Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog


A Brand New Strategy?

When I ask local garden genter (LGC) owners why there is no Scotts, Bayer or Weber on the shelves, a common response is that they want to differentiate themselves from the big, corporate “box” stores. Besides, they sell their “independent” version of similar products. Owners and managers tell me they’ll lose their independent identity, that their brand is reflected in the array of different products and names not seen in larger, corporate stores.

I would argue that the long term value of their brand is based on customer success with the product, any product. Brand value of anything is based on trust of the outcome. Increasingly in Home and Garden, customers want an outcome with a short time frame, little fuss or low risk.

Retailers who shun national brands are missing a big opportunity. National brand advertising campaigns get consumers off their couch and into the garden, so retailers should take the opportunity to ride on the back of these traffic building programs. The correlation between a declining traffic count in LGCs and the rise of national garden brands might not be coincidental.

Cover All the Bases

A two brand strategy answers both issues. It’s a win-win. It achieves the goal to be different from the big guys coupled with the desire to carry what customers know and seek out. When consumers are told the store doesn’t carry a product just seen on TV, it encourages thoughts of doubt and confusion. A customer who asks for a specific brand has already been sold before they leave home.

Consumers trust national brands in every facet of their daily lives and brand power is immense, especially with younger consumers. This group doesn’t have time or inclination to listen to a “try this unknown brand because we think it works better,” sales pitch. A national brand like Roundup carries credibility, assurance and familiarity, especially with newer, fearful homeowners – all for $5.99!

Driving traffic with national brands while differentiating by service, information, customer confidence and success, covers all the bases. This strategy actually strengthens the LGC’s market position.

Not “Either <–> Or”

But the brand strategy for LGCs is NOT mutually exclusive, i.e. to carry either big brands or small brands. By all means carry “differentiating” products, have more volume of them and feature them as much as possible. But give the national brands their place in the customers’ shopping experience. Two brands, one to differentiate, one to assure and sell at a glance.

Consumers will appreciate the choice, “Try our different/local/custom product or go with the option you have seen advertised.” Some situations (e.g. pest control on edibles) require a one on one conversation, where the salesperson has the chance to suggest their recommended line, be it national or unknown. But other needs, such as potting soil, lawn food or a grill are familiar and trusted, so it seems unproductive to deny customers the few products they will recognize.

“I Can’t Get the Margin I Need”

This is a familiar push back to which my response is “Good, don’t try to on national brands, that’s not where you make your money anyway.” Remember that  not everything in the store has the same mark-up potential. My margin mantra is: You get it where you can and give it back where you have to.

An LGC owner told me he tried a national brand item once but it didn’t sell; then I saw the 60% Gross Margin they were asking! Here is the rub, national brands MUST be priced competitively, because they are nationally known, promoted and used by others to drive traffic. Don’t expect national brands to sell at LGC mark-ups! In reality they don’t need to. The loss in margin dollars is a very small price to pay for the benefits these brands can bring. I’d even suggest seeing the “loss” of margin dollars on known-value lines as a promotion cost subsidized by the marketing budget.

Who knows, you might even make more money in the long run as the familiarity of national brands have taken a lot of the fear out of buying – meaning a quicker sale, increased turns and better return on inventory.

We live in a brand-obsessed world. National home and garden brands such as John Deere, Rain Bird or Osmocote, are everywhere in many retail channels. They bring familiarity and trust to the name long before the customer enters a store or opens a retailer’s web page. It’s hard to ignore that reality, so why fight it?

Put another way: Let’s assume you sell your garden center and follow your life’s dream to open a liquor store. Would you really not carry Bud Light?




Sep 1, 2014 29 Comments

It’s OK Not to Know the Answers

Ah spring; the daffodils, the greening lawns, the plum blossom. And of course there is also the Bobcat that now won’t start, new truck drivers who don’t know your “before 10am” policy, the phones that didn’t re-charge overnight and the customers: oh yes, “them”!

