It’s Not Over Until the Fat Albert Sings!

May 27, 2014 12 Comments

Memorial Day and it’s only the 26th of May? We should thank the Calendar Gods for this unusual turn of events, a week of May left after this holiday. AND getting another Saturday (retail’s best day in our best month) is a real bonus. Thank you, thank you.

For those working in warmer climates who have been chasing their tails since February, it is tempting to breathe out slowly, look up to the skies and say “….ahhh, it’s over for this year.” But after a long and brutal winter, much of the garden industry team is hoping to keep the momentum going.

“Help Me Catch Up”!

On my recent coast to coast travels I have seen more consumer excitement this year than for several years, while the “sales numbers” are close to 2007 levels, even if overheads are now at 2014 levels! The season seems 2-3 weeks behind the recent normal, so in the colder climates many homeowners are just now making their first visit to a garden store. We missed the crabgrass control and the seed starting business there. Ah well. Maybe we help them catch up on the very late season by suggesting a 1 gal tomato or even a nice pre-caged 3 gal complete with green fruit rather than that little 4” pot they were considering. Maybe we should tell customers to jump the smaller perennials and packs of annuals for bigger instant-show sizes. It feels like April-May happened in a week and it could be 92 degrees tomorrow.

But in most of the country, Memorial Day kicks off summer entertaining and outdoor living: so consumers should now be decorating for next week, not next month. Those market packs and 4 inch sizes just won’t cut it but shoppers may not know that. Merchandising and one-on-one conversations should help customers with that reality. When temperatures climb in today’s garden world, the best laid plans for the bigger spring projects quickly get put aside in favor of decorating and for that they need volume and an instant show!

The truth is that some colder climate stores may have missed one of the (3-4?) yearly trips a consumer makes to a garden retailer. It might be awkward for the merchant or buyer who still has 5 weeks back-stock of small or earlier material but when consumers are playing catch-up, they need help to make that leap from early spring cheer to full summer in-your-face-decoration. That takes some preparation and training by owners and managers. It also takes some skills in silent selling (i.e. merchandising) and in sales conversations to skip those spring projects to go straight into full-sized, lush, restful summer landscapes, patios and veggies.

Summer Livin’

Meanwhile in the warmer southern areas, garden retail is now well into the summer decoration and outdoor living mode. This means a team focus on entertaining, decorating decks, hiding those ugly areas and having succulent fresh herbs even if there are still lots of unsold April-May material being watered every day. Yard Sale!

In the dry west, it will be harder to raise a cheer from staff who see freeway signs about drought every day and are themselves ready for a few slower weeks. But if consumers can’t get honest, experienced help in successful hot dry gardening, the industry needs to take a long hard look at itself. We should be the go-to resource center for all the concerns that homeowners have. What will the drought do to my mature shrubs and lawn? How do I keep my veggies going just as they are starting to produce crops? What can I replace easily next year or when it rains again?

Just like the farmers faced with less water, homeowners may have to choose between keeping alive short or long term plants. This will need help and support, for instance suggesting investments in long term items like mature trees that by now may be worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Employees should ask the homeowner’s priorities, “must-save” plants, how long they plan to stay in that property and so on. Help to reduce drought losses will build loyalty in the future.

Fat Albert Isn’t Singing Yet

So, it’s not over is it?! Now comes the third season of the year: in fact this year’s early Memorial Day might signal a BIG double season; helping catch-up in must-plant Food Gardening products AND a strong confident start to summer living. So plant that 5 gal tomato and fire up the barbeque!

  1. Ron Vanderhoff
    May 27, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Ian, as usual your perspective is so helpful to those of us down in the trenches. It helps to answer the question that many of us play over-and-over in our heads . . . “is it just us or is everyone like this?”

    Being in drought-stricken and heat-whipped Southern California I took particular interest in the Summer Livin’ portion of this blog.

    Gee, I hope it rains this winter.

    Roger’s Gardens
    Newport Beach, CA

    1. Ian Baldwin
      May 27, 2014 at 6:35 pm


      Thanks for your quick reply and I share your hopes for rain being a dusty 400 miles to your north. I wish your team well in selling Summer Livin’ – a task I know they are very good at; best wishes to all.

