September 24, 2013

Building the future: They don't make gardeners like they used to


It seems I spend more and more time trying to figure out what makes today’s garden-centre customer tick.

I remember back in the ’80s, customers would often bolt into our garden centre – leaf or branch firmly in hand – with an urgent look on their faces. I knew they wanted something ASAP to kill a bug or disease that was attacking their cherished plants, and would think nothing of hauling out large jugs of insecticide to obliterate the pest.

Today, that get-me-something-to-kill-the-pest look on customers’ faces hasn’t changed. Yet for every customer who arrives with a branch or leaf, another will pull out a cell phone and begin scrolling through digital photos of her distressed plants. And while the choice of chemical controls has greatly diminished, customers still want to eradicate the bugs.

I can’t say I foresaw smart phones becoming an essential gardening tool, but I do know that I now spend just as much time enlarging images of plants on a customer’s phone with my thumb and index finger as I do spreading open leaves looking for insects.

So as I try to gain a better understanding of the evolution of gardening, I’m continually looking for opportunities to engage with today’s gardeners. Not surprisingly, one of my big challenges is the large number of competitors in the marketplace.

Just a few years ago, I could drive from downtown St. Albert to our family’s store and not pass a single business that sold garden centre products. But today, on that same route, there are at least a half dozen chain stores selling all types of plants and gardening hard goods. And while the quality and selection of products offered by the chain stores may be considerably less than that of many independent garden centres, the proximity and convenience of the chains to a gardener’s home or workplace are irresistible for many.

Of course, toss in the fact the chain stores’ product is often cheaper and it’s doubly tough to convince customers that an extra few kilometres of driving is worth the trip.

So perhaps many independents have lost the location battle, but there is a silver lining in this crowded marketplace: There is a lot of “information clutter” that gardeners want simplified.

For example, I get a lot of customers in the spring who are confused about which fertilizer to apply to their tomatoes. There are dozens of different types of tomato food, with no rhyme or reason to as to why analyses vary so much from one label to the next. For these confused tomato aficionados, I cut through the clutter simply by pulling my favourite fertilizer off the shelf and saying, “This is the best stuff, and I use it every time I water.” Usually, customers will grab the fertilizer, have great success with it, and be lifelong supporters of that brand.

From another perspective, I know that I, like many independent garden centre operators, cringe when I see lost sales of garden centre products to the chain stores. But while I don’t like to lose a plant sale, I choose to view the loss as an opportunity.

If someone buys a fruit tree from a chain store in our area, nine times out of 10, that customer will come into our garden centre for advice. So, while I might lament the loss of the sale of the fruit tree, I know I can pick up a lot of sales on the tree service side.

A customer who comes into our store with a problem branch (or smart phone image!) is likely to walk out with a pruning saw, fertilizer, pest control products and tree wraps for the winter. So, sure, I lost an initial sale, but I actually gained on the service side by selling products necessary to keep the plant healthy.

These are just a few changes in the world of gardening and some of the ways to embrace or, at the very least, live with the changes. The marketplace will continue to evolve and the onus is on independent garden centres to do our best to keep up.

In the ’80s, in my home province of Alberta, a notorious bumper sticker adorned many rig workers’ half-ton trucks. It read: “Dear God, please give us another oil boom and this time we promise we won’t p--- it away.”

Independent garden centre owners, like the rig workers, can pray for a return to past glory, but I prefer to embrace the evolution.