The big box versus independent garden center debate continues this week with a letter from Erik Friedli, who currently serves Flamingo Road Nursery as its merchandise manager and buyer but spent a year working at Lowe’s to gain insight into their strategy.
I’ve worked at some of the largest and best known garden centers in the country for more than 20 years, but I also worked at Lowe’s for a year as an outside garden department manager and live nursery specialist. Our industry always talks about “the box,” and I figured what better way to learn what they are about than from the inside.
I was working at a high-end garden center when “the box” came to town. At first, we had no idea what to expect. It didn’t take long to find out, though. “The box” drove more traffic into our store. Customers would tell us the plant quality was horrific unless they grabbed it right off the truck. They would tell us nobody could answer even the most basic questions. And the selection was meager and the sizes were small. Our fears were alleviated.
But that was 15 years ago. “The box” has changed since then. Today, “the box” offers a much-expanded selection of plants, including branded programs and fashion. The plants are well tagged, signed and even incorporate QR codes for those who want to learn even more before making a purchase. Their people are much better trained, qualified and maintain the areas very well. “The box” heard its customers, and it responded.
Independents should not fear “the box,” though. We have grown, too! We’ve joined each other in buying groups. We have outstanding trade organizations, consultants, trade shows, networking opportunities and a multitude of ideas and data at our fingertips. And we offer something “the box” can never offer: experience.
As a visual merchandiser, I know emotion is my best weapon to drive sales. If I can build a display that creates an emotional response, then people want to bring a part of that home with them. Displays do not translate well into cookie cutter, plan-o-grammed spaces. Displays are fluid, convey a story and change with the frequency of our best customers. Good displays strategically placed can lead people through a space like a sugar trail, prolong their experience and expose them to more of our offerings. Our displays make people say, “You always have something new and different.”
Another thing independents have over “the box” is grand. “The box” treats everything as a commodity, and it cannot devote space to oversized fountains, pottery, statuary and unique garden accessories, décor and outdoor living. Some Independents make the mistake of calling these items “froo froo.” At our garden center, they represent more than 40 percent of overall sales.
Many garden centers, ourselves included, have stretched the boundaries of “garden” to include farmers’ markets and have set aside space for permanent display gardens and idea gardens. We offer seminars, workshops, children activities areas, festivals and rewards programs. These all expand and add to the experience. And they promote us as an active member of our community.
I think where some of us go astray is when we focus solely on what makes us unique. Are we a garden center or a garden boutique? Not every customer has the time or desire to wander our grounds for hours or hunt for basic items. Layout needs to be simple. And customers more than ever demand value. Loss leaders need to be prominently displayed throughout. And we need to accept lower margin on some commodities and make up the difference with blind Items.
We should not not sell something because we cannot compete on price. If the customer cannot find it in our garden center, then we force them to get it elsewhere. And the next time they need something, they might think of them first.
I would love to see the day independents stopped even talking about “the box.” Innovation, design, “new” and “wow” will never come from them. Instead, we should be looking at other specialty retailers for ideas. Those are our real competition, after all.