June 2009
Spring Has Come and Gone — Now What? By P. Allen Smith

We used to have a saying in our garden center that if it didn’t sell by Mother’s Day, it wouldn’t sell. Although that wasn’t quite true, the slowdown in the number of customers and our revenue stream after the month of May sure made it seem that way. Since our nursery business was located in the mid-South, the area’s gardening season kicked into gear around mid-March and by Mother’s Day, business was booming. Mother’s Day became the retail equivalent of Christmas Eve when plants and products flew off the shelves. But much like the weeks following the winter holidays, after the spring surge came the slowdown. By July, when the heat and humidity set in, business had slowed to a trickle, and August always began with big clearance sales.

Today, much has changed in the way lawn and garden centers conduct their businesses. It was only a few years ago that nursery owners considered themselves single-season retailers who relied on spring sales from consumers flocking to their stores to buy trees and shrubs, seed packets, flats of vegetables and six-packs of flowering annuals. As quickly as shoppers flooded in, they would disappear until the following year. Now many garden centers are transitioning into year-round operations. Rather than giving in to the slowdown, they have found creative ways to keep their customers engaged. Here are several ways that garden center owners are successfully taking their business to the next level even during the dog days of summer.

Repackage, Resell and Refresh

By now, many of your spring annuals that didn’t sell are either leggy or overgrown in their packs. No one wants to buy a plant past its prime, so take the time to evaluate your inventory and get rid of anything that isn’t salvageable. For those that still hold promise, repot those plants in larger nursery containers. Plant one variety per nursery pot and cluster several pots together to demonstrate the idea of “containerscaping” to show how easy it is to refresh the arrangement by replacing one container when one of the plants isn’t looking its best. Single pots of plants are also great sellers for customers having an outdoor event that need a quick splash of color. Sell them at their original package price to encourage quick sales. You also may want to make your own creative container plant combinations in 1-gallon nursery pots and slip them into decorative pots to sell as cash-and-carry container gardens.

Vegetable Gardening, Part Two

The buzz this spring was all about vegetable gardening. Many retailers are reporting a surge in the sales of vegetable seeds and plants and related products. Follow up with gardeners who may have some blank spots in their vegetable beds where they harvested spring produce or those who realize their garden is larger than they really need. Encourage them to mix in some colorful annuals so they can enjoy beautiful blends of produce and flowers. Suggest plants that could be used to create a cutting garden for fresh bouquets or ones that quickly spread and mound, helping to fill in spaces. Another idea is to encourage gardeners to place flowering containers in their vegetable gardens to help fill in the gaps. Planted pots add much-needed vertical interest along with a bright splash of color.

Outdoor Entertaining

Rather than limiting your advertisements to information about your garden plants, expand your appeal so your customers come to think of your business as an outdoor living store. Give them reasons to stop by for supplies that make their exterior settings as beautiful and comfortable as their home’s interior as well as items that they can find in your store for outdoor entertaining. Around Memorial Day, people are just getting started with all kinds of summer gatherings, everything from family reunions to neighborhood cookouts. Expand your inventory to include items that complement those activities. Depending on your clientele, this might include outdoor furniture, decorations, lighting, tablecloths and dinnerware. The more they see you as the place where they can get everything they need for outdoor living, the more you’ll increase your summer revenue.

The Green Scene

Another marketing niche that continues to hold promise for garden centers is buyers who want to live a life that is less about glamour and more about issues such as energy savings and the health of the planet. Garden centers have responded in several ways. One owner I know has cordoned off a part of his parking lot for a local organic vegetable and fruit stand. As customers stop to buy fresh produce, they associate his store with healthy food and come in to look around and see what he has to offer. To cater to those customers, he has an area of special products and plants, such as herbs, organic fertilizers and earth-friendly pest controls. He also offers information about the products in terms of the environment, personal health and saving money. Stock your garden center with earth-friendly items such as rain barrels and composters. You’d be surprised how many people tell me they have to buy these types of products online because they can’t find them locally.

New Lines of Plants

Plant breeders have been busy creating new varieties of plants to help garden centers sell to their customers year round. These improved varieties intrigue both experienced and novice gardeners. I’m amazed at the new drought-tolerant plants as well as the holiday-themed plants created for special occasions such as the Fourth of July as well as new plant collections specifically developed for late summer gardens. These end-of-summer varieties can be promoted as summer gardens are fading and need a lift. They are designed to add color and life to the fall garden and can even take frosts, making them good value and real season extenders. But you need to do more than stock your tables with these new plants. Introduce your customers to their beauty and benefits through weekend workshops, e-mail newsletters and in-store displays.

Thinking Ahead

Of course, as a lawn and garden retailer, you aren’t thinking only about today’s sales; you also are looking ahead to the fall and winter months. Even with the ups and downs of the economy, signs are that people will continue to spend money to decorate for the holidays and enliven their homes. Think about stocking your shelves with products that speak to their emotions of beauty, tradition, family and special occasions. Offer a range of price from low to high with the item you most want to sell right in the middle. It’s an old marketing trick, but one that has proven effective.

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 www.pallensmith.com.


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