Every year (like an ice-storm in Atlanta), spring seems to arrive as if it was a surprise to many. Garden retailers take in more on the first busy Friday than in the previous 4 weeks. By 11am on Saturday, you have already beaten the sales for the entire month of January. Yet employees are unprepared for the stress, hired and thrown in the deep-end (or allowed to continue set-up “task” jobs even as the parking lot is bulging).  The next ten weeks should pay a year’s bills; this is intense stuff and not for the fainthearted! Nor for the shy or the task-obsessed; the next few weeks are about people, specifically, customers.

After many years of walking retail garden businesses I am still amazed how easy it is to be ignored by the people on payroll that day. I don’t mean to suggest these people are lazy or disinterested; they are often busy, even overwhelmed, with a task list from their leaders, but somewhere in the training, orientation and mentoring, a crucial behavior becomes lost.


So even with all the caveats about hiring earlier, selecting for character and training for knowledge and so on, here’s the Baldwin spring mantra for the next few weeks:

                It’s OK not to know

but it’s not OK to avoid customers because you may not know…

So, look up, catch eye contact, smile, welcome your wages coming your way. Engage with a non-invasive “Good morning! Sunshine (or warmth/cloud/rain) at last(!)”, and then pause to ‘read’ the customer’s  response. That’s all it takes, literally!

Been there, done that

I have been there. At 18 I remember lifting, carrying and digging my way through spring, keeping my head down and my eyes on the job, praying that customers would not approach me and ask me a question I was sure I would not be able to answer. “The boss knows everything, ask him,” I thought. “This is my first spring, how would I know when to plant sweet peas? I am just filling the tables with them; please, oh please don’t walk over here…”

Obviously, the more product knowledge and experience they have, the more confident the retail employee will be and the greater chance the customer has of being engaged by a smiling face, instead of looking at busy people with their heads-down. But retail is theater and is all about self-confidence. If you don’t like that moment on “thin ice,” don’t volunteer to go on-stage.

Fair Game

No one knows everything and never will. This industry and its products are evolving so quickly even the veterans have a hard time keeping up to date with PK (Product Knowledge). But employees in garden retail cannot let their own lack of knowledge govern their behavior towards paying customers, who don’t know or care if the employee has been there two days or twenty years. Anyone in uniform is fair game.

If this frightens you, retailing may not be a good fit for you.  If it encourages you, congratulations and welcome to a great industry! The day will be much more fun and the customers much happier if you look “open for business.” Spending your time avoiding customers’ eyes can add up to a long long day!

So for now, I wish you a “heads up and happy spring!”

Stay tuned here at Ian’s Bits & Bobs for the next installment: Anticipating the Customer’s Questions.

Mar 28, 2014 14 Comments

So this is Christmas…

In the words of my fellow Lancastrian John Lennon,

“So this is Christmas and what have you done?”

The season is winding down, leaving retailers with well picked-over inventories. Hopefully yours is reduced to a mix of a few “high-risk” lines that looked so interesting at the Market last January and the re-orders of local or fresh stuff for those last-minute shoppers.

What’s Hot, What’s Not? 

Reports from across the country seem to indicate a better season than 2011 in overall sales with a slight uptick in average customer spend but slightly lower margin dollars at the end of everything. Owners and managers I have talked to suggest that it has been a strong season for live greenery (better called “Recently Live” greenery?) such as wreaths, roping, garland, fir boughs, porch pots and so on as well as seasonal color like Poinsettias, Christmas cactus and so on. The downside seems to be a weaker demand for permanent (i.e. never-was-live?) Christmas Trees (which I heard was also a problem for the big box stores this year) and holiday ornaments to put on the trees.

Collecting ornaments may be over for now as homeowners concentrate on porch, hallway and room décor rather than the actual tree. Surprisingly strong (according to my informal/not-statistically-valid retail survey) seems to be “Home and Gift” but not necessarily Christmas themed: lamps, prints, tableware, linens, etc. and in particular personal things like apparel, jewelry, purses and shoes. The latter category, which I call “Self-Gifting” or the “I deserve it department” is something I have noticed growing strongly over the last 4 years of economic stress. Similarly anything to do with a pet, birds or nature in general also seems strong this year.

