Can Garden Centers Prosper When Customers Pinch Pennies?
Can Garden Centers Prosper When Customers Pinch Pennies? By P. Allen Smith

Q In the light of the state of the economy, how can a garden center give customers “more bang for their buck” and still make a profit?

I think we’re all feeling the pinch — the price of just about everything is going up. And there’s no doubt that garden center owners have their work cut out for them as customers use more of their disposable income to pay for the rising costs of everyday living. But as the old saying goes, when things get tough, the tough get going. So let’s talk through some ideas on how you can offer your customers some good deals while still leaving money on the table for you.

Contain Yourself

If some of your early spring annuals are looking a bit past their prime, before you toss them out, try transplanting some of them into slightly larger nursery containers to revive them. Group the best-looking ones together and offer some “container package” deals to encourage customers to buy them in multiples — such as three for the price of one — or at a discounted rate. You may want to sweeten the deal by offering a package of soil mix and a container along with the plants, throw in a container watering system if that’s part of your inventory and sell everything as the “Complete DIY Container Package.”

To attract customers’ attention, pot up the annuals into some eye-catching displays to illustrate how great the finished design can look. Add signs to help the customer see how “1 pot + 1 bag of potting mix + 6 plants = the display model.” On certain days of the week, offer your display models at a discount to keep your inventory moving.

Emphasize to your customers that containers will save them time, effort and money. They cost less to plant than an entire flowerbed, require little weeding or pruning, and don’t require as much water. Add lots of “save $$, time and effort” signs around to remind them. Annuals are just one plant you can bundle and sell this way. You may have other products that you can combine into “manager’s specials” to sell in a similar way.

Encourage an At-Home Escape

I’m seeing more advertisements and news about “staycations” — stay-at-home vacations — as ways to save money. Jump on the bandwagon and advertise that you have just what your customers need to create beautiful vacation spots in their own yards. There are all kinds of garden accessories, from strings of outdoor lights to pillows and tablecloths in all-weather performance fabrics, that can be combined with plants to help proud homeowners create their own comfortable and beautiful private getaways.

You may want to get a load of tropical plants so customers can create paradise settings that conjure up the idea of exotic, faraway places. Be sure to point out how a stay-at-home vacation spot is a lasting investment that the family can enjoy at a fraction of the cost that is often spent during a two-week travel vacation.

Cook Up Fresh Ideas

Along with that idea, July is the time when more families enjoy inviting friends and family over to grill and entertain outside. So customers will be looking for good deals on decorative items to dress up their decks and patios. You might consider offering cut flowers for tabletop bouquets at your cost to entice customers into the store, and then selling the flowers in the same area where you have your other garden and entertaining accessories.

If your garden center is set up for it, how about a summer grilling workshop with a local chef? He can demonstrate how to use “budget cuts” of meat and grill them to perfection using fresh herbs. Be sure to have plenty herb containers ready for sale.

And what better way for homeowners to save money than to grow their own food? Remind customers that there will be no trucking costs added to homegrown produce, and it is fresh and safe to eat! Stock vegetable varieties such as tomatoes, which provide big returns. Be sure you have some patio varieties for customers with condos or small yards. Focus on heirloom varieties with wonderful flavors and unusual shapes and colors.

And finally, we all know that when money is tight, there are few things that brighten the home more than fresh flowers. For the cost of a packet of seeds, homeowners can lift their spirits. Have a display of container-grown cut flowers next to your seed section.

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 Living in the Garden Home (Clarkson Potter, 2007) and other books in the Garden Home series.