  2. Richard J. Weber
    May 27, 2014 at 9:42 pm


    You are right on target with how our Spring is going! We have had the best Memorial Day weekend in 8 years, and it feels good to have customers excited again and plants flying out of the garden center! I appreciate your perspective and insight and it’s good to try to think about what’s coming up and how to plan, instead of just trying to recover from the past 3 months of non-stop preparation and activity. Thanks for trying to keep us on track.

    Springhouse Gardens
    Nicholasville, KY

    1. Ian Baldwin
      May 27, 2014 at 10:01 pm


      How nice to hear from you, go GCU!!

      I am so glad that after several years of negative news we can, at least for now, discuss something positive. Also, as a landscaper too I am sure your phone is ringing off the hook, DIFM is booming everywhere, long may it continue! Keep the faith!

  3. Frank Fernicola
    May 28, 2014 at 4:39 am

    Good post Ian. It is far to easy to relax our posture now that MDW has come and gone. Here in Jersey we are hoping to keep some of this late momentum going while at the same time being cautious on reorders. Switching plants around in the nursery this week to move larger summer bloomers like hydrangea and butterfly bush to better areas. Making the most of what we have. Also switching over to 6″ and up in annuals and reducing 4″ and pack space. A lot of plant damage around here from two years of hurricanes then the coldest winter in decades. I like to think people are starting to see the value in their plants now that there have been so many damaged and removed. Liking the idea of the extra May weekend. We will make the most of it!

  4. Jere Stauffer
    May 28, 2014 at 6:18 am

    Thanx for the update Ian. It helps to get the national perspective and not just our region. It has been a great May and we really needed that boost and the encouragement of lots of shoppers in our stores. After many seasons and years of battling weather, economics, competition, and the consumer buying malaise it’s fantastic to see that gardeners are willing to spend their dollars on our products!

  5. Martin Pratt
    May 29, 2014 at 6:05 am


    Looking at this from the other side there is a bright side. I have been working with a client in the big boxes (I have to pay the bills) and having been in stores every weekend the consumer is out there looking for plants and answers. The boxes have gone to letting their vendors decide what they sell so when the consumer comes in looking for this veggie or that annual the answer is we might get them on our next order but we do not know. This is a benefit that the IGCs need to leverage and fits well into your blog this month.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      May 29, 2014 at 10:14 am

      Martin, thanks for a very good point. No retailer can carry all items that might be asked for, so the selection is actually the beginning of customer service.

      By reducing conSKUsion and helping customers succeed the first time ALL garden retailers can help boost the confidence and continued interest in this past time. Buyers at LGCs (Local Garden Centers) can show leadership here and differentiate themselves by being the first filter of what works locally and what doesn’t. Today’s consumers don’t know what they don’t know so a plethora of choice helps no one.

      Garden retailers of any size and model need to see this reduction of choice and selection-for-success as leadership in today’s garden world just as a wide and deep selection was leadership in the 1980’s!

  6. Pat Calnan
    May 29, 2014 at 8:10 am

    A very helpful reminder Ian. Making sure a tired staff stays focused with our spring coming to an end can be a challenge. We are switching to more gallon annuals now. Selling more fountians and furniture. We even had rain two days in row!

    1. Ian Baldwin
      May 29, 2014 at 5:20 pm

      Pat, good to hear from you – go GCU!

      Upsell upsell!!

      If a customer wants to use $39.99 hydrangeas to decorate for a party at the weekend, sell them lots, it’s still cheaper than an ice sculpture and will have a fighting chance of living after, if that matters to the customer (and it may not)!

      Thanks for taking the time.

  7. David Scrase
    May 30, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    As always Ian a very helpful blog and a reminder to us suppliers (particularly those of us in the South) that it is not all over yet! I just hope that our garden center friends do not close the hard-goods door too early and just sell-out of what they have. I must admit that after a winter / spring like this one we could not blame them for wanting to do so.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      May 30, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      Cheers David, thanks for weighing in; you probably see even more GC owners/buyers than I do in a year! The thing is that someone somewhere in every neighbourhood is having a party every weekend from now until Labor Day (or Labour Day to you and me). Parties need decorating and “fixing” products – that’s where your stuff comes in! Plus all that product needed to continue growing your own food – sounds like a glass half full again doesn’t it. Have a great summer!

Comments are now closed for this article.