Tales from the Trenches: The Invisible Ladies

Jun 18, 2013 22 Comments

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)


  1. Maureen Murphy
    Jun 18, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    “Culture is something you can’t set and forget”. Great take away concept!

  2. Jay De Graff
    Jun 19, 2013 at 7:16 am

    Amen to the culture comments. It does go from the top down, and it is a constant leadership process. Don’t expect employees to be as vigilant as an owner.

    1. Steve Smith
      Jun 25, 2013 at 8:19 pm

      My God John, you are so depressing! Why not expect the employees to have the same zeal for customer service and to follow the owner’s example? My frustration is because of the size of our company we never have everyone here at the same time so it is difficult to train employees and because we are always watching our labor costs we tend to keep our staff on the lean side. I end up being the cheer leader that connects with the customer and makes them feel welcome and loved and helps with the carry out and other small talk as they leave the store. I firmly believe that this is essential for the experience and when i can’t do it i make sure that there is a staff person assigned to this position. It is money well spent in my opinion. Find someone that is energetic and people oriented and have them be your greeter and carry out person. It is cheap “promotion”.

  3. Orla Fitz
    Jun 19, 2013 at 7:18 am

    I grew up in a small local business and always knew it was paramount to keep the sunny side out. Even the day after an exceptionally close family berevement, we kept the doors open and involved our community – they really appreciated it. Nothing frustrates me more than sales assistants who scowl at me as I had my money over the counter. Great article Ian – right on the buzzer of much of todays retail culture issues.

  4. John Crook
    Jun 19, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Great article, Ian. As garden center owners the tendency is to think this never happens at our place, and when it does we make excuses. The truth is if we learn of one event like this there are probably at least twenty we didn’t learn about. You are absolutely right. Culture is a constant process to develop and sustain. And it is especially difficult and even more important during periods when business is slower than we expected.

  5. Kellee O'Reilly
    Jun 19, 2013 at 8:29 am

    This is a great story about an all-too-frequent occurrence in many businesses (As I read it I thought, “wow – I’ve BEEN that woman so many times in garden centers!”) I would challenge everyone reading this to avoid the instinct to say, “This would never happen at my store” … but rather to assume that it DID just happen at your place, and be sure that you’re taking steps with your team today to train on how to approach customers (do you have a 10 foot rule? Have your team practiced a series of comfortable nonthreatening approach comments?) so it doesn’t happen *again*

  6. Ian Baldwin
    Jun 19, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Gosh, great feedback, looks like I stirred a beast somewhere within you! Thanks for taking the time, keep it coming with ideas on how you all address this elephant in the retail room, Ian

  7. Ron Vanderhoff
    Jun 19, 2013 at 11:05 am

    Unacceptable – regardless of the circumstances. As leaders our job is to manage the results, not to have great (and probably accurate) reasons why the results didn’t happen. Great story, but knowing Ian I suspect this wasn’t a “story” at all, probably a real-life “report”. How about a follow-up sometime down the road Ian, on just the opposite – a time when an always wonderful staff person turned a bit of a sour browser into an enthusiastic “shopper”? Of course, they would do this by first being an engaging “host”.

    Sounds like there might be a reason for our $347 syndrome.

  8. Chris Quance
    Jun 19, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    I completely agree with everyone, and I’m going to have our whole team read it. I sure hope it wasn’t our store, but if it was please let me know. I wouldn’t see it as someone being a pain, but a chance to change the future.
    No matter how good we are or think we are this is at the very least a good reminder to follow up with everyone on customer service and remind them that as business slows, customer service can only get better.

  9. Bob Buchwalter
    Jun 20, 2013 at 4:21 am

    This past Jan. I had to pick up some dormant hydrangea at another greenhouse on a Sunday afternoon. It was cold and no cars in their parking lot. I was expecting a drap responce from the sales clerks, instead was welcomed by two employees both saying “Welcome to xyz garden center! How can I help you. Both were smiling and eager to help! They even carried the boxes out to the van and loaded them for me even thou I wasn’t making any purchases! It changed my how attitude when I was there! Made a big impression on me. The first time I had ever been greeted like that at any garden center so I know this is the first step in increasing our average sale by setting a positive mood.

  10. Charlie Dunn
    Jun 20, 2013 at 7:55 am

    This problem starts from the top and flows down. Having been away from the industry for 15 years it amazes me that most mass merchandisers now offer better customer service that the independent garden centers.

  11. Terri Mitchell
    Jun 20, 2013 at 11:00 am

    It cannot be emphasized enough, ” Hire the right people for the job.” Believe me, I have not always succeeded at this task. I have found that it is easier to hire right, than to let someone go. Some people are not people persons. Thank you Ian, for the reminder. When we have to let a beloved employee go, someone we really liked, but did not fit our needs, it was a relief for all concerned, even the released employee. We are a business, not just a job. To succeed, we must make some hard decisions. Bob Buchwalter’s observation was “spot on.” Obviously those employees were keepers.

