Ten years ago, the Swanson’s Nursery team pondered if there was a profitable way to sell plants in the fall, to turn September into another May. Like many of their contemporaries across the country, retailers took the post season as an opportunity to reduce their existing inventory of plants that remained after several months of selling activity.
Swanson’s Nursery, Seattle, Wash., was determined to find a new strategy to approaching this challenge. Wally Kerwin, owner of Swanson’s, wasn’t particularly enthused about focusing on a me-too business strategy like “Fall Is For Planting,” which seemed to them to be over-used. Nor was the Swanson team interested in compromising on their high standards of merchandise for the fall sale.
Swanson’s needed to boost store traffic with a refreshingly different approach to plant selling in the fall. The garden center hoped the large numbers of customers looking to purchase plants at a discount would also be interested in purchasing other offerings at full markup. That meant full markups on spring flowering bulbs, fall mums, outdoor decoratives, hard goods, Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations. Kerwin and his associates reasoned that all those kinds of sales could swell as the traffic increased, and the gift shop should thrive.
Through a decade of refinements and upgrades, a highly successful approach has developed that includes material handling and logistics. Changing the fall sale period from an inventory clearance to a profitable month began with discussions with growers to educate them on the benefits of participating in the sale. For it to be a viable sale, it needed to be a win-win situation for everyone involved (customer, retailer and vendor). Swanson’s wanted to offer customers:
- Fresh, top-quality plants–nothing damaged, shop-worn or picked over.
- A nice variety of plant material including colorful perennials, groundcovers, herbs, evergreen shrubs and deciduous shrubs.
- A significant, across-the-board discount percentage at retail.
- Discounts in the 25 to 50 percent range to attract customers in large numbers in the fall.
- Grower participation–for both the quality and quantities available at predetermined prices.
- Growers’ shipments need to be timely according to Swanson’s schedules to ensure a fresh selection of product is continually available to purchase.
Extending The Season
“Basically, the above program has evolved and works smoothly and amicably,” Kerwin says. “This past season, six growers have been involved. Each had participated in past years. That fact suggests this is a win-win arrangement for all of us. Naturally, we like that aspect.”
Originally, Swanson’s fall sale was confined to a two-week inventory reduction period. Later, it was expanded to a three-week period and subsequently to one month. In 2007, the fall sale ran from August 30 through September 30, so that five weekends were involved.
“A two-week period, with several weekends included, was just not long enough once we discovered the amount of traffic this event generated,” says Brad Siebe, general manager at Swanson’s.
Siebe explains that other reasons influenced the decision, too, like the weather. A few bad days of weather could ruin a short sale. A longer sale reduces the influence of Labor Day, “the last weekend of summer” or back to school focus. A longer event also makes restocking and reordering more manageable and cuts back on aisle and parking lot congestion.
“We wanted the shopping experience to be reasonably similar to what it is normally,” he says. It is important to Swanson’s that during the fall sale, customers could quickly shop discounted plant selections so they had time to shop for other goods, such as spring bulbs, annual fall color, gift areas and the café. How the store looked was important, as well.
“We like to think that our presentation of plants is inviting and somewhat sophisticated,” Siebe says. “It provokes customers to meander throughout the property. It would be all wrong to present all the discounted plants stacked on racks like a mass merchant. We didn’t eliminate the vignettes or themed end caps. For regular customers, this was still the Swanson’s they had come to know and like. For newcomers, attracted by price, they saw us quite like we usually are.”
Part Of The Schedule
The scheduling of the fall sale weeks affects what goes on in the preceding and following weeks. Before the sale, for example, Swanson’s does its pre-fall sale design seminars. Following the event, Swanson’s hustles into the holiday season with the setup of their Fall Festival and Holiday Shop.
In October, the second, third and fourth weeks mark the revelation of the various holiday specialty goods. Shoppers during the fall sale have a high awareness that Swanson’s becomes a Christmas store. They are reminded that purchases during the fall sale earn Holiday Dollars that can be redeemed throughout the store. Their loyalty program is a model for effective cross merchandising.
The primary product categories that drive the sales volume during the fall event include trees, shrubs, vines and roses (discounted 40 percent); all perennials, herbs, groundcovers (discounted 25 percent); and all planting containers (discounted 25 percent).
Siebe also says there is a special on soil building compost: one bag free when three are purchased.
“Otherwise, everything else in the store remains at its regular pricing,” Siebe points out.
Both Siebe and Kerwin are very pleased with their Fall Sale 2007 numbers: “On sale items, we grossed $1 million dollars and produced a 48.8 percent material margin,” they revealed with great relief, as the month-long period was successful.