March 6, 2018

Distinguish yourself  


Rod McDonald I am always fascinated by different approaches to business. From the independent greenhouse operator who preaches — from the mountain top — that his plants are the best, yet leaves dead-pot mums on his bench for a month, to the clothing retailer who ensures all his shirt stock is meticulously organized. I am fascinated to the point that I speak with people in stores and shops all the time. I talk to owners, staff members, delivery people and customers. I love hearing their stories, their viewpoints and seeing if what they say correlates with what I see.

There are five large grocery stores in my part of town. I was in one recently, picking out produce. The store manager was in produce as well, tidying up. I told him I thought his produce section was the best of the five stores. 

We got into a discussion on finding your market niche. He said, “I cannot compete on canned soup except with price. My Campbell’s mushroom soup is no different than anyone else’s. But I can distinguish our store from others by having a produce section that impresses people.” He was absolutely right. I select each of my tomatoes and oranges with the same care that I exercise when picking out impatiens. 

Our conversation made me think about our trade. How do we distinguish ourselves from the others? Our 3.8 cubic foot bale of peat moss is not any different than a box store’s bale. However, with hard goods, the box stores are anxious to compete on price only, driving quality down as they race to the bottom. Items such as weed cloth, are such poor quality at box stores as to be almost useless for the consumer. 

Our well being is predicated on being shameless hucksters, promoting the better-quality weed cloth we sell. In our ads, over the phone and in person, we need to show people our weed cloth will last 20 to 30 years. We need to have a sample of the poor quality weed cloth adjacent to our superior product, so people can inspect. Too often, we have allowed our market share to slip away because we did not educate the consumer. We gave up because we could not price-match, when there is a market share that does not want the cheap stuff. 

I am fully cognizant we will never convince all consumers of our better quality, and thus higher price, but if we try hard enough, we can convince a profitable portion. We have to, as that is where our hope and our market share lie. Mercedes-Benz did not give up because there are cheaper cars all over the market place. When I shop for a new car I do not go looking for a cheap one. My student days are long past me and I want something nicer and, more importantly, I am willing to pay for that something nicer. 

Our plant benches need to be the grocery store equivalent of the produce section. This is where we get to shine and set ourselves apart. After all is said and written about quality, varieties and price, if we cannot make the people who enter our greenhouses say “wow!” in a very loud voice, then we have failed. 

I realize you already know the importance of the wow factor. That you are a reader tells me you have already been doing many things right, since you are still with us, when so many others have failed. I am writing only as a reminder, that the upscale approach is the right path. Let Walmart sell their $9.99 hanging baskets that were planted last week. They know their customer base, and their $9.99 price tag trumps the visual presentation. And while that visual presentation of a really bad hanging basket is repugnant to us, Walmart does sell them. Again, they know their customer base.

Our local high-end clothing store has always sold only the best merchandise, with the attached higher price tag. Concerned over the cheaper shirts that were being offered elsewhere, they ordered some to sell on their own shelves. After a couple of months they removed them from the store. Why? No one was buying them. Their customer base was coming to them for the good stuff, not the cheap stuff. There was also a risk of alienating current customers with the lower-quality product. A customer could be led to believe that the store, the one they were loyal to and enjoyed shopping at, was changing its focus.

That business of customers coming to us for the good stuff bit me in the butt many years ago. A garden centre operator was passing through our city, on his way home to Winnipeg from a holiday. He asked if he could drop by for a visit. No problem. Always glad to visit with other operators. I told him to come over to the garden centre around supper time, and we would order in Chinese food and watch the Rider game on television. Regina hospitality, right? 

When he walked into my place, he noticed I had gathered up 20 of my potted spruce, the “dogs,” and signed them for half price. He was surprised. I asked him what he did with his less-than-prime stock and he told me yes, he did sell them for a reduced price, but at the back of the garden centre rather than the front. “People are coming to us for the good stuff and here you are showing off your worst stock.” I wasn’t pleased with his observation and implied criticism, but then again, when we learn a valuable lesson or experience — a teaching moment as they are often called — we are challenged. Once my bruised ego had healed, I changed that display and never again placed discounted stock up front. Old dogs do learn new tricks. 

At conferences, we often discuss the importance of service. As a consumer in the marketplace, most of us of a certain age are astounded by the lack of personnel on the floor. And when we do find someone with a name tag, do they know anything about the product we are seeking? How many times have we heard, “I just started here two days ago” or “I don’t think we carry that,” only to find the product they said was not in stock only 20 feet away? The days are long gone of walking into a department store and finding someone who can assist you knowledgably.

I often tell the story of when I purchased my first house. It was early 1973. I needed a pot and pan set for my kitchen. I visited the kitchen department of a downtown department store and was greeted by a mature woman. I laugh at that description, mature, as I was 21 and she would have been in her 50s. The laughter emanates as I cash my pension cheque. She asked me all of the right questions, how much I cooked, what I cooked and so on. She dissuaded me from purchasing a more expensive set and sold me the set best suited to my needs at that time. That was service then. She was a lifer at that department store and sold kitchenware to generations of families. Those levels of service, those sales people, are very difficult to find in today’s retail experience. 

We, the independent green trade, are one of the last vestiges of good service. We need to be promoting that old-school service we offer in a proud and loud manner. We need to advertise our people, our staff, who have been the backbone of our businesses for years. 

My friend, who is one of the owners of our local, independent electronics store, understands that only too well. Recently Audio Warehouse has had a video circulating on social media sites. It has been shared many times. It is not an in-your-face commercial. Rather, it is a video featuring all of their long time employees who have been with them for 20 to 40 years. On camera, they talk about coming to work at the store when they were just out of high school and staying for the rest of their lives. They do not talk about products, but about service and how they are selling to multiple generations and to extended families. It is a commercial for Audio Warehouse without the appearance of being a commercial. I watched it and found it fascinating. It is a story of great service in a time when service is rare. That is a model we need to emulate. That is the story we need to tell as we sell service. Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes and the other box stores don’t advertise service, as service costs money. They sell one thing and that is price. 

Let them have the price market. We will take the quality, service and selection part — but we have to sell it. Too often, we have sat back, almost resting on our laurels, assuming that each person entering our place already knows how wonderful we are. Not true. We have to distinguish ourselves in the marketplace. Each person has to be sold again and again. Distinguish yourself on the road to success.  
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.