Tales from the Trenches: Go Figure!

Jul 30, 2013 9 Comments

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!!


  1. Bob Buchwalter
    Aug 1, 2013 at 3:34 am

    Ian, I know what your saying is true. We are a large small retail grower/garden center and for the pat seven years have taken care of two of our counties hanging baskets for their towns. Fertilizing them and caring for them all summer. It is a lot of work but is great advertising for our business! People startied coming onto our store during the summer when everybody’s baskets are fizzling out and ask us what we do to keep the baskets looking so nice in these towns. We fertilize with a commercial grade of fertilizer similar to Jacks Clasic Petunia Feed so we tell people how we use this brand of fertilizer and started educating our customers. I gave one of our part time help a jar of fertilizer to use at her home for personal use! She was amazed at how well it worked on her baskets of petunias. The next year she started selling Petunia feed with every basket that she had going through her register because she had experienced how well it worked. We have gone from selling 16 jars of Petunia Feed in 2006 to over 500 this year! We even started branding our own fertilizer this year so our competitors can’t ride on the band wagon as quick on our hard work. We make an extra $ on every jar we sell. And now have people coming back in July and August to buy another jar because they run out. We make about $5 per jar so this year on one item that takes up very little space in our store well over $2500 to the bottom line! Next year we will most likely sell 600 jars or more as we continue to sell more every year and people will come in our store and say” I need some of that special fertilizer you guys sell”. This is our little success store on tie in sales and every year we try to do better. I think part of the process is getting our employees to believe in our products that we sell then they can truthfully say you need some of this. I gave this employee a 25 lb bag of fertilizer that year as she was selling about a case of fertilizer every day! I would love to hear other stores too to hear what others are dong.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Aug 1, 2013 at 7:36 am

      Bob, thank you thank you for restoring some faith! I loved your story and you are so right, employees have to believe in the product and that this is for the customer’s benefit not just to boost sales (even if it is their wages we are talking about). Thanks for taking the time; there are a lot more positive stories out there, come on folks, sharing is caring!

    2. Katya Zaimov
      Aug 16, 2013 at 8:26 pm

      Bob, this is a great story! It is really important to believe in the products and it is easy to sell something that you know works. My favorite tie-in is the E.B. Stone “Sure Start”, because it works well for me. There are other good products as well. I like to exchange information on what works and what doesn’t with my coworkers and with customers that have tried the product. We tend to recommend the plants and products with the highest positive feedback and this increases the success rate for everybody. Recently I had a curious case when a customer did the tie-in sale for me. I was talking to a new customer, explaining the benefits of “Sure Start”, when another passing customer stopped by us and said: “Listen to her, this thing really works!”, and told us her success story. The new customer bought the product. Another favorite I have is the Dramm clipper. I carry it on my belt and use it at work. Almost every time someone sees me trimming topiaries, I let them know what I am using and let them try it. The product sells itself.
      I think the most important part of our job is to share knowledge. Sometimes people just come to see what is new, or kill the time. Engage them with conversation, without trying to sell them anything! Sometimes they will buy something, sometimes not. The truth is, if you spend time and build relationship with a customer, they are more likely to come again and buy what you recommend. Especially if they trust that you know what you are talking about. You cannot sell add-ons every single time to a regular customer that is in the store three times a week or more, because they usually already have the product, but next time you suggest something else, they will listen, because they know you and trust you.

  2. Rycke Brown
    Aug 6, 2013 at 8:07 am

    As a professional gardener, I do my best to avoid buying anything that I or my customers don’t really need. But the case shown of a clerk pointing out a product that she loves is just what I do with my customers, the difference being that I don’t make any profit off what I recommend. Come to think of it, neither does she; her boss does.

    Some of my favorite items lately are Kengyu pruning scissors; free-standing misters; pound-o-rain sprinklers; cobweb duster; expandable rake, and hula hoe. Of these things, I find only the rake and hula hoe at any nursery shop.

    I have to search online to buy the scissors, which are great for cutting weeds off their roots. Bi-Mart didn’t take my hint when I bought all of their pound-o-rain sprinklers and didn’t restock. I recommended the web duster at Diamond and found that they’d run out of both the dusters and 16′ extendable poles just before I handed out the leaflet. Misters are also in short supply or out at Grovers.

    But the writer should realize that most of us have what we need already, and the proportion of tie-ins to plants is unlikely to change.

    Gardening naturally,


    1. Tim McKillop
      Aug 6, 2013 at 11:44 am

      Sorry Rycke I don’t buy your last comment. I can’t tell you how many garden shops I walk into with no tie in or impulse items displayed with the plant tables outside or how many carts I see leave garden shops with only plants. And I think the writer is commenting on the same…it’s the basics – fertilzers, soils, pots – that are being left behind. It’s the consummables which everyone uses up and everyone hates to be caught short on that are many times not offered up as suggestions for purchase when a customer goes through check out. It’s the toy train you take home for your child and then find out it needed batteries and nobody at the store said a word.

