On the Inside Looking Out by Liam Kelly


Garden retail expert,Liam Kelly explains how observing best practice from other retail sectors can be inspiring, motivating and ultimately profitable.


On the Inside Looking Out

On the Inside Looking Out

Perhaps more than any other retail sector, garden centres have changed dramatically over the last 20 years or so. Gone are the pallets sitting on concrete blocks, replaced by shiny aluminium benches or pressure treated timber. The hand written signs on plastic angled t-labels have been replaced by laser printed A4 point-of-sale signs in purpose-made holders, and covered plant sales areas are now the norm rather than the exception. Garden centres now offer their customers a sleeker, slicker more salubrious experience, and although some have changed and evolved more than others, most have changed dramatically in the last two decades.

Until recently, most of this change was brought about by looking at what other garden centres both here and abroad were doing and how their best practice could be adapted and shoe-horned into one’s own existing set-up. Obviously there was – and there still is – a logic to this, as garden retailing is somewhat specialist in many ways so the above-mentioned best practice was easy to put in place and relate to for many centres.

Of course we are making the assumption that these garden centres that appear to have all the answers really do! Garden centres are notoriously protective regarding their figures, profitability and turnover and when asked how things are going they will invariably answer with a ‘Grand…’ or ‘Not too bad at all’ comment. (This was brought home to me a number of years ago on a trip to see Christmas shops in garden centres outside Ireland. One large garden centre had a wonderful looking shop, eye-catching displays and reeked of professionalism. It was touted as the template that all centres should aspire to be… it closed down a few months after.) But without figures to back up claims how can you truly see what is best practice?

Thankfully a lot of this secrecy and paranoia is leaving the industry as many garden centres now see the need for full disclosure of figures amongst a group of likeminded individuals, so soon perhaps it will be easier to see if perceived best practice within garden centres is truly so. In other words the question ‘What have you done to make the garden centre more profitable?’ can be answered truthfully with figures to back up the reply.

So in many ways it is easier to look at some of the other retail sectors, and in particular those retailers that have a track record for profitability, to see what they do and what can be adapted to garden retailing. On one of my occasional forays into Dublin city centre a few weeks back, I came across the ‘Shoe Garden’ (retail research brings me to strange places) in Arnotts department store and it made me think that if they can use and adapt a very outdoor theme to create a fantastic shopping experience, then why are garden retailers not using equally creative themes or adapting other retailers’ ideas and strengths in their own businesses? And to expand the concept further past just image and theme, which won’t always fit into our sector, what else can we learn from other sellers?

The simplest way to look at this is to pick a type of retailer and look at what they do well, then look at which department in your store these best practices can be applied to, while keeping in mind that some of their philosophy can be applied in an almost holistic way to the whole store.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

Trying It On – Footwear and Clothing Retailers
One of the key rituals in shoe shopping is trying them on for size, look and feel. It’s that ability to try before you buy, plus the way in which they are displayed that makes shoe shopping an enjoyable experience for many.

But how can we relate this to a garden centre? It requires some abstract thinking but the most obvious department I can think of is the pot and container area where you have many different colours and designs of pots displayed in racking. But do we encourage the customer to ‘try them on’ so to speak? What I mean by this is whether we make it easy for them to fit a plant with a pot? Although pots are often dragged on to plant displays the reverse is rarely true. I would argue that there should be an ever-changing ‘plants for pots’ display in the centre of the pot display and that customers should be encouraged to try out the pots with the plants, and even bring them home to see how they look with a promise that you’ll exchange them if they don’t suit. Advertise this ‘try on’, and exchange service in the new ‘Plant+Pot’ area.

This could be taken a stage further by adapting something clothes retailers use, which are those all too flattering mirrors. Many garden retailers have used the ‘front door display’ idea of a merchandise door with two plants and two pots, but how about creating a mirror image of the customer’s front door by having four or five doors in common colours that revolve on a stand so that the customer can choose their door, and then match their choice of pots and plants to better effect? With a little thought you can also have different pull-down door surrounds in brick, dash, stone, etc. to complete this entrance-mirroring effect. 

Top Sellers – Book, Music and Online Retailers
One of a customer’s main requirements in making a purchase is confidence in a product or plant, and nothing instils confidence more than knowing that many others have also purchased the item. Garden centres can play on this by showing off their top sellers both in plants and garden care products, just as many bookshops and other retailers do.

This can be as dynamic as an ever changing display of your top 10 selling plants for this month, or something as simple as flagging a plant feed as your top selling product. How many of your customers stare at the garden care shelving, dazed and confused by the array? Surely a sign saying ‘I’m the best selling plant food in the store’ would help them commit to that purchase? The easiest product to sell more of is one that already sells well.

