Lake County Nursery Hosts Educational Sessions For Independent Garden Centers

Lake County Nursery's Peak Performers sessions have educated retailers from as far away as Utica, N.Y.

Want to take an active role in helping your retail customers improve themselves? Take a page from the Lake County Nursery playbook and offer training to garden centers on the topics they need help with. Lake County Nursery’s Joe Zampini says he visits about 100 garden centers a year, which have varying levels of staff education and customer service and sales skills.

“We’ve started to build a partnership with our customers,” says Zampini, vice president of sales at Lake County Nursery, which is located in Perry, Ohio. “We’ve seen customers in the last few years talking about the box stores and how they can’t compete with them. They’ve had a hard time selling, so we’ve looked at ways to help them improve.”

Lake County’s Peak Performer Series of one-day educational sessions has included speakers Bridget Behe of Michigan State University and garden center designer Judy Sharpton.

Zampini’s goal is to hold two sessions per year. The first of the Peak Perfomers Series sessions was held mid-March 2012 with about 15 to 18 attendees. Attendance has increased with each session and the last one, held on March 7, drew 70 attendees representing 20 businesses.

What Does It Take To Organize?

The Peak Performer Series is promoted to about 200 people through a snail mail invitation, which is followed up by an eMail and personal invitations by phone. Lake County targets independent garden centers within a 350- to 400-mile radius.

Between speaker fees and travel, the Peak Perfomer series sessions cost Lake County Nursery about $2,500 each. And while there is a time investment, the process gets smoother and more refined with each session the nursery hosts.

The last session was held at an offsite location (a local community center) which made the planning a little more labor intensive. Zampini says it truly is a team effort, with salespeople helping to refine the invitation list and helping to promote the events, and secretaries who help with marketing, as well.

What Topics Are Covered?

Becoming a brand champion for your store was the topic of the most recent session.

“We’re telling [attendees] not to worry about the box stores, because they’re only selling a plant,” Zampini says. “Garden centers are selling a whole garden, a whole experience.” Zampini says he thinks a lot of the focus of these sessions will be on how to get customer traffic up, how to sell and how to look for buying signs from customers.

This year’s fall session will focus on landscaping and how to sell plant material along with paver and patio installation jobs, which have slim margins.

“We’d rather be planting,” Zampini says. “The one thing that hits us immediately is that we need to sell jobs that have more margin in them. We need to sell a whole oasis, which includes plants.”

Why Do Retailers Like The Idea?

Since the ideas for session topics come from retailers, Zampini says the content is guaranteed to be something retailers want to hear about. And attendance has proven it — retailers have come from as far away as Utica, N.Y. and Detroit, Mich. to attend.

“It’s just a day trip for them. We’re feeding them breakfast and lunch and they can be home by dinner. The only out of pocket costs are travel. So it’s quick and easy,” he says. “It’s a chance to see an outstanding speaker in a casual location.” Zampini also points out that attendees can get one-on-one time with speakers that they wouldn’t get at a larger event.

What’s The Benefit To Lake County Nursery?

Zampini says the operation gets even more out of these sessions than he thought they would. One-on-one facetime with customers has been extremely valuable in terms of building relationships and partnerships, he says. Lake County Nursery has had people attend who aren’t current customers, and a new possibility is partnering with other vendors to help Lake County Nursery host even more seminars.

“We’ve seen an increase in business from the people who came to our event last fall and the one held this spring,” Zampini says. “And now we have a dialogue with people attending who haven’t done business with us in the past. We know we’re going to get something back from these sessions if we keep those lines of communication open.”

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