Retail Garden Center By Roger C. Styer

Would you shop here?

Like many men, I hate shopping. I only shop for what Ireally need, and my goal is to get in and out in the shortest time possible. Myonly exception to this rule is a good bookstore. I go to bookstores to passtime in a relaxing way, and I am willing to browse, sit, read, have a latte andkill a couple of hours. That’s why I love Barnes & Noble and Borders. Theyare like huge libraries with coffee bars, and they feature groups of books withtheir covers exposed just to entice me. And it works!

This got me to thinking about my pet peeves in retail. Forexample, I travel a lot and, therefore, do not always know what stores,restaurants, gas stations, etc., are in the area. A number of towns and citieshave mandated that commercial areas have only small, low signs outside. Thiscreates an excellent chance for someone to rear-end me as I search for thecommercial establishment I want. I also stop in McDonald’s restaurants, mainlyto use the restrooms and occasionally get something to eat. But I get turnedoff if the restroom has not been recently cleaned, and I have to wait more thanthree minutes for my food. Finally, I am not a Wal-Mart shopper. I cannot standthe cluttered aisles, lack of signage and lack of good name brands. I wouldrather shop at Target, which has nicer layouts, good signage, name brands andhelpful people.

So, if I feel this way about other commercialestablishments, imagine how I feel when I walk into retail garden centersaround the country. A couple of years ago, I had the chance to visit a huge,beautiful garden center in The Netherlands. It had a great layout, good-qualityplants, signage, a wide range of pottery, lawn and patio furniture, espressobar, kids play area and even a pet store. A pet store! Truly, this retailgarden center was a destination, not for price-comparisons, but for enjoymentand relaxation. How many retail garden centers in the United States can say thesame thing?

The challenge for some retail garden centers in the UnitedStates is how to survive with so many big box stores around them. You cannotcompete on low prices, but you can be higher priced and profitable. The key isto differentiate from the box stores with a wider selection, better service anda unique shopping experience. I call this the style of the garden center. Haveyou taken a good, independent look at your retail garden center lately? Can yousee through the eyes of your customers or potential customers as to how yourgarden center can be improved?

Try this technique

Take aside about three or four customers, preferably female,and offer to pay them $50 for their help with a survey you are conducting.Actually, this will be a focus group, as you want their opinions, discussionsand observations on your retail garden center. Have them accompany you outsideand ask them to look over the greenhouse and shopping areas, parking lot,access to your garden center, signage and landscaping. Find out what attractedthem to your place and what could be improved.

Next, bring them inside and have them look around yourgreenhouses and shopping areas at layout, signage, carts, check-outs, productdisplays, customer service, bathrooms, plants and aisles. What are theirimpressions, and what can be improved? Don’t just take their first, shortanswer. Ask them what are the good points, and what areas need improvement.What are their pet peeves about your operation? You can repeat this focus groupwith males the next time, but never mix the two sexes together in your survey.The answers you get will be very different by sex. Women make up 75-80 percentof your customers, so focus more on their opinions.

From this survey or focus group, put together a list of areasto improve and prioritize them with your team. You can divide the improvementsinto phases, since some of them will require capital improvements, which taketime and money. Others can be as simple as product displays, cleaning up aislesand displays or better identification of your help.

There are a number of good consultants who can help yourenovate your current operation or set up a new retail garden center if that isneeded. Remember, you need to spend money to make money! If you feel stronglythat you cannot afford to make major changes, then plan on retiring within thenext few years as the big box stores and other garden centers will take awaymore and more of your business.

I have seen a number of retail garden centers reinventthemselves to compete successfully against the big box stores, and they aremaking more money than before. Get out and visit other garden centers when youhave a chance. I guarantee you will find them differentiating themselves withthe three S’s — selection, service and style.

Roger C. Styer

Roger Styer is president of Styer's Horticultural Consulting, Inc., Batavia, Ill. He can be reached by phone at (630) 208-0542 or E-mail at

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