June 2016
Sell More Container Designs By Christina Salwitz

There are many lessons throughout the retail garden center or nursery that can turn into inspiration for creating must-have products.

Catch Christina at Cultivate’16, July 9-12, in Columbus, Ohio, where she’ll talk more about combinations as well as new ideas for better events.

After working in garden centers for the last 25 years as a salesperson, container designer, buyer, crew lead and any other position under the sun and snow, I learned an important lesson: Knowing and understanding your customers needs is strengthened by learning all of those many facets of the business and finding opportunities to think quick on your feet to fill unique sales opportunities.

A versatile employee makes lasting, relational sales with customers because they are recognizing and fulfilling unique sales opportunities. For example, they can create and sell stylish container designs by making use of slow moving stock and underrated items from the whole nursery that the customer may not have considered in combination.

I used to make and sell a huge quantity of unique and interesting containers every single week from a tiny little seasonal nursery that didn’t even have running water!

We had to truck it in from a nearby municipal source all day long. But, we built up a following and became a go-to source for our unique designs and custom creations.

From the backend of an 18-wheeler unloading trees and shrubs or racks of annuals, if you are paying attention you can learn some valuable lessons on what the customer is thinking as well as get excellent ideas on how to capitalize on them.

Photos: Christina Salwitz
Photos: Christina Salwitz

Watch those customers as they see what you are unloading, listen to their comments, chat them up.

So, how does unloading a giant truck help you design fantastic containers that sell? Let’s break it down and take a quick look so that you have a bit of insight into one of the talks I will give at Cultivate’16.

In Front of Your Eyes

Most of us who have worked in garden centers begin with what we all know as the beginner positions, but these jobs also have untapped sources of inspiration and information:

  • Watering, which actually is one of THE MOST important jobs technically speaking, affords
    this person the time to look at plants that sit together, how they behave when well taken care of and when they are flagging.
  • Loading out customers to their cars leaves the customer with their last impression of us and hopefully compels them to come back if done well. Plus we can be sneaky to see if they have been shopping at other retail locations and see what they bought.
  • Cashiering, which is an art unto itself when it comes to customer service, has huge value, but even more, the cashier sees everything that gets sold, what’s hot, what’s not and what the customer is excited about.
  • Stocking and processing plant material or hard goods is sometimes the heart and soul of design inspiration. These people have ideas about plant pairings that you may never have imagined.

Frequently, as we mature into our skills as supervisors, crew leads or managers, we still keep one toe in the water of those tasks, but as busy garden center people, how do we come up with fresh new ideas when we have all of those other details to keep an eye on?

Just like unloading the trucks, those beginning positions are actually where you can find a bevy of ideas if you keep your eyes and ears open.

There are customers wanting much more than yet another petunia combo, and I find it fascinating how little exposure many garden centers give to allowing a wide variety of plants to star in combination containers.

What’s the worst that can happen? It gets taken apart and re-potted again later?

Potential in the Unexpected

containers2By taking some small incremental risks and using out-of-the-ordinary plants in your combinations, you will not only be able to ask for higher prices on even the smallest combos, but also if it doesn’t sell, you may still make numerous sales on all of the ingredients!

As a buyer and designer, when trucks pull into the nursery, whether it’s filled with annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs or even edibles, I talk to the drivers and ask all about what might be
at the greenhouse in good quantities. And if the driver is the owner, which can be common, I love to pick their brains about what they are growing that’s new and fabulous.

You can find out the most interesting tidbits that we don’t always get to understand on the retail side from a delivery.

But, from a design perspective I noticed two very key things quite consistently:

  1. When you are unloading racks of plants that are all mixed up together you see things side by side on that rack that you may never see put together on a nursery display table. There might be flats of herbs mixed with annuals and perennials mixed with small shrubs, tropicals next to ground covers.
  2. The same thing can happen when the flats are being unloaded onto pallets for later processing where things can get even more shuffled.

THIS is where the magic can happen though!

Seeing plants from various departments all mixed up will allow your designers’ imaginations to really roam free of restrictions.

On that rack or pallet, the design rules of “thriller, filler and spiller” don’t exist; there is no requirement that a green spike in the middle of a pot with geraniums dancing around it like soldiers must be used.

Containers with exciting new ideas encourage customer experimentation too. As long as you can access enough stock at any one time to make enough of those pots to have an impactful show, you can mix it up, get more creative and make higher dollar value sales.

So take a chance that someone unloading the shrubs and trees, or a cashier who sees everyone’s purchases, may have interesting ideas on what may make a great container combo just as much as a “designer.”

Take every opportunity to make a sale on one container for $250 that you may never have sold before over four $60 containers that a customer can see virtually anywhere.

You never know, that person unloading your truck may turn out to be a design genius.

Christina Salwitz

Christina Salwitz, the Personal Garden Coach, is a container designer, public speaker, horticultural guidance counselor and photojournalist with more than 25 years experience in the industry. She can be reached at [email protected]


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