Rethinking Retail

Rethinking Retail

The retailing of garden goods continues to be an ever-changing scene. Many of this past season’s challenges were new to lawn and garden retailers. Here are some of the marketplace developments that provoked retail operators to take a hard look at how they might more effectively present plants to shoppers:

– The ongoing upswing in the popularity of container gardening.

– The continuing increase in outdoor living activities. Outdoor rooms have become living areas for more hours of the day or night. The season starts earlier in the year and lasts longer.

– Water gardening has been a resounding success and an abysmal failure — often dependent upon how much space can be devoted to it.

– While hardly a trend, there are conspicuous examples of garden centers getting into growing activities or enhancing their existing involvement.

– As garden centers expand or upgrade their facilities or add new units, there are significant departures in property layouts and structures.

– As the consumer is changing, so are the retailers’ approaches to serving them. These garden center chains, in the past season, made significant shifts in their communications to the gardening public. How they position themselves in their marketplaces has become a critical matter.

During early May, a peak part of the eastern U.S. season, a dozen of the major garden center operations were visited, with primary attention being given to how they were merchandising plants. 

The Island Merchandiser

Waterloo Gardens’ two garden centers, in the Philadelphia suburbs of Devon and Exton, are renowned for the diversity that produces $30 million annual sales. At Exton, the LeBoutillier family built a separate structure for outdoor decoratives as a supplement to their outdoor living section, which contributes 20 percent of the sales volume. Long ago, these stores set a standard for garden center high-end gift shops. For all of these digressions, Waterloo never fails to give its all when it comes to smart presentations of plants. A half dozen years ago, president Bobby LeBoutillier took over one of the display greenhouses and arranged all of the annuals by color, not plant categories.

Early this spring, LeBoutillier and his associates felt they could increase sales of plants presented in the sprawling nursery yard. What made sense to them was to eliminate benches and tables outdoors while continuing to rely on them in the display greenhouses. They felt islands of plants, placed on the concrete surface, in their containers, would encourage customers to recreate more of what was presented to them than would be the case if everything was locked into rows. The idea worked out well when executed throughout the nursery yard.

Marketing Director Tim Shower reports: “The categories of goods placed there moved significantly faster than in the old way. Each of the islands exhibited four or more clusters of various plant offerings. Instructional signage helped shoppers make selections. If the customer entered this area after touring the indoor presentations, entry into this space was a nice change of pace, a real change of scenery.” 

The Water Gardener

McNaughton’s Garden Center, on the New Jersey shore south of Atlantic City, makes it a habit of identifying selling opportunities that deserve attention and then doing something about them.

In recent seasons, they have applied their merchandising smarts to water gardening and outdoor furniture — two areas where they felt there was greater volume potential. Both categories have responded extremely well to the treatment given them.

In the case of the water gardening, Chris Miller, general manager, elected to relocate the sections devoted to fish and aquatic plants. As for outdoor living goods, Miller gave that department enough space to present additional lines of furniture and accessories. In their 48,000-square-foot structure, almost 15,000 are dedicated to merchandise for outdoor living.

One challenge the company has to deal with: Shoppers would come in and seek advice on setting up a perennial garden. Store personnel would recommend various perennials that were right for their planting conditions.

Customers tended to be picky about how many of the recommended plants they would purchase, often too few for the square footage of the planting space.The dilemma: How to get the shopper to buy enough plants in the right combination to make the planted area a thing of beauty.

Here’s what McNaughton’s did: They selected three high-traffic, high-visibility spaces of about 24 square feet. Each had its own signage: “Sunny,” “Shady” and “Salt Friendly.” In those spaces, pots of perennials were placed in appealing configurations, according to height, breadth and coloration.

Typically, there were a dozen or so perennials placed in this space — not planted, but in their pots. Around the periphery, appropriate potted annuals were placed. This simulated garden bed made it possible for shoppers to visualize which and how many plants were required to make a “good show.” 

The Grower Wholesaler

Homestead Gardens, in Davidsonville, Md., close to Annapolis and Washington D.C., has earned its position as one of America’s premier garden centers. It is understandable how owner Don Riddle and his staff have attracted the upscale clientele that calls this their place to shop for garden supplies, gifts, outdoor furnishings and plants.

This year, Riddle has expanded his nearby greenhouse growing operation so it not only supplies this garden center but wholesales plants to other garden centers. At his garden center, Riddle never slows down in his quest for quality ways to move more quality plants.

“This past season, the display tables were set up in a new approach to merchandising the plants”, say Kerry Kelly (annuals manager) and Laura Darley (annuals floor supervisor).

They explained it this way: “All the annuals are categorized according to descriptions we hear spoken by our knowledgeable gardening customers: Native, fragrant, cut flower, ground cover, drought tolerant, winter interest and attracts hummingbirds or butterflies. This approach has been much appreciated by customers. We’ve moved a lot of goods.”

Acknowledging the increase in container planting, Riddle’s staff produces handsome combinations of annuals, perennials and woodies. In plantings on the property near the retail entrance, there are in-the-ground plantings that demonstrate how to incorporate tropicals into traditional groupings of Northern favorites. 

The Big Boxes


Among the big boxes, Lowe’s was trying fairly hard to look like a good garden center with its exclamations about premium quality plants. The store-wide signs on the benches didn’t always indicate the same plant name that appeared on the pot or on a plant tag.

This condition must cause confusion among most consumers and confound the department personnel whose work day is made complex by their multi-tasking. Signage in the nursery area suggests a “certified nursery specialist” is somewhere to be found. Hopefully, that person has the smarts to sort out this dilemma.

At Lowe’s, once the plant is in the shopper’s hand, communications become a lot more dependable. For the most part, plant tags for house brands are well done and particularly attractive.

In Catonsville, Md., The Home Depot has made a move to separate itself from all other retailers with its prominent outdoor sign messages like “Plants from Local Growers.” When consumers choose to approach the store’s plant selling area from the parking lot, rather than from inside the store, that’s the message they get. The other message they get is that this Home Depot is really into plants. A section of the parking lot is all plants. The outdoor selling space, at the entrance to the garden center, has a larger plant presentation than is typical at other big boxes.

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