In the plant departments, the race to the bottom on Poinsettia pricing continues though some enterprising garden centers have managed to re-establish value by using clever location names (e.g., “Hearthside” instead of  “10 inch”.) Porch pots are increasingly looked for by the public, while Hellebores are making a bit of a comeback and florist grade white or pink Hydrangeas look really good when sold with all the red stuff like Cyclamen, Azaleas and Cactus. Cut trees are another victim of bottom-headed prices. They are too easy to get, set up, sell and get out of to be a high profit line in this day and age, sorry, and at least one well known Garden Center has leased its cut-tree department to a local specialist.

Connecting the dots….

Coincidentally, I read an excellent analysis of the current retail world last week which (by tracing the decline of Best Buy) was cataloging the on-line challenge faced by Category Killers. In particular, Megan McArdle cited how Amazon can be low-cost and responsive yet with such a huge inventory selection that even the biggest big boxes can’t beat. So I began wondering if this was the way we are going to first notice how on-line shopping was impacting the retail garden business?

Now I know that bloggers can take 2 statistics, add 2 more and make 5 but I have been thinking…! Is the success this Christmas in hard-to-ship fresh greens, blooming plants and heavy pots a sign that the public will continue to buy a product they really want to see, feel and sniff in a brick & mortar store?

It seems yes. But what about all the décor and personal products like prints or tableware, or jewelry and purses, surely they are nationally-known brand names available on-line?  While I think I can argue that enough consumers still want to see what they look and feel like in person (to justify you carrying them), or in fact are simply browsing waiting for inspiration to strike and thus not able to shop online, this category also has many unknown or artisan brands locally made or regionally but not nationally famous.

That little bit of local might be the salvation of this department, even if most of the volume is from brand names. And when it comes to the self-gifting business surely many consumers simply want to enjoy the self-gifting experience as an opportunity to escape or just reflect in their own moment. Giving yourself an hour to stroll through a warm greenhouse or store with the fragrances and sounds of Christmas is the very essence of a self-gifting experience and certainly beats endless shifting from screen to screen only to find the famous “On back-order” message. (Though admittedly though you do still have to get dressed for shopping in public!)

So, local, fresh, unique, different, experiential – call it what you will – Christmas seems alive and well if you as a retailer can make it your own.

“So this is Christmas, I hope you have fun, another year over and what have you done?”

Share your results, differentiating strategies, and experiences in the comments section below – consider it your Christmas gift to this blogger.


** Photo credit: Ian Baldwin, taken at Orchard Nursery & Garden Center (CA)

tomatoes3 Ian Lucy and the Veggies

Walkin’ the Talk: How Do You Score?

We all know that the veggie boom is lasting longer than most (including me) thought it would, so as a writer and speaker who has been urging retailers to get serious in providing the “how-to” for their customers, I thought I should show that I do walk the talk. 

…showing some of my ‘credentials’

Bucolic Morn

It was calm and cool today so we walked over to the veggie garden to see what happened during the last few weeks of a busy travel and work schedule. Almost exactly an hour later we had harvested over 50 pounds of onions, 30 pounds of potatoes and a staggering 37 pounds of tomatoes – from just two plants of one variety, a mini-Roma type called “Juliette”! This crop will be preserved to add to the 12 jars already “in the can” as it were.

“The Answer Lies in the Soil”!

We’ve had a veggie bed, the height of one 2×12 board, running about 80 feet long by 12 ft wide for around 10 years producing the usual tomatoes, peppers, squash, egg plant and summer beans, plus Swiss chard, herbs, arugula and a hefty crop of spuds. I start the whole thing off with yummy fava beans (aka broad beans in the old country) planted in Feb and harvested in May. We have been very good about composting, tilling in all our Fall leaves and adding green manure, plus up to last year, the wholesome contribution from our donkey Earwig (R.I.P.).  So we now have about 10 inches of beautiful organic soil sitting on the heavy native clay of the California Central Valley.

An Irrigation Situation

Automatic watering is essential in our climate but with me coming from England and Lisa from Michigan we had to figure it out as we went along. After much trial and error, and no help from the local retail garden  industry, we settled on a faucet-based timer feeding on to a “ring-main” of ¾ inch black distribution pipe and “flag” emitters for each plant like a tomato or pepper. For row crops such as beans or spuds we lay a ¼ inch soaker hose running right down the row.

