Garden retail consultant Robert Hendrickson once observed that merchandisers at garden centers seem to have a bungee cord attached to their belts. They can work freely indoors, but the moment they reach the doors to the outdoor plant sales yard, they’re yanked back inside.
That problem doesn’t seem to exist in Europe, as any American plant retailer who has toured their peers overseas can attest.
Luckily, a European visual merchandiser who understands how to boost plants sales with effective displays, has written a book designed for non-merchandisers. Antje Verstl’s ‘Eagle & Frog’ is packed with tips and illustrating photos, so readers can clearly understand her advice.
After reading her book, I asked Verstl a few questions about her views on plant merchandising and what kind of advice she’d give to American garden retailers.
Q. Good visual merchandising can be expensive (labor-wise, and sometimes in materials) and time-consuming. Many retailers feel their staff is too stressed during the spring season to do more than basic merchandising. What would you say to these retailers about the role visual merchandising should play during spring?
A. The argument you mentioned is very familiar to us. It originates from the thinking that visual merchandising costs money and does not gain money. Our opinion is that presentation of plants gains money, while decoration spends money!
And moreover I think that people should start thinking in a different way. Why do you spend a lot of effort and money to produce or buy a plant, then put it the wrong place? It would be interesting to calculate the loss of value by neglecting visual merchandising principles!
As far as spring is concerned: If visual merchandising in spring is planned beforehand (months before!), then it does not cost much and is even easier for to handle the stuff. As an example: You already plan in advance where you put the tables, which colours and which topics you want to show. Also, cross-selling products (planting soil, fertilizer, etc.) needs to be planned in advance. And you always have Plan B in your pocket in case the weather is not what it is expected to be. If spring is delayed, you know you not only stock cooler-weather plants, you also have a merchandising plant around primulas, and hold off on your merchandising for geraniums.
The fact is, plant retailers are not used to planning store layout. We are used to following our experience and the rhythm of nature. A typical comment I hear is: “We don’t need to plan!” Instead, purchase plants, then make a plan on how to sell them.
I mentioned this first because your sales depends on where your customers’ eyes look. One only has to change the perspective. We should start to play with the space of our stores. Space planning, merchandising, and gardening goes hand in hand.
Q. In your book, you make a distinction between presentation and decoration. Will you expand on that?
A. Take a look at these two pictures, one of decoration and the other of a presentation:
For decoration you need a lot of stuff that is actually not on sale, and it’s only purpose is to look nice. It’s time-consuming and costly. But it is good for attracting attention. You can do such things in the front of the garden center when you can attract passing passengers, or in some spots in the shop, where you want people to come or to stop. But in the garden center, people should not only look but actually take and buy.
To spur buying, you need present your products in a way customers can relate to:
So here’s a basic principle: show what you actually sell, and inspire your customers! Which means combine what belongs together — plants that match the season, pots in matching colours and sizes, plus substrate, fertilizer and accessories. In other words, cross-selling! Maybe you “decorate” a few focus points, but mostly you need to “present” in most other areas.
What’s more, the sales team is important in this respect. We found that it works best if the team agrees on or even develops the goals of the visual merchandising strategy.
That sounds simple, but in practical everyday life people often tend to do too much and not at the right time. Less is more!
Q. Most of the display photos in your book do not rely heavily on signage, although they are geared to showing the benefit of plants and evoking emotion. What factors make a display do its job of selling the plants?
A. Signage is actually the last thing after choosing the topic (colour, plants for bees, …), the place, the assortment of plants and supplementary articles, because people are visual species. When we first enter the garden center, it’s the colours, pictures and the structure that first attract our mind – not signage. Emotion pictures are better than signage. People often believe that it is enough, when they write “Fragrant plants” on a poster and pin it at the table. Written words may reach our brains, but not our heart! And the latter we need so that people actually buy. Because, to be honest, plants are luxury products we can mostly live without.
But that does not mean we do not need written words, but in a different way. Time is going on and customers ask more and more for information — as you have mentioned. “How do I plant a rose?” The answer can help to overcome doubts. Customers do need advice to make the choice. Here you need competent staff, signage, and visual cues.
Q. Research shows that younger plant buyers feel there’s a high degree of risk when buying plants — that they’re likely to kill what they buy. Likewise, if a plant succeeds, they feel they were lucky. What can retailers do to help make plants more approachable and give less experienced customers confidence through their visual merchandising?
A. They need to have a sense of trust, and common sense.
Trust. To gain trust, you need several things:
- A competent, friendly, smiling staff
- A clear and inviting store layout of the garden center (orientation, navigation, corporate identity, …)
- Appealing products, but not too many styles. Narrow down the choices, make recommendations
- Narrow down care instructions to few simple words. Due to internet, it is easy to access information, but it is often confusing and too extensive.
Common sense. Younger people want to know more about the use of the plants and other articles. They need storytelling and simple messages. What can I do with the plant? What’s the use?