiting cashiers. In that time, well over $250 had been invested on the baskets, tropicals, perennials, veggies and herbs and the ladies were visibly excited to get planting.

But they still had no eye contact from staff, no offer of help pushing the loaded carts, no suggested tie-ins or companion plants, no comments on their loads, no shared joy – nada.

It gets worse 

Adding to the story, one of the ladies had worked there while in school and was reminiscing to her friend. In her excitement she asked the female cashier if they were having a good year.  “OK” was the bored reply. To which our lady said, “I used to work here and it’s great to bring my friend, – just wondered how you were doing with the wet weather”.

The final “you’re kidding me” moment was the cashier’s response: “Oh”.

“Oh”?! Is that all?

They just spent $250 dollars to help pay your wages in a wet cold spring.  Two friends are obviously excited to spend their time and money where one of them had worked just like you today and all you can say is; “Oh”.

After that it just got worse, no carry-out to help load those heavy plants, not one staff person recognized the ladies’ existence. Not even a synthetic “Have a nice day.”


It’s important to note that this place is not a ramshackle, failing business (well not yet). Both the reputation and drive-by image are impressive. These shoppers could have just caught the company on a bad day with several absentee or sick employees. The cashier may have dreaded being stuck on the register or had a raging headache. She may have had no training or expectations set.

But what about all those other busy head-down employees….?

What about the leadership? What about the culture?

The Fix

Company culture is a hot topic right now. It’s clear to me that if a company doesn’t set the desired culture from the top down, there is a serious risk of the wrong culture developing from the bottom-up.  And company culture isn’t something you can “set & forget” – it’s a constant process, one that you must remain vigilant about. This company has 42 weeks to get it right for next year.

Thanks for reading and “Have a nice day.”

Photo Credit:  anonymous greenhouse taken by Ian in Washington State, 2007.

(NOT the location where the invisible ladies were shopping, in case anyone recognizes it)


Jun 18, 2013 22 Comments

Tales from the Trenches: “Look at Me!”

(This is the first in the Tales from the Trenches series, a new semi-regular blog feature sharing specific insights & observations from site visits to retailers around North America)

In this first installment of Tales from the Trenches, I’m pleased to report that Spring is finally here! (or almost over, depending where you are in the country.) A time of excitement and promise, and in the retail garden business, a time for new employees hoping that no one asks them a question. You will see this in all retail channels, from the oldest exclusive nursery to the newest “pop-up” facility. I was that person myself once, long ago and far away: pushing a cart of plants to re-stock a bench or washing celery on a farmer’s market stall. I kept my head down, worked hard and tried to look invisible, silently willing customers to keep moving past me. Now that I am a little bit (!) older I can understand what they are going through, but that still doesn’t make it acceptable in today’s highly competitive lawn and garden market.

The Tale

During one garden center observation session, I watched a younger employee ringing up customers for at least three hours without a noticeable smile, without an audible “thank you”  – in fact, without an impromptu action of any sort. Robotic, almost: it might as well have been a self-checkout station for all the interaction there was. After watching a $170 sale with zero human reaction from the employee I wanted to say, “That lady just bought about 17 hours of your wages, it’s OK to smile…”

The Question 

Why are these people so unprepared for what awaits them?  Who interviewed, selected, hired, oriented, trained and placed them in such an unforgiving environment? All retail work can be demanding, but the spring season in lawn and garden must rank up there with the best of them. We have a short 8 weeks to make enough money to pay a year’s bills, selling to a consumer that might not have set foot in the place since last June. Customers now have less time and less tolerance for failure than ever before.

Retail staff are supposed to magically make all this right in 20 minutes and smile all the way through? Yep, garden retail can be intense and unforgiving.

But as they say, that’s not the customer’s problem. They are volunteering to come to our stores and spend their valuable spare time, gas and wages to pay our wages. Hmmm, now you put it that way….

The Answer 

It’s the fear. I am convinced that the main reason for this lack of confidence to look up, engage customers and see where the conversation leads, is the employee’s fear. Fear of being asked a question he cannot answer. Obviously, it is the job of management to train these employees, to orient them with answers to as many of the common, predictable questions as possible. It is our job to infuse confidence in them through product knowledge (“PK”).

But orientation and training must go way beyond that. New people will never know enough to face every inquiry, so they will still avoid eye contact. It is essential that managers equip their employees with a way to cope with any question – whether they know the answer or not. Just a few minutes on how to handle this potentially awkward situation might be the most productive training session of the year. Only then can managers expect employees to have the confidence to look up and engage customers.

The Fix 

Employees need to be assured it is OK to not know every answer, but they can be the first responders and find someone who can provide the information. Customers would welcome an employee who has the confidence to say “That’s a great question and I wish I knew all this stuff but I am still learning myself! Let me get Jenny on the radio so she can get the answer for both of us!”

So the mantra to your staff in the next few weeks might be: “It’s OK to not know the answer, but it’s NOT OK to ignore or avoid customers because you don’t know.”

Yes, it’s Spring. So  heads up everyone, here come your wages!

Photo Credit: An Armstrongs Garden Center (CA) team member engaging a customer with a respectful but non-invasive stance 


Apr 29, 2013 10 Comments