Eventful Profits – Liam Kelly

Retail consultant Liam Kelly explores how garden centres can exploit events to generate footfall and profit.

There was a time not so long ago when garden centres were exactly that, places you visited when you needed something to sow or grow, a chemical to cure a problem, or just advice from a gardening guru on how best to look after camellias or other tricky plants. The business centred on gardening and the odd related product. Customers only turned up when they needed something, not generally speaking to browse and be inspired.

Anyone who has visited a garden centre in the last few years can hardly have failed to notice how much the business has changed in relatively recent times. These retailers have been forced by their customers to change everything from how they display and merchandise product, to what they stock and how they operate. Garden centres have had to evolve in an almost Darwinistic way in order to survive. They have become department stores and consumer driven destinations where even the name ‘garden centre’ is relegated – perhaps understandably – to the end of their by-lines in many cases.

It seems logical that the next phase of evolution for garden centres is to enter the world of events, festivals and fairs. An event used to be a rare occurrence in our lives. It was a wedding, a concert, a trip away or at the very least something that only happened to us once in a while. There was a sense of excitement and expectation in the build up, as there still is in some cases, but it seems to me that in the last few years the word’s meaning has changed and become diluted, firstly as some large department stores’ new word for a sale and secondly by the sheer number of events happening each week around the country.

There is no doubt that any event can bring more potential consumers in to your business; the trick is to make money from it either directly or indirectly. Plus a lot of extra thought and planning needs to be put into any event you plan to host, to make it to stand out above the myriad of others that are on at the same time.

“Retailers have been forced by their customers to change everything from how they display and merchandise product, to what they stock and how they operate”

There are, broadly speaking, three main types of events that you can host or be involved in: open invitation, booked workshops, and a tie-in to a larger community event. All have their pros and cons – I’ll concentrate on the pros – and all can work to increase sales in your centre with a little effort and imagination.

Open events such as rose talks, tomato competitions or barbecue demo themed days, which are free for all to attend, can certainly draw in the crowds, but are they the right crowds? Or more importantly, can they be turned into buying crowds? The consumers who attend these events must be somewhat interested in the theme of the day but might not have the passion, knowledge or interest to buy in to the theme itself. They will wander in and out of talks and demos with an eye to seeing what else your store has to offer. Therefore it is important to have plenty of impulse offers in all departments to make the most of these often first time visitors.

Image is important on these days as sta¤, stock and prices will be evaluated and discussed, Tweeted about and Facebook commented on by visitors. So make sure you look sharp but act friendly to gain positive marks by these social media reviewers, as they will become your marketeers. A key talking point will always be price and with many garden centres being perceived as expensive in the customer’s mind (I can never find the so-called cheap one they compare the others too, mind you!), it’s important to portray value for money – but not cheapness – from entrance to exit. Plenty of car park space is a must and space in your store for people to get around and, most importantly, to shop. Any talks given should be away from the till area and sales floor but in a location that necessitates the need to pass as much merchandise as possible.

Open days such as these can be promoted on social media sites as well as the standard modes of radio and newspapers. (Although I am not a major fan of these traditional marketing avenues, many businesses swear by them and I think it probably depends on how good these medias are in your area.) Of course events should also be promoted in store and on table talkers if you have a restaurant.

These events work on the basis of volume, if you convert even half the visitors into buyers – in the short or long term – you will have achieved what you set out to do.

Bookable workshops and courses on topics such as seed sowing, vegetable and fruit growing or how to barbecue for example, are probably the best ways of converting attendees in to actual sales. This is especially true of paid workshops as you have people who have a definite interest in the theme and have already paid money for the course in order to gain more knowledge.
There will obviously be less attendees than at an open event but with the right person giving the talk there is huge potential for sales on the day and repeat business thereafter. A good lecturer will also act as your best salesperson on the day by highlighting all the needful things that you stock, which those who attend should all possess. These can be as small as a pack of seeds, which can lead to bigger sales of course, or as large as an all-singing-all-dancing barbecue.

A ‘meet the grower’ style event can fall between this category and the previous one and can be quite successful. Just make sure that the grower the public will meet is an outgoing, gregarious character who is aware of the need to actually sell the product and not spend the day discussing the finer points of molybdenum deficiency or some similar issue.

As in all events, image and perceived value are important but your focus is made easier by knowing the exact interests of those who turn up, so therefore you can tailor your offers, stock and displays to suit this captive audience.

The marketing is similar to other types of events but the important point for you to emphasise is the need to book a place, as they will be limited, and also so that you know you will have enough people attending to justify the ‘teacher’. Linking to specific Facebook pages or local horticulture groups (or cooking for barbecue events) is also a good idea. Not to mention in-store marketing and staff communicating the event to those they feel might be interested.

As there will be only a relatively small number of people attending there is a need and urgency to achieve some level of sales, loyalty and commitment from all participants. A challenge for sure but as mentioned, they are a captive interested audience.

Tie-in events are those that latch on to an existing larger community event such as a national or international competition or large local festival. In this case you are trying to lure and entice people away from the larger event to visit your fringe festival. Although you can revert to the principles of the open-style event I mentioned first, insofar as the need to portray relevant stock, professional image and sharpness of staff, there are some big differences in what you are actually doing and how you achieve it.


In reality you are trying to ‘steal’ money and time away from the main festival (although Although a less cynical person might say you are working in cooperation with it to achieve the dreadfully overused ‘win- win situation). To achieve this you need to use clever, colourful road signs to divert traffic, perhaps a ‘pop-up shop’ at the larger event to communicate where you are, what you do and most importantly why people should visit you. Advertise yourself as a break from the main festival, as a chill-out zone amongst the plants.

Promote your restaurant and display gardens. Open late in the evening when the main event if finished. What about bus tours to private gardens in the area, culminating at your garden centre? Think like the visitors. What would they want to do? Don’t forget that many of those attending will never have heard of you and might never visit you again, so make the most of them.

A link to the main festival’s website or Facebook page might also be possible depending on how the organisers see you – as friend or foe. Sponsorship, although a banana skin at the best of times, should also be given some consideration as long as the cost can be seen as a realistic use of marketing funds and justified by increased revenue.

There also the many Christmas and Easter events that happen in garden centres around the country, which I don’t mention specifically here but can be tied in to all three types of events, and they perhaps deserve an article all of their own. There is no doubt that the public now expects and wants to be entertained, and in a world where we are bombarded by information and communication it can be easy to drift into a forgotten world in the consumer’s eye. Hosting events is one way of keeping your name and your business at the top of people’s minds as places to visit.

On a final note, make sure you have all the facilities these eventers need from car parking to toilets, ease of access to shopping aids, places to sit and a kids’ entertainment area. And don’t forget a really good restaurant – after all, don’t we all crave dinner and a show?


LIAM KELLY is one of Ireland’s leading retail consultants. Having originally managed one of the country’s biggest garden centres, he established his own consultancy business Retail Services & Solutions in 2007. Since then he has provided invaluable support and guidance at every level of garden retail and counts some of Ireland’s most respected retailers as clients.
Liam can be contacted at Retail Services & Solutions, 118 Dolmen Gardens, Pollerton, Carlow. 086 822 1494 or 059 913 0176, lksolutions@eircom.net www.lksolutions.blogspot.com