To Know Is To Grow

If this sounds like a bit too much detail, well it is but I am making a point (I hope). We both have Horticultural degrees, a lifetime in the garden business and parents who did this every year. Meanwhile our city-based friends are amazed when they visit and can’t contemplate what it takes to achieve what we take for granted.  New homeowners or offspring on non-gardeners face a pretty steep learning curve just to get a few “wins” let alone grow enough to enjoy months without supermarket veggies. Many consumers are clearly inspired enough to try an –off-the-grid approach to their veggies or at least to buy from Farmers Markets or CSAs and this trend is NOT going away any time soon. Healthier food is “IN.”

Does your “how-to-succeed” offer pass the beginner test ?

The retail garden store (of any shape, size or channel) should surely be the how-to place where a consumer can leave with confidence and excitement. They need assurance that it is do-able. They need short cuts, how-to tips and local-based information. They want to know they are not crazy and that it won’t absorb their entire waking hours. More than anything they need a first-time win at actually doing it (however small.)

So, how does your marketing, image, website, You-Tube how-to-succeed library, product selection, POP, employee training, visual merchandising and seminar offering help the first timer, or the dubious second-timer? Do you even carry all that is needed (don’t forget the timer)? What about preservation of produce? What about bed preparation and crop rotation for next year? Do you show how to scale all this down to a few pots on a patio (“Basil on your balcony in 3 easy steps”)? Will your next year’s veggies shopper score an easy, first time win to encourage a repeat performance, or will they head for the Farmer’s Market shaking their heads at what might have been?!

Aug 20, 2012 11 Comments

What’s Happening Out There?!?

I am getting frequent emails from retailers asking the same question, using phrases like “it dropped off the cliff in June” and “Where IS everybody?” The launch of this new blog seems a perfect place for me to share my opinion with you – I look forward to using this as a forum to share insights and observations and hope that you’ll find it valuable to you – please join in, add to the discussion in the comments.

So where are we now?

I think we are in the middle (i.e., it started at least 6 years ago but with the silly housing boom no one noticed) of a transition in consumer attitude and behavior towards “Gardening”. We’ve heard for a while now that almost all hobbies are in decline. People are hunting less, fishing less, crafting less and so on. Hobbyists live the hobby. If your hobby is fly fishing, half the fun is in researching and tying the fly, not just catching the fish. The process is as rewarding as the end result and you don’t mind if it takes months or years or you get wet/cold. The gardening industry was fueled by consumers (and employees) who thought the same way about gardening. They loved to spend their whole year reading, researching and networking to improve their garden or landscapes. The media weighed in with several year round gardening magazines, now it is tough to find any — and HGTV seems more like HTV whenever I catch it.

We are becoming suppliers to a public that increasingly sees gardening only as a seasonal “must do”, hence the “off-the-cliff” situation when they feel they’re done for the season (or it gets hot/wet). Next season they may come back unless something else gets their attention but in between spring, fall, Christmas we are not seen as essential or “must-make-time-for” places.

Ugh. Where’s the good news?

But the good news is that even in a recession, householders are still doing small, around the house projects such as painting a bedroom, replacing a screen door or screening-out a nosey neighbor. And the USA has 116 million households! This is a wonderful opportunity for the L&G business if we re-present or package the project as a quick, fun, even family weekend activity. Instead of painting a room why not plant fresh late-summer veggies in pots of your deck (“Sugar Peas by Labor Day”) Basil on your balcony? We can show you how to do that. Hiding that nosy neighbor? We have all you need.

We are seeing a change in commitment. The L&G industry has to adapt to a consumer which thinks of us as a place to get them started in spring with flowers veg or lawn care or as a place to get solutions and products for their quick weekend projects.

We can do this, but it will take some work.

We have the products, the answers and talent to become much bigger than it ever was when depending on hobbyists; but only if we re-invent ourselves in the consumer’s mind.

(photo credit: taylorschlades)

Aug 6, 2012 5 Comments