September 1, 2017

What is next for the garden centre industry?

Plenty of promise

 
This September, Canada hosts the International Garden Centre Association Congress in Niagara Falls, Ont., with over 200 delegates from 20 countries expected. The Congress is an opportunity to tour leading garden centres in the host country, as well as network, meet long-time friends and share ideas and trends. Plan to attend in the future!
 
In my 35 years in the business, I have witnessed many changes throughout the industry, and in individual garden centre operation. When my partners and I acquired our first retail location, it was a medium-sized business in an industry dominated by small, family-owned and -operated businesses. Garden centres were fairly basic, many opened only seasonally and they flew below the radar of other retail. U.S. garden centres were as slow to react as Canadian retailers. In Europe’s more established and competitive market, garden centres reacted more quickly. We looked to Europe to see what could be done in Canada. The idea of “lifestyle merchandising” with more interesting store layouts and presentation, showing customers how to create beautiful outside living spaces, began to take hold. The traditional merchandise mix expanded into outdoor furniture, ceramics and decorative containers, even interior décor. Leading European garden centres established display gardens, and developed food markets, cafés and restaurants to encourage year-round traffic and longer visits.
 

John Zaplatynsky

 
In my 35 years in the business, I have witnessed many changes throughout the industry, and in individual garden centre operation. When my partners and I acquired our first retail location, it was a medium-sized business in an industry dominated by small, family-owned and -operated businesses. Garden centres were fairly basic, many opened only seasonally and they flew below the radar of other retail.
 
The late ’70s and early ’80s brought larger, more sophisticated competitors — grocery, home improvement and department stores — all with seasonal garden centres. Everyone co-existed, as the retail pie increased dramatically with Baby Boomers buying homes and getting into gardening. Everything changed quickly in the mid-’80s with the big box home improvement stores’ large, year-round garden centres. Their buying power and marketing reach started a groundswell of change that continues today.
 
U.S. garden centres were as slow to react as Canadian retailers. In Europe’s more established and competitive market, garden centres reacted more quickly. We looked to Europe to see what could be done in Canada. The idea of “lifestyle merchandising” with more interesting store layouts and presentation, showing customers how to create beautiful outside living spaces, began to take hold. The traditional merchandise mix expanded into outdoor furniture, ceramics and decorative containers, even interior décor. Leading European garden centres established display gardens, and developed food markets, cafés and restaurants to encourage year-round traffic and longer visits.
 
When I look back to the late 1990s, there was also a concerted effort to improve the look of retail stores, raise the bar on customer service, improve education and enhance plant guarantees. Enlightened owners knew they had to improve the shopping experience for better-informed customers with high expectations.
 
I also remember attending an industry conference, where one presenter said 50 per cent of independent garden centres would disappear. A bold prediction, and looking back, probably true. Garden centres have been the victim of land prices, and owners have sold Zaplatynsky and retired. Some lacked succession plans. Others have not kept up with the rapid pace of change in the retail environment.
 
Looking ahead, business will not be any easier. Our big box competitors are becoming more sophisticated. They are developing stronger relationships with our best suppliers and better products and programs. They are using technology to connect with customers. Add to this the impact of social media and online buying trends. With Amazon buying Whole Foods, what might they do to take over the sale of beautiful, living plants, the foundation of our business?
 
We joked years ago that our target customer was a 40-year-old woman, parking her Jeep Cherokee on a Saturday morning, then walking into our store carrying a Starbucks coffee and several garden books. Today, she parks her Smart Car, carries the same Starbucks, but has an Iphone full of Pinterest photos, and has researched her purchase so she knows more than our staff! How do we compete?
 
I am not sure I have the answers, and perhaps I am lucky to be retired. I have been fortunate to see the business from a different perspective, and to have visited many leading garden centres around the world. Competitive threats exist in every country, but there are lessons we should consider employing here in Canada.
 
There are new trends starting: shop local, deal with a local merchant you know and trust; understand the supply chain and how products have been manufactured or grown; look for artisan or craft products; research online but buy at “bricks and mortar.”
 
We need to think about these shifts and how we can configure the shopping experience to meet them. Our responses should be to work with smaller growers, who will partner with us to develop new and high-quality plants. These growers should practice sustainable horticulture. We need to be “best of class” in our websites and social media contacts. Our staff must be well-trained in horticulture and customer service, and managed to bring out the best of their abilities. Stores need to be cleaner, brighter, and better merchandised than ever. Our product focus should be beautiful plants and accessories, with continual experimentation on related products customers would like to find.
 
I am confident the best-managed garden centres will continue to find a corner of the fiercely competitive retail landscape, and will, through leadership and innovation, succeed into the next generation. Visit other leading retailers of all products, network with other retailers and work closely with your suppliers. Best of luck to you! 
 
John Zaplatynsky is chair of B.C.’s Canada GardenWorks, on the board of Sloat Garden Centers in California, acts as an advisor to the Canada Nurseryland Coop and is outgoing president of the International Garden Centre Association.

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