Eamonn Wall, plant manager at Arboretum Home & Garden Heaven, sheds light on how changing plant buyer behaviour is shaping garden retailing and providing opportunity for suppliers willing to adapt.
I was recently asked how retailing in Ireland has changed and to share my thoughts on what I have seen working in the garden centre sector. I have been involved in plant retail for more than 20 years now and the same fundamental principles still apply, regardless of what you are selling. You must be able to provide a product or service that customers want, at a price they are willing to pay.
The garden centre industry is no di erent, despite many centres thinking that plants are unique and they will sell themselves. Well ok, during the boom years all you had to do was put the plants on the benches and they literally walked out the door. It was a case of get them in and ship them out, retail was just so easy. Then a little nasty word called recession popped into the equation and garden centre retailing was to take on a whole new twist.
You could say garden centre retailing has gone through a natural selection process, by which the weaker garden centres su ered most during the recession and the stronger ones weathered the storms of those years. The same also happened to many sheds that thought, let’s sell plants, its easy money. There is an old saying “Don’t carry all your eggs in one basket” and what I am saying is that garden centres that diversifi ed their product range during the boom years were in a strong position. Let’s face the facts, if you think you can open a garden centre and sell only plants and survive, you are delusional or you are now asking what went wrong. I often have a little chuckle to myself, when certain customers take their annual pilgrimage to the garden centre to buy their few trays of bedding and comment on why we stock so many non-gardening products. It’s quite simple; plants alone will not pay the bills; unlike the plant buyers they keep coming in 365 days a year.
The real secret to plant retailing in Ireland is diversifi cation and having products and services that will enhance and complement the plant o erings. I remember 10 years ago at the Arboretum when we built our cafe to cater for the growing demand for teas, co ees and lunches. Little did we know, we would have to build on a bigger kitchen within a few years and provide more seating area. It must be noted that we built the extension during the recession, once again reiterating the balance between product, service and convenience. I remember Rachel, the proprietor of the Arboretum saying “I had to study horticulture to learn how to be good at catering”. Showing diversifi cation is the secret to good garden centre retailing.
“I had to study horticulture to learn how to be good at catering”
‘Build it and they will come’ is a nice way of saying that if you provide what customers are looking for they will visit your centre. I believe the business model of running a bricks and mortar stand-alone garden centre is no longer a viable option in Ireland. The only way forward is to promote your centre through the clever use of social media and e-commerce. Gone are the days when a garden centre could open at 9am and close at 6pm, and call it a day. I’m still surprised at just how many garden centres have not embraced e-commerce. You can now stay open 24 hours a day through your online shop. I am always surprised at the suite of furniture that was purchased online at 3am, or plants for delivery just up the road. I personally feel that we are only scratching the surface regarding plant sales online in Ireland, but there are many variables when selling plants online. One must remember plant don’t always look and do exactly what it says on the label or in the pictures. The armchair shopping brigades are here to stay and we must embrace this captive market through price, product and service.
Eleven years ago I started working in the Arboretum Garden Centre; now I work in the Arboretum Destination Centre, which is listed on TripAdvisor. From presentation, packaging and impulse, the selling of plants has evolved on every level. Gone are the days when you kept an array of plants for all seasons regardless of whether they were in flower or not. In an ideal world we should carry a range of plants for all seasons, but that old philosophy is a recipe for disaster. There are so many implications with this old style of stocking plants. You have to rethink how you see plants, for example bedding plants should be seen as fresh bread with the same shelf life. Flowering plants could be compared to fresh fruit and treated as such regarding stocking and turnover. Now all I have to do is to convince the growers to look at plants in the same way as the plant buyers and the customers. Everyone loves a winner, and this aplies to plants too. When a plant is in fl ower everyone loves it. When it goes out of fl ower, it’s often cast away like an old rag doll. The 21st century customer lives for now, they don’t want to know about next year, they want it now.
I’m not asking everyone to go rush out and copy Lidl’s or Aldi’s businessmodels, but would they stock a bench of rhododendrons in July? No they wouldn’t, so why should a garden centre carry a full bench of rhododendrons out of fl ower to cater to the one person that’s going to look at them between now and next year? You would be surprised at just how many plants are purchased on impulse. The real secret behind impulse sales for plants is Colour, Colour and More Colour. I think it’s the best kept secret within the Irish nursery industry. You would be surprised at just how many suppliers turn up trying to sell plants that have no colour or are out of season. It’s simple: retailing plants out of season or colour is no longer a viable option for both growers and retailers within garden centre industry.
They say you can lead a horse to water, but can’t make them drink. A couple of years back Carol Marks from Bord Bia asked me to make a presentation on what the plant growers could do to get plant buyers to buy more of their products, in other words get them to listen to what the end user wanted. I set out to share my experience as plants buyer for Arboretum Garden Centre. I went through what the modern day customer wants from their local plant centre and what they could do to give it to them. Three suppliers actually took on board the advice I was giving them regarding products, distribution channels, packaging and delivery. I remember saying to Niamh Tully (Tully’s Nurseries) the perception of value regarding having plants in DIY stores, sheds and garden centres all carrying the same branding with no di erential between the markets. Niamh listened carefully, and implemented many of my suggestions, hence our sales have grown considerably in a very short time.
I can still ring an Irish nursery on a Monday morning and they tell me they will deliver the following week or even two weeks later. Would a supermarket wait a week for its bread delivery? I can also ring Irish nurseries with the ‘can do’ attitude and deliver the same day or the n ext day. A Dutch supplier receives the order on a Monday, they email the invoice on a Thursday, and we receive the goods on a Friday morning.
Retailing plants in Ireland has changed dramatically regarding how the consumers buy their plants, from the product, packaging, availability and the environment in which it is placed. The survival of many garden centres and plant suppliers will depend on their ability to listen and adapt to their customers’ needs.
EAMONN WALL has worked in garden centre retailing for over 20 years.
In that time he has built a reputation as one of Ireland’s most knowledgeable plant retail experts. In addition to his direct hands-on experience, Eamonn has recently completed a Masters focused on plant buyer behaviour. He works as a plant area manager at Arboretum Home & Garden Heaven in Leighlingridge, Co Carlow.