My Money Is on You
As I write this column a few weeks post-Mother’s Day, the spring results have ranged from uninspired to good to outstanding, depending on your varied expectations and perceptions as compared to 2020.
To help put things in perspective, 2020 was an anomaly; once most garden centers got approval from legislators to operate as “essential” during the pandemic, the sun, moon and stars all aligned to our benefit. Our traditional customers had money and — more importantly — time on their hands and were looking for outdoor activities that they could enjoy during lockdowns and our products fulfilled their needs.
And there were a whole bunch of consumers (estimated to be about 16 million strong) who were not yet part of our gardening “family,” many of them from the younger generations, who shared the same needs for finding something to invest their free time and money into, and they decided to give our industry a try.
Despite the operational challenges we faced, including social distancing and sanitation, the 2020 spring increases over 2019 were remarkable, with 20+% increases not uncommon.
And therein lies the problem as we planned for spring 2021. Some of us believed we had struck the mother lode and could unrealistically maintain the same rate of increase we experienced in 2020. Some of us took a more cautious approach to planning, viewing 2020 as an unsustainable anomaly and built their forecasts based on a comparison to 2019 sales.
The actual results for spring 2021 were that we ranged from behind 2020 sales to slightly above, but considerably favorable to 2019. Overall, I believe the final numbers will show that we had a very solid — and profitable — season, but how each of you view your degree of success will differ based on your planning expectations.
As well as our industry performed in the first and early second quarters of 2021, many other retailers who were also operating in 2020 during the initial months of the pandemic had strong first quarter sales in 2021. For example, Target’s Q1comp sales (stores only) were +18%, Walmart’s were +6%, Home Depot’s were +29.9%, and Lowe’s’ were +24.4%. Based on numbers like these, the consumer is indeed spending, and the battle to capture their dollars remains aggressive.
As the pandemic comes under control and mask mandates and lockdowns are lifted, many look forward to a return to “normalcy.” To some, this means a return to pre-pandemic actions and behaviors. But many believe that there will be a new normalcy — one where the consumer behaviors that were developed and honed during the COVID-19 crisis and the ways retailers responded to them, will be an integral part of this new normalcy.
There were many new innovations and new ways of conducting business that were developed and rolled out in the past year in response to the pandemic mandates that were eagerly embraced by the consumer. For example: online ordering (Target digital sales were up 50% in Q1 ’21, and Walmart’s online sales were up 37%), buy online pickup in store (BOPIS), order online with home delivery, and new technologies such as touchless/no contact checkout. These have all enhanced the customer experience and will be highly expected to be provided (and expanded) in the future.
There are a number of unknowns to consider as you think about your plans for spring 2022. God-willing, the COVID-19 pandemic will be more manageable, schools and businesses will be open, and folks will be able to be out and about as they were pre-COVID. As the economy continues to improve, we will see significant pent-up spending by the consumer.
But the competition for these dollars will be shared with channels and retailers that were either closed or operating with major restrictions in 2021,with restaurants, travel, the hospitality/attractions segments, and Main Street retailers being good examples. Yes, we have some excellent sales momentum going forward, but the consumer will have more choices in spring ’22 than they had in spring ’21 and your competition will be more intense.
And consumer expectations will be higher than ever. Many of the operational and technology programs retailers put in place in order to do business during the pandemic will be expected and demanded by consumers; they see these programs as convenience enhancements that improve their experience with the various retailers. If you made it through 2021 without these programs, it’s highly likely they will be expected from you (and other retailers) in 2022!
Changing to Stay the Same
I read an interesting quote recently, “I have to change to stay the same.” The marketplace, the consumer, the supply chain, and retailers of all types and channels … they are constantly changing; any change at any point in the process dictates changes on the rest of the participants in the process.
Think for a minute about the total marketplace, positioned in a bell curve. At one end, you have about 15% of the players that are the disruptors and innovators. At the other end, you have another 15% of the players who seem content to ignore reality and simply hope against hope that things will be exactly as they were yesterday and last year. And then there’s the 70% in the middle of the bell curve (where most of us reside) who see the possibilities and opportunities, trying to keep pace with the rapidity of change, delivering on the consumer expectations and your brand promise. Our challenge is that, as the needs and demands of the consumer change, the specifics of your brand promise must also change to maintain relevance.
As a group, locally owned garden centers probably can’t afford the investment or risk to be the innovators leading change. But with your unique advantages of being highly resilient, adaptable, reactive and responsive, you can be quick second adaptors of new programs and processes that can position you to be a preferred destination for the ever-demanding consumer. To make this happen, your goal must be to study, watch and learn what successful things the innovators are doing, and then figure out how to apply them to your business as quickly as possible.
Under duress and with everything including the kitchen sink thrown at you as obstacles in 2020 and 2021, you figured out a way to meet the challenge and thrive, delivering on all the opportunities the consumer presented you with. Post-COVID, 2022 will provide a whole new set of opportunities and possibilities that will challenge your business leadership, but a continued focus on change will be required to achieve success.
All this said, if I were a betting man, my money’s on you to make it happen!