How Graf Growers Uses Bridal Fairs And Food Festivals To Find New Customers


Karlie Graf (left) and Lisa Graf (right)

Editor’s note: Two years ago, Graf Growers participated in our 10% Project consumer study, which was conducted by Dr. Bridget Behe of Michigan State University, and Dr. Susan Hogan, who was with Emory University’s MBA school at the time, and myself. AmericanHort helped us by landing a grant with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and USDA, which funded our study.


The following are the results Graf Grower’s Lisa Graf and Karlie Graf shared with us.

Most plant buyers under 50 will drive past locally owned stores in order to go to a Home Depot or Lowe’s. Those stores offer the convenience of being able to buy other household maintenance items, as well as removing the intimidation factor.

Our research found that younger consumers think they need to be expert gardeners before shopping at a local garden center. Even those who enjoyed gardening thought being an “expert” was far off in the future, if was to be achieved at all. So they find local stores intimidating, and prefer to buy from employees who won’t make them feel ignorant.

So, one of the solutions our team came up with (under the guidance of Lynn Switanowski, a PR specialist and founding partner of Creative Business Consultants) was a version of, “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammad, Mohammad must go to the mountain.”

In other words, if garden retailers want to attract customers who don’t think their store relates to their lives, they must meet these consumers where they congregate and prove their store’s relevance to their lives.

And that’s exactly what Graf Growers in Akron, OH, decided to do.

Graf Growers Leaves The Store To Find New Customers

Lisa Graf and Karlie Graf took a look at the various community events in their community, and debated which ones dovetailed best with what they offer. They settled on the food show, Taste Of Home Show, and a small bridal fair held at an organic farm.

Taste Of Home Show

Lisa Graf, owner of Graf Growers, read a blog on how “real foodies grow their own food.” It brought home for her the opportunity the foodie trend offers. So after reviewing the various campaigns the 10% Project offered, she decided attending a local food event, Taste of Home Show, would be a good fit.

And it definitely was. The store saw a 22% return on the coupons handed out.

Here’s how they handled the show:

Selecting The Show. Several factors played into this show being the one the Grafs felt was the best fit. First, The Taste Of Home Show takes place only 8 miles away from Graf Growers, and it was a manageable size for the first time out, with about 650 community members attending.

The event offers cooking classes and allows vendors to set up booths. And there wasn’t much competition among the vendors.

“We were the only ones selling herbs,” says Marketing Director Karlie Graf.

What They Brought To The Show. Since it was a foodie crowd, the store included specialized herbs like chocolate mint in its offerings. It also sold tie-in products like gloves, herb markers, and pots.

Along with the products they sold, Karlie and Graf Growers’ herb specialist brought along coupons for a free vegetable three-pack and a list of upcoming events at Graf Growers. “Attendees mingled at our booth before and after the show,” Karlie says.

The Results: Graf Growers laid out $300 for the booth, plus the labor for two employees. In return, it sold 150 herbs, and had 55 new customers bring in the coupon (out of 250 handed out). That’s a 22% return, a very healthy response.

At least five families came in for container and miniature garden classes, which translates to larger, multiple purchases.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but with each spending $150 on their pots, it’s a lot. I see their faces all the time now, and they were completely new customers before the show,” Karlie says.

On a side note, Graf Growers decided to add workshops and seminars with no registration fee. The Grafs find that customers spend more than the registration fee would have been and more are showing up for the classes than before.

Karlie also created an item code in order to track sales by event. When the 55 new customers came in to collect their free three-pack of vegetables, Graf Growers offered to sign them up as a preferred customer. By doing so, the customer’s purchases are protected by warranties, and in exchange, the store can track purchases and coupons.

A year earlier, in 2013, Graf Growers tested the event by supplying coupons for the bag stuffers. It provided 700 coupons and had 35 returned (a 5% return rate). By adding the booth in 2014, they were able to not only be more visible, but also had a higher return on fewer coupons handed out.

What Graf Growers Would Change. Graf Growers plans to repeat the event with just a few tweaks. “We would probably take less product, because this year we didn’t want to not have enough and so we had too much stock,” Karlie says.

