Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog


Tales from the Trenches: “Look at Me!”

(This is the first in the Tales from the Trenches series, a new semi-regular blog feature sharing specific insights & observations from site visits to retailers around North America)

In this first installment of Tales from the Trenches, I’m pleased to report that Spring is finally here! (or almost over, depending where you are in the country.) A time of excitement and promise, and in the retail garden business, a time for new employees hoping that no one asks them a question. You will see this in all retail channels, from the oldest exclusive nursery to the newest “pop-up” facility. I was that person myself once, long ago and far away: pushing a cart of plants to re-stock a bench or washing celery on a farmer’s market stall. I kept my head down, worked hard and tried to look invisible, silently willing customers to keep moving past me. Now that I am a little bit (!) older I can understand what they are going through, but that still doesn’t make it acceptable in today’s highly competitive lawn and garden market.

The Tale

During one garden center observation session, I watched a younger employee ringing up customers for at least three hours without a noticeable smile, without an audible “thank you”  – in fact, without an impromptu action of any sort. Robotic, almost: it might as well have been a self-checkout station for all the interaction there was. After watching a $170 sale with zero human reaction from the employee I wanted to say, “That lady just bought about 17 hours of your wages, it’s OK to smile…”

The Question 

Why are these people so unprepared for what awaits them?  Who interviewed, selected, hired, oriented, trained and placed them in such an unforgiving environment? All retail work can be demanding, but the spring season in lawn and garden must rank up there with the best of them. We have a short 8 weeks to make enough money to pay a year’s bills, selling to a consumer that might not have set foot in the place since last June. Customers now have less time and less tolerance for failure than ever before.

Retail staff are supposed to magically make all this right in 20 minutes and smile all the way through? Yep, garden retail can be intense and unforgiving.

But as they say, that’s not the customer’s problem. They are volunteering to come to our stores and spend their valuable spare time, gas and wages to pay our wages. Hmmm, now you put it that way….

The Answer 

It’s the fear. I am convinced that the main reason for this lack of confidence to look up, engage customers and see where the conversation leads, is the employee’s fear. Fear of being asked a question he cannot answer. Obviously, it is the job of management to train these employees, to orient them with answers to as many of the common, predictable questions as possible. It is our job to infuse confidence in them through product knowledge (“PK”).

But orientation and training must go way beyond that. New people will never know enough to face every inquiry, so they will still avoid eye contact. It is essential that managers equip their employees with a way to cope with any question – whether they know the answer or not. Just a few minutes on how to handle this potentially awkward situation might be the most productive training session of the year. Only then can managers expect employees to have the confidence to look up and engage customers.

The Fix 

Employees need to be assured it is OK to not know every answer, but they can be the first responders and find someone who can provide the information. Customers would welcome an employee who has the confidence to say “That’s a great question and I wish I knew all this stuff but I am still learning myself! Let me get Jenny on the radio so she can get the answer for both of us!”

So the mantra to your staff in the next few weeks might be: “It’s OK to not know the answer, but it’s NOT OK to ignore or avoid customers because you don’t know.”

Yes, it’s Spring. So  heads up everyone, here come your wages!

Photo Credit: An Armstrongs Garden Center (CA) team member engaging a customer with a respectful but non-invasive stance 


Apr 29, 2013 10 Comments

Spring Fling 2013: Maybe Things are Starting to Change?

Oh I know this industry is full of perennial (ha ha) optimists but I just begin to wonder… are things starting to improve? (Though to be fair, if I lived in the part of the USA where the weather was back to a normal March seeing my sales numbers plummet compared to last year’s perfect March, maybe I wouldn’t even be writing this.)

But in California where the prior four springs have been down, flat, flat and down, there are some signs, trends and tea leaves that suggest things might be picking up ever so slightly. And the early spring here in the West is showing indicators the rest of the country might want to watch closely.

First, a business read: the wonderful warm, dry weather for the last few weeks brought April numbers in March for most L&G retailers with sales increases for the comparative stores during the comparative period of +25% to +50%. Some are posting their biggest March ever, even bigger than the last big cash-fest in 2007. (OK so we had 5 Saturdays and perfect weather in March but there’s more to it: Weather drives customer count, attitude drives customer spend – and that’s where we might be seeing some good news, finally.)

The Nitty Gritty Data

Looking at POS data and shopping carts suggests that there has been an increase in the bigger sized items where there was a choice; bigger pottery, statuary, fountains, 5 gal shrubs, 2 gal perennials and so on. Although trees are still stalled, there has been a welcome uptick in shrub sales this year, especially flowering ones that can be used as decorative color or basic landscaping. It’s nothing like 2002 – 2007, but it is a start. We even hear of the basic shrub shortages that the growers were predicting 3 years ago.  Classes or seminars on DIY landscaping, sprucing up the greenery or “curb appeal” that were empty just 2-3 years ago are oversubscribed everywhere, while the landscaper’s phones are starting to ring again. Meanwhile the home-grown food theme is still a traffic driver, as is decorating and self-indulgence.

A smart retailer I know from an earlier-Springing part of the state pointed out that this new-found optimism is very recent – since December actually. He said even the Christmas customer was not this enthusiastic about spending money. In fact, several retailers told me they were caught napping by the big demand increase for plants, pottery, seeds and bag goods. Fall season consumer behavior did not predict such a quick turn-around in attitude. So what’s going on?

It’s the economy

The stock market is on a logic-defying climb to all time new highs, which matters a lot in the California economy where taxes and government budgets depend heavily on capital gains and unemployment is still falling. Since February the news media have begun to talk positively about the housing market, hedge-fund managers are snapping up investment properties creating a demand. That drives up prices, turn rates and homeowners’ interest in spiffing up hundreds of thousands of properties that have been ignored for 4 years.

All this, I think, has resulted in a slight loosening of the purse strings … even though some areas are still struggling and the city of Stockton down the road just went bust. The warm weather drove April traffic in March but the customers’ self-confidence pushed up the average sale in the garden center by anything from $3 to over $6 – a huge jump in a recession.

Can it be sustained?  Is it predictive?

Our first April week lived up to its showery reputation so we will see if this has legs in another few weeks. We optimists are always looking for light at the end of the tunnel. No one is ordering a new Ferrari, but for now the message from warmer climate L&G operators to their cooler climate brothers is:

“Make sure you have big volume ready to go and backup when that sells out. If your weather is even just “normal” this spring, business is going to break BIG for you!”


 (photo credit: taken at Round Rock Gardens, TX)

Apr 5, 2013 8 Comments