Those top 10 selling plants could be arranged on 10 square benches in the covered plant display area just after your main entrance ‘wow’ display. They could be cleverly signed with point-of-sale that gives that booky look to help the customers make that connection.

Remember that product confidence will always drive sales.

Knowledge plus Trust equals Loyalty – Pharmacies
Knowledge is a key ingredient in the sales process and without this knowledge it would be impossible to sell with any confidence. But trust is also important and they work hand-in-hand in pharmacies to build loyalty, which is something that garden retailers can borrow and promote to their customers. Almost every garden centre – I hope – has this product knowledge in abundance but many are not so good at communicating it to their customers.

I’m not suggesting that your most knowledgeable staff go around in a lab coat but they do need to exude confidence by the bucket load and empathy for the customer who arrives in with a sick plant that needs to be diagnosed. These skills which can be learned, combined with their knowledge-driven ability to solve a particular problem, will promote customer loyalty as you become ‘The Garden Centre That Knows’. 

Selling the Benefit – Health Food and Outdoor Activity Stores
Health food shops – it’s all in the name, isn’t it?  Those words communicate that this store stocks products that are good for me and my family. Before you even walk through the door the benefits of shopping here are implied and all those outdoor hiking, camping and cycling stores communicate the same message indirectly too.

Garden retailers rarely promote the benefits of gardening and this is probably because there is no direct, measurable sale that can be attributed to the concept of wellbeing. But surely by promoting gardening as a healthy pastime for the whole family then every garden related business would profit in some way?

This can be done on a single shop basis by clever use of those now commonplace lifestyle images and with by-lines that practically write themselves, using words such as grow, bloom, fresh, blossom, plant, scent, dig, rejuvenate, dormant, spring, sprout and so on.  Even better, it could be used by the whole horticulture sector to get people outdoors and into their gardens. Such a campaign, especially if school focussed, would go more than a little way towards curbing the obesity and general health issues that seem to be constantly in the news. Why not play off of those issues to everyone’s advantage in more ways than one?

Caring and Cuddling – Pet Stores
Kids are dragged almost magnetically towards pet shops. For some it’s the chance to cuddle a rabbit or pet a guinea pig, for others it’s the colour and exoticness of birds or fish and for some it’s the thrill of eyeballing that snake or tarantula. But whatever the reason, that draw is real and it’s something that will be almost impossible to recreate in the gardening world.

There are things that can be tried to make your store more likeable by kids if you don’t have a pet department. One of the simplest and most effective draws is a petting zoo, either for a couple of weekends a year or perhaps even as a permanent fixture if you have the space and resources. These can really be a big attraction for kids, and where kids go parents have to follow. Turning these visits into sales is down to your merchandising, stock and salesmanship but if there are potential customers coming to your store there is no excuse for not converting a proportion of them in to sales.

For those retailers who just want to look after plants and not livestock, there are still plants that attract kids. Carnivorous plants and cacti at pocket money prices will always appeal but tactile plants such as grasses and fluffy-leaved lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) can also be attractive to very young gardeners once they are supervised and taught how to care for them. The fragrance and taste of herbs and the scent of ornamental plants such as lavender are also things that can appeal to kids, although admittedly not to the same extent as a lop-eared, doe-eyed bunny. 

As mentioned, those are just a few examples and ideas to get you going and doubtless there are many more. The key thing to remember is the importance of looking beyond your own sector for the best practice of others. Analyse, adapt and adopt these principles, then measure how well they work for you. 

Many of these ideas might not apply to your business, but the very act of looking beyond the norm will bring you in to a bigger, brighter and perhaps better retail world.

To bring it back full circle to my opening paragraph, evolution and change are both good for businesses.

And evolution never stops.

LIAM KELLY was general manager of one of the largest garden centres in the country, where he was instrumental in transforming it into a large lifestyle store. He established Retail Services & Solutions in 2007 and has since worked with many garden centres, nurseries and hardware stores in Ireland. He has experienced every aspect of garden centre work from maintenance to sales, and purchasing to management. This combined with his problem solving ability, honesty and handson work ethic make him unique in his area. He can appreciate the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day running of a garden centre better than most, as he knows the products, mindset and ethos of the Irish garden retail sector. Liam Kelly – Retail Services & Solutions, 118 Dolmen Gardens, Pollerton, Carlow. 086 822 1494 or 059 913 0176, lksolutions@eircom.net www.lksolutions.blogspot.com