November 1, 2012

Planning for Success


There is a 2,000 seat concert hall in Regina that hosts many events throughout the year. Recently, the Regina Symphony Orchestra was staging the opening gala for their 104th season. I had dressed in my tuxedo and reminded myself that I was to use ‘company manners’. That’s as good as I can be. We arrived in plenty of time, but there was one problem. Half the parking spots were under construction. People were driving all over the place, parking in the strangest manner. It was chaos!

Only two employees of the concert hall were outside. Were they controlling parking? Nope. The two stood side by side, telling concert goers the one and only parking lot was full. Neither of them attempted to organize the parking along the street. Again, I say, it was chaos.

So what does this have to do with you and the garden centre/greenhouse business? It’s simple. The concert hall’s failure to accommodate guests resulted in some pretty hard feelings. The good news for them is that they can get away with it, to a certain extent. It’s not as if any of us had much choice, since we had already purchased tickets. We either went to the concert or we lost the money we spent on our tickets.

But your customers have a choice about whether they shop at your business. In fact, they have many, many choices, and if you do not accommodate them, there are consequences.

Let’s start with the parking issue. One of the true heroes of our industry was the late Burt Rutman, who owned Lyndale Garden Centre in Minneapolis. Burt had room for 300 cars in his parking lot, but he knew that, come Saturday afternoon, chaos could erupt if there were no controls. He would hire off duty policemen, in uniform, to direct the traffic. He said that drivers listened to the policemen in uniform, that they created a buzz within the community as people assumed the police had sent the traffic officers, and that he never got robbed with the police presence out front.

Burt was brilliant. He once asked me what two things control how large your garden centre becomes. I answered, as a young man, “ambition and perseverance.” He laughed and said the two things that control growth are the size of your parking lot and the number of tills you have open.

I was willing to listen to the man; after all he had achieved a level of success that most of us only dream of. My parking lot held only 70 cars, but I valued each of those spaces when we were busy. On my staff were a number of high school students who did everything from carry-outs and deliveries to moving product from the back to the front. They were the ‘legs’ of our operation. One of their duties, and it was a prized duty by the students, was to keep the parking lot flowing when we got busy. They put on striped, safety vests and, armed with a parking baton in each hand, they would assist arriving customers in locating a parking spot. They would also alleviate the stress of departing customers by helping them back out. Their main duty appeared to be assisting customers, but in reality, they were there to ensure that the parking lot did not become jammed with motorists leaning on their horns in fits of anger. That is not a good thing for any retailer.

In all the years I had the students on parking lot patrol, we received many appreciative compliments and only one complaint. The one and only complaint came from a codger who said, “I don’t like being told where to park.”  I asked him if he liked to complain about anything and everything and he readily agreed, even laughing at himself.

I have never forgotten what a good friend once told me. He came to my place to pick up some tomatoes and lawn fertilizer, but when he saw how full my lot was, he went down the street to my competitor, whose lot was not full. He said our friendship was not worth the hassle of a full parking lot. That stuck with me. How many times did I lose a sale because of the perception that there was no place left to park?

As business owners, we have to be able to anticipate our customers’ needs and wants long before they are even aware of them. Sometimes we become too narrowly focused on our product line, our price, and our service capability and fail to see other important aspects of our customers’ experience, such as parking.

When I visit garden centres, nurseries and greenhouses, I am impressed only if they are clean. Too often, I find messes that have been sitting for much too long. If I find dead plants and dirty housekeeping to be a turnoff, then your customers are likely to as well.

There used to be a greenhouse not far from my business that was known for sloppy housekeeping. My maintenance manager had to drive by this place daily on his way home. He would stop in from time to time, to see just how bad, bad could be. One day he noticed a dead potted mum on the first bench as you walked into the greenhouse. It was the first thing customers would see! It was there for four weeks before it was finally removed. This is not good for business, but you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you? Gerry Schroer, who was a legend at Bailey’s Nurseries, always liked to say, “If a customer sees a dead plant in a nursery, they think, “If the pros can’t keep it alive, then neither can I.” You should never let the customers see your mistakes.

When we plan our operations, we need to take human nature into consideration. A fellow building his first garden centre had some plans drawn up and asked me to inspect his concept. The first thing I noticed was he had provided a lane for traffic in front of the garden centre with a few spots for handicapped parking and pickup. I told him he was in for a rude awakening if he thought people would respect the intent of those parking spots. There are some who will, but there are those who will insist the criteria don’t apply because they are “just going to be a couple of minutes.”

My ideal garden centre has no lane in front. The parking lot is adjacent to the garden centre entrance, with handicapped designations close to the entrance. Pickup spots should be at the side, to keep those who might be tempted from using them as quick parking spots.

The same applies to inbound vehicles or loading-in areas. I have seen a garden centre with no such provisions and customers actually had to crawl over and around the truck and its load to get inside the front door. You need to have an area, far removed from your customers, where you can safely unload your inbound trucks, sort the arrivals, and check them in. Many years ago, I made the mistake of having my receiving area visible to my customers. Whenever we would be unloading racks of bedding plants, we would have customers swarming the racks, assuming that the fresh arrivals were superior to what was sitting on the bench. I solved the problem by concealing the area with a polycarbonate wall that no one could see through, thus removing the visual temptation.

There may be areas where you do not want your customers wandering around. Often, signs only keep some people out, not all. It is in your best interest to ensure you have some physical and visual barricades between your retail area and your receiving/staging grounds.

I am fully aware that some topics I write about are pretty basic and I am hardly offended if someone regards them as simple. I get that. Here is my kick. If what I write about is so bloody simple, then why is it that so many garden centres are in violation of these basic rules? My answer to this is that nothing is as rare as common sense these days.

Planning is in your best interest. Preparing for rogue customers is based in reality, not theoretical. Planning well in advance will always keep you on the road to success. It’s that simple.
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.