August 1, 2019
Stories from the front lines
Where quality, service and selection are emphasized, retail garden centres continue to do well.

Stories from the front lines

By Rod McDonald

Rod McDonald Another spring rush has come and gone and there are the success stories, the not-so-happy stories, and then there are just the stories.

One observation leapt out with this spring rush; that operations continue to do well where quality, service and selection were emphasized. I have always maintained that well run, well displayed, well stocked garden centres and greenhouses always do much better than those places that are sloppy.

The same observation held true for the box stores. Our local Costco, Canadian Tire, Walmart and Rona all had so many of their plants on shelf carts. I don’t have to tell you that shelf carts are not very convenient for customers trying to find what they want. At two of the box stores, Home Depot and Lowes, plants were displayed on benches for the most part. Obviously, easier to maintain and easier for customers to shop. I do not have access to any accounting books but I did notice that Home Depot, at least the one closest to me, was busier than most of the other box stores. My suspicion is that it was busier because they had made their place a bit more customer-friendly.

At our local independents, the displays looked excellent for the most part; the plants were well maintained and there were staff available to assist. As a result of those three basic things, I saw a lot of happy customers and that is our goal — happy customers.
The small, family-run greenhouse where I work part-time, did very well this spring. Sales were up considerably, and there were many first-time shoppers — always a positive sign.

Over the years, I have never been able to figure out why absolutely gorgeous plants were left sitting on the bench, while their lesser cousins waltzed out to new homes. German ivy left me a little confused this year. It has been a staple in our area for many years, but this spring it sold out very early in May. Who could have predicted that German ivy could have sold double what was grown? If only I had that crystal ball to predict such things… but to be honest, if I could predict the future with great accuracy, I think I might be found at the horse races and not the greenhouse.

The stress of long hours, wind storms, and other duties of greenhouse management got to more than one operator this year. I am very adept at reading the signs of burnout, seeing as I have been in more than one fiery crash in my career. We take such good care of our plants, our physical facility, our customers and our staff, but we do not do a very good job of taking care of ourselves. It is not just the long hours but the intense number of decisions required from us each and every day. The sheer volume of decision-making leads to burnout, as we overload our brains with too much information at one time.

This spring, one friend asked me for advice regarding burnout. I had one word for him and that word was delegate. The reason I chose that word was because he is not very good at it. He is trying to be all things to all situations. While he is the best salesperson in his company, he is also out there at five in the morning trying to get the watering done. One well-trained employee could and should be handling that chore. My suspicion is that next year he will be ready for that ‘someone else’ to take charge of the watering. When we learn to share the burden of responsibility, we lighten our own load.

Learning to delegate and share responsibility is difficult. One of the most difficult tasks I had to master was to ask someone to do something, and then walk away and not look back. I think most of us tend to micro-manage, and if we do that too often, we are not managing the larger picture.

While I preach away about learning to delegate and lighten the load, I managed to lighten the mood one afternoon when I was working. It was not yet time for the customer rush, but we had trucks dropping boxes off all day long. We couldn’t keep up with checking them in and finding a place to put everything. It was a logistical nightmare, not due to poor planning but the perfect storm of an insane delivery day.

I saw the glazed look in everyone’s eyes as we stacked yet another box upon another box, not certain how long before we would move those boxes. I commented, “Hey everyone! Let’s start a greenhouse. Easy work and we can make lots of money. Yeah, a greenhouse would be nothing but fun.” Not the funniest quip I have ever delivered, but that particular day it got a really good laugh. This is not an easy business, and if it were, everyone would be doing it.

Another independent was thrilled to receive a very large plant order from a big-name customer. He told me another greenhouse had that business for a number of years, but lost it. The customer did not feel he was being taken care of properly and was now switching growers. These things happen. All of us win some and all of us lose some. We need to strive to win more than we lose.

As I was fairly close with the greenhouse operator who received this new and large order, I pointed something out. “So now you have to realize that to maintain this man’s business, you have to be there for him. Find him those special plants he wants and provide an excellent level of service. If you don’t do that, then he will move along to yet another greenhouse. None of us can afford to be smug about landing a new job. Sometimes we get new orders by default rather than merit.”
It is common for us to worry about what another greenhouse is doing, what’s happening at the box stores and so on. In reality, we need to concentrate on looking after our own customers so well that they are reluctant to shop elsewhere. Sounds so simple and yet it proves itself time and again.

We need to provide the greenhouse experience people crave. A lovely place, filled with exciting and colourful displays of plants. An experience populated with knowledgeable staff who say, “Are you looking for shade plants or sunny plants or perhaps, a bit of both?” We need to ensure we have fragrant roses on our bench for customers to smell even if they are not interested in purchasing a rose. Fragrance is all a part of the greenhouse experience. We need to have informative signage that explains gardening to our customers. We need to have carry-out service, seminars and so many other things to set us apart from the box stores. Above all else, we need to be special.

Shopping in a greenhouse is a fun experience. I chat to customers leaving different greenhouses and invariably they laugh as they announce, “Well, I spent way more than I was planning to, but I always seem to do that!” I cannot stress too intensely, the importance of creating the greenhouse experience. If we create and encapsulate that very special experience, then all of us will 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.