As for the giveaways, she says they will improve the look of the handouts, but the offers will likely be similar.

The image on the handout was of herbs, but the giveaway was for vegetables, and some assumed the giveaway would be for herbs. A couple of people expected larger plants, since they aren’t familiar with gardening terms like “pack.”

“For us, The Taste Of Home was about creating new relationships. We were able to not only answer questions about herbs, but also about a lot of different things, like tips for deer-resistant plants. It allowed us to be branded as an expert,” Karlie says.

Hale Farm And Village Bridal Show

The second out-of-store event was a bridal fair at a local living history museum.

Selecting The Event. The Hale Farm and Village Bridal Show targets brides who want a more natural and sustainable wedding. Promoting living table center pieces and favors that can be nurtured long after the wedding seemed a perfect fit to the Grafs.

What They Offered. Graf Growers made non-traditional centerpieces to get brides thinking differently about plants. They took succulent bowls and herb centerpieces. They also brought miniature plants for favors and large ferns to show how brides can fill large spaces with not much money.

The cost to set up a table was only $50, although attendance was also low, with 50 brides and their family and friends attending for a total of 150 people.

hen-and-chick-succulents-in-heels-at-graf-growersManaging Inventory. Although Graf Growers is also a grower, specialty plants like miniatures that are popular for weddings are from other suppliers. It requires planning ahead and working with vendors to ensure the shipments arrive on time.

The Results. “It worked out well,” Karlie says. “We created a lot of relationships.”

Five brides have come to Graf Growers for either centerpieces or favors — large purchases for each new customer.

The least number of plants purchased so far has been 25 (centerpieces), and one order was for 250 plants. So far, the brides have mostly chosen to use traditional plant wrappings, although some prefer pots.

Graf Growers handed out coupons, which can be used for a year. At this point, none of the brides have turned the coupons in.

Be Prepared For Extra Steps With Weddings. Getting into the wedding business requires managing logistics. Weddings tend to take place at the same time that the garden center is most busy.

On the positive side, brides order a lot of plants.

Most brides prefer to pick up the plants themselves before the wedding, although Graf Growers does offer delivery as an option. Another way brides can save on costs is by buying in volume. “If they want a lot of plants,” Karlie says, “We have a different price sheet.” Otherwise, there is no discount.

Graf Growers also needs to manage expectations. Fall weddings will have a different array of plants than spring weddings. “We go over what is available and what’s in season at the time of the wedding,” Karlie says.

“You need to listen to what they are saying to you. They don’t understand how plants work, so you need to explain what’s realistic,” she says.

In response to the increase in the bridal orders, the Grafs created a bridal idea book. It helps them explain what seasonal plants look like, and it also shows how different decorative treatments look.

Future Plans. After its success with the bridal fair, Graf Growers plans to expand the event side of its business. Graf Growers had dabbled in the event business prior to attending the fair, when different groups approached them. But they hadn’t done anything of the magnitude they are doing now, and they hope to do much more in the future.

The Grafs would also like to convert a section of the store into a showroom for the event that features the bridal area, and always have something done up to talk to people about.

“We do a lot of centerpieces for different events, both corporations and nonprofits,” Karlie says. “It’s landed in our laps and we are trying to figure out how to manage it.”

How The Grafs Feel About The Experiment

“There’s not too much I would change, other than go to an event that’s a little bit larger. Hale Farm and Village Bridal Show was a test-the-waters event,” Karlie says.

The Grafs preferred smaller outside-the-store events for the first year. “We didn’t want to get in too big, since both took place in spring. We really had to commit to them, because we didn’t want to take away from having enough staff in the store,” Karlie says.

Graf Growers had two employees at both the food event and the bridal fair.

Overall, going into the community to win new customers was a big win. “We were getting out of our comfort zone and learned how to get out of our doors and still bring people back to the store. These events did that for us in a manageable way,” Karlie says.

One reason they worked, the Grafs point out, is that the events tied in logically with what Graf Growers has to offer. “We wanted to make sure it was tailored to our products and our mission of creating outdoor living and getting people outdoors and learning to be comfortable with it,” Karlie says.