August 2010
Hope for the Holidays By P. Allen Smith

The coming of cold weather doesn’t have to mean the going of steady sales. Here are some ideas on how to transition your store from spring blooms and summer doldrums to fall harvest and winter wonderland.

As the year comes to a close, there are two final seasons: the harvest season, beginning on the first day of September and ending just before Thanksgiving; and the holiday season, which runs into the week before Christmas. Every independent garden center should have a strong combination of quality, value and superior customer service year round, but during these celebratory seasons, these three points for success should be even more focused.
Know your customer base and what merchandise and services will resonate with them. Success at market requires a good eye to find quality products that cover a variety of price points, including items that absolutely everyone can afford. Every shopper loves good value and a bargain!
Catering to the Busy Shopper
Moreover, people are extra-busy during the holiday season. When time is their most precious commodity, customers are willing to pay a little more for items that are already “done.” But to be successful, you’ve got to show them your stuff: compelling displays that allow customers to see the potential for their own homes. Offering products such as predecorated wreaths and garlands will certainly make you their holiday hero. Stocking decorative elements including ornaments, lights and ribbon in a variety of styles, along with fresh wreaths and garlands, will speak to your crafty customers who want to do a little DIY holiday decorating.
Many retailers like to go the “gifts for gardeners” route in their garden centers, but I strongly advise against it. Shoppers won’t stop by simply to purchase a gift designed for their gardener friend or relative — unless they have another reason to stop by your store. If you offer a selection of gifts, keep it simple with seasonal arrangements and gift baskets, or a well-edited collection of ornaments, candles and other small items.

Outside the Box
There are still shoppers who don’t mind spending their time and money in a big-box store. Let them. Focus on customers who are pressed for time and willing to pay more for quality, variety and assistance. Your first line of defense in redirecting customers to your garden center is simple: Independent garden centers offer many things that big-box retailers just cannot compete with, beginning with friendly, efficient customer service offered by a knowledgeable staff.
Beyond helping customers choose the perfect fresh Christmas tree, garden centers need to offer hands-on assistance to customers to help get the work done: providing delivery services; hanging lights and installing outdoor holiday décor; assisting with interior design; and helping clients prepare for parties and events. And, in appropriate climates, customers would love a garden center that offered snow-clearing and other winter-preparation services, all of which are a natural extension of the maintenance and installation side of our business.

The Commercial Side
Take the same approach with commercial customers. Helping banks,
hospitals, schools and other institutions dress in their holiday finery will soon have you known throughout the community as the official spreader of holiday cheer.
The holidays are typically a slow time of year for garden centers, so making yourself and your staff available to go above and beyond in offering such services is not only a good way to profit and keep staff working, it will also make a huge difference in your relationship with customers. And once friends and family see how you and your staff helped transform a client’s home or even their bank branch for the holidays, you may very well find yourself as the go-to source for holiday services.
But we’re often so busy leading up to the holidays that we often allow the season to sneak up on us. If you choose to offer these additional services, approach commercial institutions by July or August, and follow up. At the same time, let your regular customers know that you are offering these services, and make yourself available for consultations both at the garden center and at their homes.

Make a Night of It
Of course, none of these tactics will be successful in an empty garden center. So how do you ensure a steady stream of customers throughout the holiday season? Invite them! Design a weekend-long event to kick off the season and promote it as just that — a celebration! Now is not the time for time-consuming workshops and educational programs; the holidays are a time for family, and your events should reflect that sentiment. An open house without a little pizzazz just isn’t worth the time! Create an event that will bring the entire family out for a meaningful experience: Invite the high school band, choir or orchestra (or all three!) to set the mood with a series of holiday performances; offer cider, cookies and other holiday treats; set up a train for kids to ride around the garden center; maybe even invite Santa to make an appearance! Think about partnering with a local radio station to broadcast the performances from your event. It might get interested listeners in the door.
And for the grown-ups, ask customers to submit photos of their exterior Christmas decorations for a contest, with gift certificates in various amounts as the prize offerings. This is also a great time to feature winter containers, and showcase woody ornamentals and hardy grasses and annuals for winter displays. However, trying to push retail plant sales and landscaping during this time simply does not work — people are not interested in taking on projects. Instead, focus on decking out your garden center in all of its holiday finery: trees decorated in various styles, finished wreaths, sparkling lights, indoor and outdoor décor ideas. Give your customers the inspiration they want!

Give a Little
Maintaining a positive connection to the community is incredibly important, so consider using your open house as a kick-off for a local charity project as well. Participate in a food or toy drive and become a collection point for donations. If there is little such activity in your community, it’s up to you to create it. Seize the opportunity! Work with local media to promote the charitable aspect of your event and help get the word out. This is another area where a big-box retailer simply cannot compete.
Your garden center has real potential to impact the community and spread holiday cheer. Take care of your customers during the holidays, and you’ll find yourself with a profitable garden center when spring rolls around again, too. Just don’t ask your staff to dress as elves!

P. Allen Smith

P. Allen Smith is a professional garden designer, host of two national TV programs, a regular guest on NBC's Today Show and author of P. Allen Smith's Bringing the Garden Indoors and other books in his Garden Home Series. Visit Smith's website at


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