September 1, 2015

Learn from the best  


Last month, I wrote that the box stores offer up two distinct stories regarding their garden centres. The first story is they generally do a very poor job of running their operations, with dead plants and nonexistent service more often the norm. The second story is that they do not lack for customers, a paradox, no doubt. 

In the 1990s, there were futurists who would describe the retail scenario yet to come. There would be next to no independent garden centres and greenhouses left in the marketplace. At a convention in Vancouver in 2000 or 2001 (the memory grows faint) the always-popular Brian Minter of Minter Country Garden, Chilliwack, B.C., was the speaker. Brian began his speech by saying, “I am glad to see that you are still here, in spite of the predictions.” Everyone laughed.

Fair enough. We are still here. Those who have survived did things differently than those who lost their operations, either through bankruptcy or by closing the doors, as there was no profit left to keep things running. 

In my community, in the last 20 years, many independent garden centres have closed. At one time, they owned the marketplace, selling out each spring by the first week of June. The owners grew older, but no one wanted to buy their operations and carry on the business. The reason was simple; sales had slipped. One of my friends had seen his sales drop from $600,000 in 1982 to $200,000 in 2004. When you factor in inflation, the drop was much more than two thirds. There had been a failure to change and to adapt to the always evolving retail marketplace. Those who refuse to change will eventually pay a price.  

Each community in Canada has seen independents disappear, but rather than complain, we should always ask those who survived, how they did so. 

Whenever I speak about competing with the box stores, the first point that I address is: Not everyone wants to shop at Walmart. I had a greenhouse manager who was suffering battle fatigue (it happens) during the insanity we call May. She was worried that people would be going to the closest box store for their hanging baskets, as the box store price was half of ours. I went to the box store and I checked out their hanging baskets. They were overcharging for their baskets. Three seedling petunias, transplanted into a ten-inch basket the previous week, did not constitute competition for our baskets. There are many ways to reduce the price of a hanging basket and there are many growers who are willing to do so, but what about those customers who want a quality product and are willing to pay for that quality? That, in essence, is the independents’ niche and the road to success.

Whenever I am in another city I always take the time to visit garden centres, nurseries and greenhouses. Often, I know the owners or I will introduce myself and, I am shown around. What we, in the trade, call the ‘nickel tour.’ 

I learn so much by asking questions about how they do certain things, and more importantly, why? I have never met a garden centre operator who wouldn’t take the time to spend an hour answering the question ‘why?’ 

I was in Edmonton this past May long weekend. I flew up, on a whim, to visit my granddaughter so that we could play hide-and-seek, and I could push her on the swing at the playground. Grandfathers get to do those things. Her father is my youngest son. He and his wife asked me if I wanted to visit their favourite garden centre. By the way, if you ever run into me in your city, I don’t need to be asked that question twice. 

Over the years in Edmonton I have visited Hole’s, Greenland, Millcreek and Salisbury, but I had never been to Ellerslie Gift and Garden. In fact, I had never heard of it, nor have I met the owners. 

We got into the car and headed down the road in a southerly direction and pulled into the Ellerslie parking lot. The car park was quite full, it being a nice Victoria Day Monday. The entrance was neat and tidy and there were handicapped parking spots, clearly signed, close to the building. 

We wandered around as my eyes took note. They had seasonal greenhouses set up, clearly marked with what each contained. ‘Hanging Baskets for the Sun’ told people who had a sunny location that this was the right spot. Just as ‘Hanging Baskets for the Shade’ told a different story. Those two signs, no doubt, reduced the number of times customers would ask, “Does this grow in the shade or the sun?” 

Edmonton’s Ellerslie garden centre impresses, from sales staff to organization.

My rule of thumb is: If you are asked the same question three or more times each day, it would be helpful to have another sign in that vicinity. Signs, indicating that a greenhouse contains only sun-loving baskets, are a brilliant idea. 

Every garden centre should have a basic repertoire of signs. Having written this, I surely do not support the overuse of signs. As with anything, if you have too many, people stop reading them. Finding that elusive balance is difficult, but it is something requiring attention. Goldilocks has it right: “This is too many, this is not enough, but this number is just right.”

The aisles were clean and while there were many customers, I did not notice much congestion except at one till. What seemed odd was, while one till had a dozen people lined up at it, another till had no one except the cashier. 

The trees and shrubs were well organized and my adult children asked me what I thought. I told them that the quality was excellent and that the plants had been grown at reputable nurseries. The kids asked how I knew where they were grown. I showed them the easily identifiable (to someone in the trade) display tags. “These tags tell me that they are buying from good growers and they are willing to pay extra for quality plants. After all, people are coming to the independents to purchase ‘the good stuff.’ When I walk into a so-so garden centre, I note that their plants come from cheaper nurseries where quality is not a concern and that is so wrong.” 

In the tree and shrub section, they had an older gentleman, probably around my age, selling. He was easily identifiable with his apron and he had the right appearance, to customers, of a gardening expert. I hung around, watching and listening, as he worked. He did things right. He was cordial, asking a few pointed questions to ascertain what it was they really wanted. Let’s be straightforward here: Most customers do not know what they need or want when they arrive at any garden centre. It is our job to assist them in purchasing what will serve their needs. Left to their own devices, many customers would leave with an unsuitable purchase. 

This fellow would find the right plant and explain the benefits, keeping that information simple, no techie talk. If you want to lose customers, just techie talk them ‘til they get that glazed look in their eyes. He explained how to plant it when they got it home, wished them well, and approached the next person. There were customers waiting to talk to him. Watching him work was a lesson in text book garden centre selling. My hat is always tipped to those who do it so well.

I had a super sales person at Lakeview Gardens as well. I always thought I was a good salesperson until I stood beside Joan Harris. Hanging out beside her induced the metaphor ‘standing in the shadow of genius.’ She could sell anything and was Ms. Personality. One thing I learned, as a manager, was to always ask Joan what she wanted to sell the next week and to order lots. If you didn’t order lots of what she was going to be selling, you were going to be out of stock quite early on. Always involve your sales staff, especially your best ones, in the ordering process. 
We wandered through the rest of Ellerslie Gift and Garden and we were impressed. I took note of how well they stocked their display of ornamental grasses. I can remember a time when selling twenty or so in a season was more the norm.

It was one of those places that have not only survived the box store wars, but they have succeeded. Survival is not a goal when success is within reach and so much more fun. 

Every community of a decent size has excellent business people whether it is a cafe, a lumber yard or a garden centre/greenhouse. It is imperative to seek those people out and ask them how they succeed when others have failed. They will tell you. In all my years in this trade, and this is my 39th, I have spoken with hundreds of operators who impressed, inspired and amazed me with their talents. I have never been turned away by a successful owner. In fact, it is the ‘never do wells’ who have turned me away claiming their pig sty was a ‘work in progress.’ Stop me from laughing so hard, please. 

Each and every sharp operator has always taken the time to explain to me their personal theory on operational strategies which translated means: How to stay on the road to success. Just take the time to visit the good ones to see how it is done, talk to them, and you are half way to being the success you want and deserve to be. Not everyone wants to shop at the box stores. 

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.