March 1, 2013

Spring and the Road to Success


This spring will, as every other spring before it, belong to those who are prepared for the season. I really wish I could write about one or two magic things you could do to put yourself out front of the pack, but the bottom line is this: Success is contingent upon your doing a thousand little things right, not one or two big things. Those who dream of success as a result of finding one or two things that ensure profitability are, in a word, delusional.

Success this spring will belong to those merchants who have their shelves stocked and their greenhouses overflowing with lovely hanging baskets, and to those contractors who have their equipment running and their trailers in an organized condition. Success will not find its way into the arms of those who wake up on the first nice day of spring and ask “Uh, what should we be doing now?”

Preparing for the spring means preparing for success. Success is not a matter of luck or happenstance. I was once asked by a journalist what role luck played in my success. I deadpanned that, “Luck is everything. In fact, I am so lucky, I arrive for work every day, nice and early, just to wait for my luck to roll in. On the other hand, my neighbour is not nearly as lucky, so he doesn’t come in as early. His luck doesn’t show up until noon.”

I used to tire of the smartasses (no doubt you do as well) who would crack, “So what do you do in the winter? Spend most of it in Hawaii?” Unfortunately, the waves of Maui were not a major part of my offseason. Getting ready for the year ahead was always a necessity and priority for me. None of us can afford to start the season unprepared. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately for those of us who do, there are many people within this trade who fly by the seat of their pants. They often refer to themselves as crisis managers or ‘just-in-time’ devotees.

In Saskatchewan, in the 1990s, the provincial government employed a greenhouse advisor. His job was to assist those of us within the trade to be successful. Those of us who wanted to succeed took advantage of his skill set and resources. Those who believed they knew everything did not. In 1997 and ’98, we had early springs. The earliest I have ever experienced. The greenhouse advisor commented that consumers were flooding the marketplace in unprecedented numbers and recommended that we be “ready to take their money.” When I asked what he meant, he told me that some garden centres didn’t even have their float for the cash registers in place. I replied with my operational philosophy: Take the twenty dollar bills when they are offered. You don’t always get a second chance.

Here are three things you need to accomplish by March 31 of each year (I know I’m preaching to the choir):

The bulk of your staff should not only be hired but training should be well under way.
Orientation for new staff is not something you have time to carry out when there is a line-up at your till. Yesterday I was at London Drugs. The cashier at the till was not your sharpest knife in the drawer and the line was growing.  One customer towards the back of the line put his purchases into a display bin and walked out muttering, “I will get this stuff somewhere else.” If one of your new hires is slow on cash, you need to find that out now.

The bulk of your hard goods should be in your possession by the end of March.
With dated billing available from most wholesalers, provided you have the room, there is no reason not to do so. There is no excuse for running out of fast sellers and not being able to restock immediately. How often have we been out of stock and called our supplier only to learn it would be 10 days before we could be restocked? The answer is, often enough that we should have a healthy supply of back-up stock.

New signage systems need to be implemented by the end of March.
One of the problems is that we seldom read our own signage. We add new signs without discarding the old ones. We include signage with inconsistent fonts and sizes, leaving a rag-tag impression upon our customers. Our customers not only read our signage, they rely on it for information. There is a reason good signage is often referred to as our silent sales force. Our signage tells a story; it assists our customers in deciding to purchase. A four-year-old, weather-worn sign is not an encouragement to buy. With the availability of computers, there is no reason for even the smallest of operators not to have first rate signage. In the old days, we had to hand write our signage with magic markers on poster paper, hardly a professional image. Good signage is one way you can outshine the big box stores, whose signage is so generic it trends toward the obtuse.

I found an excellent way of improving sales was to personalize some of the signs. In front of a group of plants or product, I might put a sign that read, “Rod’s favourite,” “Susan recommends” or, “Tracy’s choice.” Along with this personalized recommendation would be a few highlights to back up the selection. My rule of thumb is that when preparing a sign you should highlight a minimum of two selling features or benefits and a maximum of three. While you are at it, knock off the jargon that confuses the average gardener. If you are trying to impress gardeners with how smart you are, keep in mind that your audience of expert gardeners is only three per cent of the people walking in the front gate.
I often compare a garden centre to a battleship engaged in a naval firefight. When the enemy is shooting eight-inch shells at your hull is not the time to be ordering ammunition for your own guns.  To be combat ready, everything needs to be running perfectly and at full speed.

Sure, we all have loyal customers who will gladly wait for us to get in a plant or product they want. But our loyal customer, while the backbone of every company, is not always the largest percentage of our business. We also have our transient or fair weather customers, and they are the ones who often make the difference between a good and an outstanding season. They will not wait. They will go elsewhere if we do not have what they want.

Spring and the return of the customer is not the time to be implementing or trialing new equipment or procedures. I made that mistake, once. I ordered a new system for handling credit cards and none of us was familiar with the process. There we were, late into the evening, on the phone with the credit card company’s help desk, trying to learn how to reconcile the day’s balance. Ouch!

I used to run my place with the ditty, “May is for selling, not for buying.” That was repeated, mantra like, to salespeople who wanted to pitch me during my prime selling season. Until this day, I cannot fathom the salespeople who would show up, unannounced, on a busy weekend in May, expecting I should stop everything to peruse their catalogue.

Another thing that I never understood is the retail operator who leaves a major repair or expansion until the spring. In my world, those two things were to be started the fall before. No customer wants to be walking through a war zone that many construction sites resemble. No customer wants to be climbing over bales of peat moss or piles of fertilizer that block their path. Having a misplaced pile is the equivalent of a sign that reads ‘Go Away!’

Spring brings enough stress that makes trying to finish a project, train new hires, or order stock neither welcome nor necessary. Spring is for selling, plain and simple. Keep your focus on selling and your focus will keep you 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.