Retail Garden Center

April 22, 2003 - 10:29

Would you shop here?

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

This got me to thinking about my pet peeves in retail. For
example, 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 cities
have mandated that commercial areas have only small, low signs outside. This
creates an excellent chance for someone to rear-end me as I search for the
commercial establishment I want. I also stop in McDonald's restaurants, mainly
to use the restrooms and occasionally get something to eat. But I get turned
off if the restroom has not been recently cleaned, and I have to wait more than
three minutes for my food. Finally, I am not a Wal-Mart shopper. I cannot stand
the cluttered aisles, lack of signage and lack of good name brands. I would
rather shop at Target, which has nicer layouts, good signage, name brands and
helpful people.

So, if I feel this way about other commercial
establishments, imagine how I feel when I walk into retail garden centers
around 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-quality
plants, signage, a wide range of pottery, lawn and patio furniture, espresso
bar, kids play area and even a pet store. A pet store! Truly, this retail
garden center was a destination, not for price-comparisons, but for enjoyment
and relaxation. How many retail garden centers in the United States can say the
same thing?

The challenge for some retail garden centers in the United
States is how to survive with so many big box stores around them. You cannot
compete on low prices, but you can be higher priced and profitable. The key is
to differentiate from the box stores with a wider selection, better service and
a unique shopping experience. I call this the style of the garden center. Have
you taken a good, independent look at your retail garden center lately? Can you
see through the eyes of your customers or potential customers as to how your
garden 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, discussions
and observations on your retail garden center. Have them accompany you outside
and ask them to look over the greenhouse and shopping areas, parking lot,
access to your garden center, signage and landscaping. Find out what attracted
them to your place and what could be improved.

Next, bring them inside and have them look around your
greenhouses and shopping areas at layout, signage, carts, check-outs, product
displays, customer service, bathrooms, plants and aisles. What are their
impressions, and what can be improved? Don't just take their first, short
answer. 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 group
with 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 percent
of your customers, so focus more on their opinions.

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

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

I have seen a number of retail garden centers reinvent
themselves to compete successfully against the big box stores, and they are
making more money than before. Get out and visit other garden centers when you
have a chance. I guarantee you will find them differentiating themselves with
the three S's -- selection, service and style.

About The Author

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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