    Hire the right people for the job. Not an easy task. Some people cannot interact with other’s comfortably. It’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just not their gift. They may be great at the job, but not with the demanding public. Thanks for the reminder Ian, Sometimes we just have to let an employee go because they are not a good fit for the job at hand.

  12. Ian Baldwin
    Jun 22, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Great stuff everyone, some good home truths there. There are some people who just don’t have the skill set for retail, especially intensely seasonal retail like the GC business. But this true-life story was more than one or two ill-suited employees, This is a cultural issue from top to bottom, senior management here must have been incredibly unaware of what goes on in their own business or in deep denial!

    I just returned from working on exactly this “Customer Engagement” topic with the super team at Roger’s Gardens in CA; this subject takes time, repetition and sometimes some awkward moments in training (try role play on this!), but it is well worth it.

    In fact it is the very core of the independent reason for being surely. As Charlie points out (great to see you name again Charlie!), how can the independent channel think that it is OK to be “out-served” by a box store with a fraction of the labor costs?

    Upwards and onwards!!

  13. Julie Ruf
    Jun 23, 2013 at 4:13 am

    We have morning huddles with staff to reinforce such subjects. In the same week I had a fabulous customer comment that every single employee greeted and offered to help and another customer reported the opposite a couple days later
    Reinforcement reinforcement reinforcement for our teams culture
    Thank you for the blog

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 24, 2013 at 8:56 pm

      Thank YOU Julie! You are so right about reinforcement; if this major differentiator between independents and chains disappears we have only ourselves to blame. The fact is that in too many independent GCs you are no more likely to be greeted than in a Home Center and that is just sad looking at the difference in labor costs!

  14. John Cowburn
    Jun 25, 2013 at 2:07 am

    Isn’t this depressing story an indicator of a wider malaise in society?

    Head down, uninterested, only got time to look at the latest Tweet or Facebook update? It’s apparent when you just walk down the street, nobody takes any notice of anybody else, nobody cares!

    The latest technological communication advances are amazing and wonderful but unless we step back to examine the social implications we will create a sad less humane world!

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jun 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm

      Thanks John, BTW I don’t think you are depressing, realistic maybe, no one really knows the long term social impact of our current love affair with technology. Time will tell and until then Steve is also correct; retailers have to drive these customer contacts as frequently and as pleasantly as possible.This is a huge leadership challenge for everyone in any sale/service/customer contact business right now.

      I just spent two whole days with the team of a very large and prestigious Garden Center training them to just simply greet and engage on a personal level, just as a human being, long before they get into the sales function. Corporate retailers have done many brilliant things in the last 40 years but in the process customer relations have been dumbed-down.That first few moments as the “Host” is sadly lacking from almost all retail establishments in any category and is so important in this industry.

      Keep up the chat!

  15. Keith Turbett
    Jul 3, 2013 at 8:19 am

    Ian, slightly slanted I meet many diligent staff during my travels who’ll do anything to help. But to all readers think of the greeter at your favorit orange box competitor. If nothing you get one smile. That’s the competition and if its down to self-service the consumer will migrate there if their local garden center doesn’t deliver some personality.


    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jul 15, 2013 at 10:41 am

      Keith, “slanted” it maybe but.. I wasn’t reporting on a statistically significant survey here, just a real life happening that no one should allow to happen. The sad thing is that I am pretty sure the owners of the business mentioned still have no idea that this situation occurred so it could still be the norm at this retailer – which is awful. As you correctly say, each store has to have some personality but in my experience that has to come from the top down. If the owners are task driven, “fill tables, water plants, get things done” type of people, that becomes the culture and the paying customer is the loser. Secret or mystery shoppers can help drive this message to an owner (if they are listening) but sadly I think many retailers reduced that service when the recession hit. Time to re-invest in an honest outside, unbiased view of your service levels folks!

      If an independent doesn’t have smiling helpful service as a distinguishing factor, what do they have!?

  16. Lynda Lang
    Jul 3, 2013 at 9:45 am

    Thanks for the super reminder…customer service-so important! Greet them, offer to assist them through their entire visit and always invite them to return. Make them feel special. They’ll be sure to share their experience with several of their friends (good or not so good). Good is better!

  17. Kellee O'Reilly
    Jul 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    I was in a decorative home goods retailer over the weekend and had encounters with three separate staff all of whom approached me at different times saying, “Hi! What brought you in today?” … while the redundancy of it was a bit tedious at the third greeting, it was a comfortable opening line that forced me to say something in response (and they had a massive sale going on, summer clearance. So the follow up when I said “oh, I’m just looking” was an easy, “well, have you heard about our 50% off summer sale? Some great bargains today!”)

  18. Ian Baldwin
    Jul 15, 2013 at 6:26 pm


    I think that is a good start, although it might get a trifle repetitive, “What brings you to Happy Plants today” is certainly better than “Can I help you?”, or What can I help you find?” (tempting answer… “solitude”) and even that is better than the on-the-run “Hi”. The next level up is ‘Engagement’ and nothing to do with selling at all, just one human talking in a warm friendly way to another human – what a concept!

Comments are now closed for this article.