      Chain stores make billions on the tie in sale. The best garden centers shine when customers come back with success stories. The attachment rate can go up because people are willing to pay for success insurance, especially if it is suggested. Hey a bag of soil, a box of plant food, a bottle of spray with every cart…is all we ask!

  3. Clare Argast
    Aug 6, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Hi Ian
    I am afraid I do not have a happy story for you and unfortunately not many will likely read my input because though they constantly struggle, independent garden retail owners and managers, rarely take advice nor do the best they can to utilize resources like this. The tie in thing of course is important but I have to return to your first point. If customers are not getting any service, the tie ins do not matter no matter how strategically placed. I left the industry as a professional this year but I am still a gardener and thus have become one of your consumers.Even as an unemployed student I have spent somewhere around a thousand dollars this season so far on my yard. Even with a well stocked garden shed going into the spring, I would guess that 30% of that was dry goods. I have stopped going to independents because the service at the 4 local stores I started at this year would not allow me to take money out of my pocket for them. At one I stood almost literally in the middle of a group of 5 employees who were chatting while waiting for a 6th employee to bring one more piece of ridiculously expensive furniture up to a display I guess that they were all working on. I even got really obvious and scratched my head and hmmmed out loud…..nothing. Honestly I really needed help, the merchandising was confusing and I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I am sure that none of these kids knew who I was, which might excuse, might, excuse some. I left with 150 bucks cash in my pocket and went to Home Depot.
    This is a garden store who knows better. I had similar experiences at 3 other independents. I will quote Tim from above “especially if it is suggested”. This just didn’t happen at any of the stores I went to partly because I never even made it to the register. I just couldn’t bring myself to pay the higher prices that I know an independent needs to charge. I know an independent has to charge more because of the staff they have to support. I was not willing to pay their wages. Another very important point to independents, we have an outstanding grower in the Portland area supplying the plants to Home Depots so I find plants of excellent quality, easily maintained as well as an independent does, as here, the growers are handling that as well. No, I don’t know what this means for growers and their overhead but as a non industry consumer…..I don’t care, it is locally grown. I think independents are looking at big trouble unless they start paying attention.

  4. Ian Baldwin
    Aug 12, 2013 at 10:59 am

    All so far, WOW, great feedback, thanks for taking the time! It looks like most readers agree that the independent garden center channel, that I know most of your are involved with, has a huge opportunity (being positive) or a BIG challenge (being a bit more realistic) to provide the extras that the public needs to be successful. The thing about today’s garden shopper is that they need simplicity of choice, an emotional connection to the end result as they are buying (many of them have no interest in the process) and success the first time. Only hobbyists enjoy a long term trial and error process to get it right. Most consumers want to get the project underway and move on to the next one. So they need to have all the supplies for success at the outset and most don’t have a clue what the need. Obviously Rycke does know what’s needed (me too!) like a professional would, but only a very small percentage of the public knows, which is why Tie-ins are a service not just another way to make money. The only reason I wrote the blog with a financial emphasis was that, after 30 years of urging owners with offering reasons and rationale like I just did above, most Garden Centers are still awful at delivering the help the consumer needs, as others’ comment here validate.

    There are millions of dollars of business that the consumer would have THANKED the retailers for suggesting and happily bought, just walking out of the stores. So unless the owners drive this down from the top, the GC channel will continue to decline in relevance to the public.

    Thanks again for your time and interest,


  5. Jay DeGraff
    Aug 17, 2013 at 8:12 am

    All points that have been stated are absolutely valid and the fact that it has to come from the top down is essential. If the level of service and training is where it should be then the tie in sale happens automatically. We have been on a pretty diligent path of training all our employees to be engaging, and encouraging the use of our products, to give them first hand experience and therefore making it easier on the employee to suggest tie in products. The increase in soil and fertilizer categories in the last four years will prove that. We have increased our sales this year alone 17% and 57% respectively in these categories through training on tie in sales. Customers don’t want to be disappointed when they get home to find that they are short one item to complete the project. They won’t go back to the retailer they will go back to the closest outlet to find that one item. There can not be aggressive approaches or the consumer is turned off. Training to make tie ins second nature is essential. I prefere to think of this as added value to the shopping experience. Nothing more disappointing then to get home and find out “batteries not included”

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Aug 26, 2013 at 5:01 pm

      Good stuff Jay and impressive sales increases, thanks for sharing, sharing is caring! Do you have any incentive program for these increases such as bonuses, gift cards, thank-you points or is it just “Job Retention”!?

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