February 2023
Steps for Improving Your Business By Stan Pohmer

Developing an experiential relationship with your existing customers will make your IGC stand out.

Winters get pretty dang cold in my home state of Minnesota. Whether you’re a transplant to the state as I am, or you’re native born, the winters are long, and you have to make a conscious decision to either tolerate the season, hibernating for months on end (except for those rare instances when you absolutely must face the elements), or embrace the cold, partaking in all of the winter activities and sports that are available and enjoying a somewhat normal life.

Two factors are key to which path you choose to take: 1.) Your mental attitude, and 2.) Your attire. Raising three very active kids in Minnesota, my choice was made for me by my kids (and my wife!), and my only option was to find the right clothes to allow me to keep up with them and their activities.

So, to ensure that I stayed warm (and in my kids’ lives), I invested in a Columbia Sportswear jacket. I say “invested” because these things don’t come cheap! But it was well worth the money; down to -30° F and in 40 mph blizzard winds, my torso stayed toasty (my nose and ears, however, were another thing). Now no one has ever accused me of being a fashion plate, but as long as it still looked reasonably well and continued to perform, I had no reason to replace it. With regular washing and moderate care, the jacket was my go-to throughout the winters — for over 30 years! Because I was so impressed with my jacket, my kids got outfitted in Columbia jackets and fleece, as I believed from my experience that the high prices were justified by the various products’ outstanding performance.

And then it happened … the pull tab on the zipper of my jacket snapped off! A local tailor wanted almost $100 to replace the entire zipper, a sum I felt was high since the jacket was over 30 years old and might not have a long life remaining. So, I went out and invested in another Columba winter jacket for $220.

While I was comparison shopping on Columbia’s website, I noticed that all of their jackets had a Limited Lifetime Warranty. On a whim (and without a strong sense of hope), I called Columbia’s customer service department and explained my situation. The agent suggested that I send the jacket to their Oregon office (at my expense), and they’d see if they could replace or repair the zipper under the warranty.

Ten days later I received an email from Columbia apologizing that they couldn’t repair or replace the zipper on my 30+-year-old jacket, but since they didn’t make the same model as my original jacket, they provided me with a $236 credit (my original purchase price adjusted for 30 years of inflation!) that I could apply to any purchase on their website or in a company store. Because of the performance of Columbia products, I was already a huge believer in their brand; their customer service and focus on a lifetime value relationship with the customer now made me a brand advocate! (By the way, this all occurred in November 2022. Needless to say, a lot of my family gifts at Christmas were Columbia products.)

Improving Your Business

So, what does this have to do with garden retailing, you might ask? There are only a few ways you can improve your business:

  • Attract new customers,
  • Increase the shopping frequency of your existing customers,
  • Increase your retail price points, or
  • Offer compelling reasons for your existing customers to purchase more items when they do visit your store, increasing the register transaction.

That’s it; there are no other silver bullets hiding out there that can work their magic on your business.

The lowest-hanging fruit any of you have is your existing customers; attracting new customers is an expensive proposition — think what it costs to convince them to walk through your front doors in terms of advertising investment, establishing a value proposition they buy into that’s better than where they’re buying now, etc.

Don’t get me wrong; you want these new customers, but the most cost-efficient and effective way to increase your sales (and profits) lies with your existing customers. I constantly hear many IGCs scream that the mass marketers are “stealing” their customers away, forcing them to focus all of their efforts and resources to get new ones, but I personally believe they’re blaming the wrong people for their problems. Sure, there are some of your existing customers who will respond to the box stores’ price value message, but they’re not the loyal customers you want over the long haul anyway. They’ll always jump ship for the sake of a nickel.

Most of the blame for existing customer fallout is the IGC itself for not providing a positive experience and developing a relationship with current customers — one that transcends price. Unless you have a product or service that no one else in your marketplace offers (something difficult to do in today’s marketplace), you leave yourself wide open to being cannibalized by your competition.

Creating an Experience

But offering and developing an experiential relationship with your existing customers is something that you can exploit to your benefit — it’s something that is not easily replicated by your competition, and not something that has to cost you a lot of money to instill into the DNA or culture of your company. It’s basically common sense put into action. It’s turning the “golden rule” into practice. And it all starts with you and your employees and the customers already coming through your front door. I could list many ways you can start doing this, but let’s start with one that I believe is essential.

First, burn every policy manual you have. Instead, develop guidelines and work on getting your employees to understand their roles in establishing long-term relationships with your customers, one visit at a time. Give them some latitude (in management speak, “empower” them) to interpret these guidelines to set things right with the customer. Yes, this requires you to trust that they’ll make the right decisions, but, if you’ve done your job right, 95% of the on-the-spot decisions they make will be for the benefit of both you and the customer.

These small decisions they make may cost you a very small profit but consider this an investment in establishing a lifetime value relationship with your customers. And remember, too, that the satisfied and loyal customers that you create from doing the right things become your strongest advocates, praising your glories to their friends, the best and most effective (and cheapest) form of advertising. From my personal experience, Columbia Sportswear learned this lesson years ago and still practices it today, setting them far above their competition and creating strong relationships and unmatched loyalty.

There’s a lot to be learned from your experiences as a customer of other retailers that you can apply (or hopefully not apply) or incorporate into your own business model. It’s something for you to ponder.

For an enhanced reading experience, view this article in our digital edition.

Stan Pohmer

Stan Pohmer is president of Pohmer Consulting Group in Minnetonka, Minnesota. He can be reached at [email protected] or 612.605.8799.