Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog

Sun River pic

More than a Photo Stop

If you are in garden retail, summer is the time to take a break after the spring zing and maybe join one of the many garden center tours and meetings offered in various states. It’s a great opportunity to spend time with like minds, share stories and ideas with one’s peers across the country. Having seen plenty of garden centers myself this summer from Seattle to Boston and knowing there is another tour this coming week, I wanted to share some of my stories from 30+ years of doing just that:

If you’ve heard me speak recently, you already know we are seeing a serious polarization in the independent or “local” garden retail channel. It’s similar to what happened in the local hardware channel in the 1990s, when around 50,000 retailers shrunk to around 18,000 now. But those survivors are now thrivers!

The Good Are Getting Better

It’s very clear from the last few years that in the family-owned, privately-held garden retail channel, the good are getting better. They are winning market share (often in the same town) from the less good and this year’s data from our two network groups and clients validates that observation. The better-managed companies are making more margin dollars and, for those in the know, more “Gap” dollars, even if the sales “topline” looks similar.

So as you tour these stores, look beyond the photo-shoot displays and clean bathrooms. Ask the questions that really matter: Where did they get their inspiration and ideas? How did they know it would pay off? Who do they seek counsel from and make critical decisions?

Early Adopters

I am guessing you’ll find that your hosts were early adopters and networkers. Although ANLA’s Management Clinic sadly ended six years ago now, I’ll bet your hosts were regulars there, networking and learning from 7am to 1am. I suspect they were early adopters of capital improvements such as state of the art greenhouses, benching and signage. They were probably early adopters of network groups, training programs and, dare I say, they might even be among the 730 people who went on one of our 16 England Garden Center tours.

I have spent many hours wondering what makes a winner in this channel. It starts with a clear vison based on months or years of collecting the data/evidence of others’ successes and failures. It continues with a clear feasibility plan which is pre-loaded with strategies for expected (and unexpected) challenges. They have a strong Plan B, an ability to measure and monitor, and an openness and a preparation for change mid-dream if necessary. They are also ready to make some unpopular personnel and/or family decisions (try firing your sister or putting your Mom on a 90 day write up…).

Leverage and Risk

These winners invest more than most others are comfortable spending. They accept risk that stops others sleeping at night and they hire people who know more than they do. Two of our clients borrowed loans equal to their annual sales in the previous year (those were the days when banks were partners!) – while in their twenties…. Another bought out their parents but only if they agreed to move 100 miles away – think about that one!

I know owners who invested early in POS while others shunned it because of their own dislike of computers. We have a client who 12 years ago spent over $16,000 on a sign machine while other more established and larger nurseries scribbled on the back of an old J&P sign. We have clients who travel thousands of miles to see stores not in the garden business, just to keep up with general retail. They all have a passion to learn and keep moving forward, to constantly challenge and “change it up”. They simply don’t say (or tolerate their team saying), “That’s good enough”.

After so many years in the trenches I could go on (yes, I know, I DO go on…) but the key takeaway from working with some of the best in the business is that there are clear, consistent reasons for their success: vision, focus, risk and the humility to constantly learn and change.

The lesson? You can’t take a picture of that. If you’re heading out on a tour, we encourage you to ask the same questions that your hosts asked … and still do. Because another probability of these winners is that they will openly share their successes and failures with you (well, as long as you are not three miles away – they’re not dummies!)

PS: On that timely tour topic, some of you readers may be touring one of our favorite clients this week in Utah – Sun River Gardens (https://sunrivergardens.com/, pictured in header). Take a close look and ask those deeper questions to Scott and Tanya: they are rightfully proud of all that they have accomplished, but it didn’t happen overnight … and it wasn’t easy!  Kudos to them, and to ALL of you – the garden centers who take the time and expense to tour whoever is moving the needle, so you can move it yourselves. That’s how an industry moves forward.

 

 

 

 

 

Sep 2, 2018 10 Comments
Instagram Eric HP Haul

The Rise and Rise of the Under 35s

Right now most owners and managers in the retail garden business are in “can we catch up with budget?” mode after a late, cold spring season and are probably not worrying too much about demographic trends. So mark this as a “should look at this again after Memorial Day” doc and circle back when you can raise your head above the trench.

The Cavalry is Coming

Talking of military analogies the cavalry, in the form of the under 35 year old householder, is coming over the hill to save the garden industry – just in time, as female Boomers continue to disengage.

As an Analyst and Commentator for the 2018 National Gardening Survey (NGS) (www.gardenresearch.com) I have the opportunity to look at the data regarding the American consumer’s participation in and spending on “gardening”.

First let me say that we (i.e. the NGS team) do not fixate on a single year’s data, even though both gardening spend and retail sales hit all-time highs in 2017 – which would be very tempting headlines. But we do look very closely at consumer spending trends over 6 year periods and even more crucially at the participation data. People remember what they did last year more accurately than what they spent last year.

In fact the 77% of all USA households who report doing something in the garden IS the highest ever in 35 years of the NGS. (Which other industries selling non-essentials can claim a 77% participation? But I digress.)

While participation in gardening stayed flat among households of those over 55 years of age, it continued to rise in the households of under 35s. They are not yet spending the same amount of money as their older siblings and parents but they are now seriously engaged in more than just houseplants and veggies. Under 35s have caught up with older groups on participation rates in what were until recently bastions of “settling down” such as DIY Landscaping, Container Gardening (no hole-digging for them) and purchasing tools or equipment. I think we can now say that the under 35s are “all in”.

Load, Read, Fire!

Nestled in the 250+ pages of NGS data, something caught my eye. Twenty years ago, the NGS showed that the biggest consumers of “Gardening Information” were females over 55 years old. The 2018 NGS shows that same data point to be the under 35s and male…. Hmmm. Furthermore, they are buying information online the way people bought magazines 20 years ago. Although we are always cautious about one year’s results, millions of households say they acquired a gardening app last year alone!

Failure is Not an Option

Not only does this fact confirm the switch to digital media, it also suggests that this age group is serious about getting it done right the first time, AND that they are comfortable using silent information at least in the first stage of how-to learning. As if to confirm the confirmation, I also found another little factoid: The under 35s have shown steady growth in using the Do It For Me services of landscapers. It seems that the more affluent under 35s are much more prepared to employ others to do some of the garden chores than the previous generations were at the same stage in life. That’s another – BIG – hmmm…

So, what are you doing to meet, welcome, educate and assure younger householders’ success in their digital space, so they get it right the first time? That would seem the best way to win their loyalty. To them, first-time success is an essential part of the ‘shopping experience’ about which we are now hearing so many clichés.

Please join in the comments, let us know how you are tackling this huge opportunity – when you can raise your head above the parapet!!

Happy selling!

photo credit: Portland Nursery’s Instagram Account

May 21, 2018 2 Comments
2brandsoil

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?

Cheers!

 

 

Sep 1, 2014 29 Comments
daffodil2_MF_Djb78

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.

Mantra

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
Christmas_Orchard_II

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)