November 1, 2019
Great displays entice customers to make purchases and continue to visit during slower times.



Rod McDonald Retail is theatre and no one has been a more aggressive advocate of that adage than professional sports teams. When you walk into a Raptors game in Toronto, or a Saskatchewan Roughrider game out west, your senses are overwhelmed. There is loud and vibrant music playing, cheerleaders and dance squads and rock or country bands at half time. Always something to ensure you are entertained besides the actual game. 

Many years ago, there was entertainment at games, but not to the degree nor intensity that exists today. I have walked into stadiums and sports arenas and felt as if I had been transposed into a Studio 54 disco. All of this is designed to allow the customer to experience the event. 

The reason behind the multimedia explosion at sporting events was, and is, to put more people in the seats, especially the 20-somethings. 

My lead into this column asks the question: What are we, the greenhouse, garden centre and landscape companies, doing to create a showtime experience for our customers? I am not suggesting we have cheerleaders, overpowering music with a bass line that emulates an earthquake, or a PA announcer that insists we “give it up and make some noise!” 

I AM SUGGESTING the days of putting product on the shelf and then leaving the customer to shop is no longer the best approach. That worked in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and it worked fine for customers and owners alike. 

In the ‘80s, things started to change, as did consumer expectations. I was a part of that experience, as I upgraded my presentation. I had an old-school greenhouse operator drop by to visit around 1990, and he complained vehemently that I had become too fancy.

“You are now expected to take off your muddy boots before coming into your store.” He was right. I definitely did not accept muddy boots being worn in my clean store, and the good news was, neither did my customers.

The days of greenhouses and garden centres being a rather dirty shopping experience began to disappear in the ‘80s, and it was uncommon in the ‘90s. I remember quite clearly, another greenhouse operator ran his place as a bit of a pig sty. He and I would chat about the changes in retail, and he admitted he was confused by how his sales were decreasing. He could not comprehend that consumer expectations had evolved in the last 20 years. His lack of comprehension and adaptation ensured the demise of his business.

The days of no signage or information on what was being sold, no sales staff on the floor and no sense of retail theatre were finished. 

THOSE OPERATORS who had tired businesses suffered a slow and sad finale. There was a garden centre I would visit, where every product had the same assigned shelf space for 20 years. No new displays, nothing exciting, no shelf talkers, just the same old/same old product on the same old shelf. Not surprisingly, sales were stagnant.

Nicky’s, my favourite local diner and coffee shop, upgrades menus to accommodate changing tastes. The days of the hot beef sandwich with fries and overcooked peas are in the past. Today, the consumer wants a quesadilla, a sundried tomato dressing and a celery juice. Times changed and Nicky’s adapted. They kept the basics that sell well, and you can still get my favourite liver and onions (don’t judge me), or their Ukrainian platter. When we change, we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, 
but we do change. 

WE NEED TO ADAPT. One of the local garden centre operators is now offering a corn maze, a petting zoo and hay rides to increase business in September. He has also been renting out his greenhouse for events such as barbecues and even a wedding or two. The words ‘event marketing’ do apply here.

Getting customers out for the long weekend in May is the easy part of our job. Getting customers to return, again and again, is a bit more difficult. We already know that to increase traffic we have to offer new, and more importantly, exciting changes to our menu. We have to give our customers a reason to visit during those traditionally slower times, if we want to increase our sales.

In 1979, I was chatting with a well-respected business person I still admire to this day. I was pretty new at the time, and his advice was to try to find more ways of being of service to my customers. He said, “We are always trying to find new customers and yet it is easier to sell more goods and services to existing customers. People who already do business with you are more than willing to look at new items, so let them.” His advice remains valid to this day. 

ONE AREA where we can always outshine the box stores is with our displays. The box stores have very few ideas on building displays, and even less ability to maintain them. It is one thing to build an attractive display, but it is another to keep it looking good. Nothing is more discouraging than a once-lovely display that has been picked over, leaving customers with the belief that “all the good stuff is gone.”

I have written this previously and I write it again: It is our job to ensure the customers say, “Wow!”  when they enter our greenhouses. The entry way, while being spacious to accommodate a landing zone feel, should be filled with colour and lots of it. Nothing sells like colour. 
Along the same lines, there is no room for a mess or a junky appearance in any independent’s greenhouse. I see the racks of neglected plants at the box stores, but why should I see the same at a local greenhouse? I know that you, the reader, have seen the same situation in your locale and you probably scratch your head asking the question, “Why?” Distressed and dead plants do not sell the good plants. The customer sees plants that are in poor health and truly believes that if we, the professionals, cannot grow a variety, then neither can they. Many gardeners, especially the entry level ones, lack confidence and we have an obligation to assure them “anyone can garden.”

Along with our obligation to assure our new gardeners that they, too, can be successful, we have another obligation. That is to provide new and exciting varieties and products. Customers love trying new things and we not only need to have new things for sale, but we need to promote them. 

I am always surprised when I see a greenhouse growing and selling new varieties, but not featuring those plants. I ask, “Where are the signs that announce the award-winning rose, the new petunia colour or the heritage tomatoes?” As you already know, heritage vegetables have been selling quite well for several years, and yet a few greenhouses mix the heritage plants in with the hybrids. That does not meet the minimum requirements for Marketing 101. Heritage varieties should have their own benches and be labelled as such. Signs sell product, and as I wrote at the beginning of this column, the days of shelf stocking with no information are long gone. 

We need to be so much more than what we once were. We need to create the garden centre experience that only we can create. We need to offer an entertainment value to attract customers. We must ensure the customer says “Wow!” That is how we stay 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.