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The Garden Centre: Tips And Trends

Staff assisting customer at garden centre

With spring here, retailers are once again turning their attention to setting up their garden centres. Home Improvement Retailing spoke with Landscape Ontario's Denis Flanagan who shared some thoughts and ideas on garden centre merchandising and staffing, as well as current garden trends for 2013.

Drawing Pre-Season Customers

To remind customers that the garden centre will soon be up and in full bloom, Flanagan recommends setting up a pre-season display to attract gardeners into the store. Seed sowing displays work well, he says, as they are great visuals for getting people in while taking up very little square footage, thus providing great return. Another way to attract gardeners is to provide pre-season education through seminars. "It's certainly a way of getting 50 people into your store that might not normally be there and to get them excited about the season by providing some information and helping them with information about home design ideas and projects," he says.

Finding Staff Strengths

Flanagan recommends starting early with the interview process to hire garden centre staff to ensure adequate staff when the season begins. As well, he says, the young person you are hiring today is probably a different person than 20 years ago and any way that you can make their job a little bit more exciting and fun will likely provide you with more luck in attracting and retaining those people. One area of expertise that Flanagan suggests tapping into with young people is their social media savvy. "I don't think we experiment enough with some of our part-time staff – the young college and university students," he says. "We should sit them down and ask them what they would do. They are all sitting there with iPhones so ask them how they think the garden centre could attract more customers."

Garden Trends

Colour is strongly trending this year. It is definitely back in fashion, says Flanagan, and hot colours are all the rage. "We went through what I call the dark ages for a few years – dark foliage, black petunias, etc. People are really looking for hot, vivid colours this spring which we get with many of the traditional annual varieties," he says.

There is going to be more use of tropical plants outside –hibiscus, Jasmine, and Calla lilies. Oversized tropical plants used as patio plants are going to be extremely big this year. For retailers it works out well because these flowers are so visual and they are such an impulse buy. Whether people need them or not, they are going to buy them. They will take them home and then figure out what they are going to do with them.

Also trending are dwarf trees. People are looking at the interesting shapes that you can often find in some of the dwarf trees and shrubs. "I sometimes call that the connoisseurs' market. People will be willing to pay a much higher dollar for something that is interesting – an interesting shape or form – because they are looking for a sort of living sculpture in the garden," says Flanagan.

There is also a big resurgence in water features, particularly the plug in and take away units and kits. One up-and-coming water feature is rain harvesting. It is an environmental aspect of gardening that captures rain that comes onto one's property and stores it, whether in an underground storage unit or a water bell. Although it has not quite hit the mass market, it is gaining popularity and can create some interesting displays in a store if it is set up right.

Outdoor fire is also beginning to trend very strongly. There are some wonderful units that have been developed in both propane and natural gas. For some people, it is like camping in their own back garden where, while they don't actually have a campfire, they have a fire that nevertheless provides the ambience.

Growing your own food is going to be bigger and better than ever this year, with people looking to have their own vegetable and herb plots. The hottest shows on television right now are all the cooking shows and there is a huge variety of vegetables offered in the marketplace. For example, there are going to be 20 to 30 varieties of peppers in the market this year just catering to food tastes and ethnic diversity. "I think smart retailers will get more into having demonstrations, showing how to cook, and how to grow the herbs and vegetables to cook. The two are a natural fit," says Flanagan.

Effective Merchandising

Ongoing educational opportunities such as workshops and seminars throughout the season are a great way to draw in and connect with customers. As a result of the pesticide ban, a big topic that homeowners need help with is how to have a good lush lawn without the use of chemicals. Fifteen years ago, it was a matter of 'splash on this and spray on that' and that is all that was needed to have a beautiful lawn. But, it can still be done – customers just need a little bit more education on the basic horticultural methods of keeping good lawns and gardens.

Visual displays are very important for garden centres. From water features to lighting to hoses to tools, working displays are important merchandising musts, says Flanagan. Unfortunately, stores do not do enough in the way of displays. The garden centre offers great opportunities for working displays that will draw people in and show them why they need these products.

Another consideration is providing trunk liners for cars to put the pots on – particularly on wet days – together with having people that can help load cars. "If people leave with a really good taste in their mouth with a shopping experience that they liked, they are likely to come back."

Overall, Flanagan says draw people in early and offer them what they need and what they want. Add some working displays and ensure items that are trending are stocked. Use the strengths of your staff to build on customer service. This can provide a solid and positive customer experience. The garden season is short, but with attention to a few areas, it can be very profitable.