A “service” can be as simple as moving customers through checkout more quickly to make their shopping experience more convenient.

By now, you’ve heard about the rise of services. You’ve read it in Garden Center’s Top 100 Independent Garden Centers profiles, heard industry consultants talk about them and likely had your staff relay new service requests. Independent garden retailers across North America have responded with a wide range of services, from garden- and lawn-related maintenance to dog grooming.

Are service offerings a necessity for every IGC? Consumers seem to be saying “yes.” But there’s more to offering services than just agreeing to meet customer requests. These insights from services experts outside the garden center industry can help you expand services successfully and keep your customers engaged long after the purchase.

1. See the big picture behind the trend.

IGC customers aren’t the only ones requesting and expecting services. It’s part of a broader trend that cuts across industries worldwide. Mary Jo Bitner, professor, researcher and Edward M. Carson Chair in Services Marketing and co-executive director of the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, has seen demand for services grow internationally.

Mary Jo Bitner

“In almost every industry today, the customers want more than the products,” Dr. Bitner says. “It’s something that companies as big as Hewlett-Packard and Honeywell and Intel are grappling with because they have to now offer services in addition to their products.” In some cases, the services related to a product are more central to the purchase than the product itself.

Katherine Cullen, director of retail and consumer insights for the National Retail Federation, describes a large shift toward services in the retail industry overall. That shift filters down, even to traditionally do-it-yourself retail segments associated with gardening and home improvement. Offering services is increasingly important to retail customer engagement, and Cullen expects that importance to grow. As more retailers offer services, consumers come to expect service options from retailers across the board.

The demand for IGC services doesn’t surprise Pamela Danziger, founder of luxury market research firm Unity Marketing and Retail Rescue, a new venture focused on independent specialty retailers. “The idea that garden centers are finding opportunities in services is very in keeping with the way the whole economy is going more toward experiences,” she says. Danziger sees affluent consumers — shoppers with more income and larger properties — as essential to IGC and service success. “The way they’re spending their money is more toward services. It’s in keeping with all the trends I see in the marketplace today,” she says.

2. Understand factors driving service requests.

Pamela Danziger

Some industry insiders attribute the rise of IGC services to generational factors, such as aging Baby Boomers and Millennials unskilled at gardening. But Bitner points to a trans-generational time crunch instead. “People are looking for ways to save their own time and do things through others that provide services. That applies personally, but also to businesses,” she says. “I think there’s going to be high demand for certain services from seniors as they get older and can’t do certain things or don’t want to, but I don’t think [this trend] is a generational thing.”

Cullen also noted that the desire for more spare time and convenience transcends generations. In addition, she sees online retailers as a primary factor driving demand for services across retail, regardless of the product involved. “Today’s consumers have an almost endless choice. It’s increasingly difficult to compete just on price or selection,” Cullen says. Services become an integral way to differentiate between retailers. “We view services as part of the overall brand experience,” she says. Cullen also says service trends speak to positive trends in spending, with consumers more comfortable with disposable income.

Danziger views aging demographics as one aspect of gardening trends. “The fact is, gardening is hard work,” she says. But she urges IGC owners to look beyond age to income. “It’s not just who has the need, it’s really who has the money and who can afford those services,” she says. “You have to look at it through the lens of the affluent consumer.”

Affluent consumers often lack the time and expertise to create and maintain their property the way they envision it, and they’re accustomed to hiring experts to fill expertise gaps, whether that’s an accountant or a gardening specialist. “Affluent consumers will pay a premium to bring in the expertise that they lack, because they know it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of attention to learn it yourself and do it yourself the right way,” Danziger says.

3. Choose your IGC service offerings wisely.

Katherine Cullen

Deciding how to turn your IGC’s products and potential into relevant services isn’t a decision to make alone. Bitner recommends actively involving customers and the employees who would deliver those services — and don’t say yes to everything.

“Services are processes. They involve experiences. As a retailer, think deliberately and carefully [about] what you might be able to offer, because you don’t want to ruin your reputation by not offering high-quality services,” Bitner says. “Success is very dependent on really understanding what your customer is asking for and then designing a service that meets their need and expectations.”

Danziger stresses expanding your vision. “Independent garden retailers have had the mindset that they’re serving do-it-yourselfers and hobbyists. That’s a key limiting factor,” she says. She notes that garden center staff are often hobbyists who turned their interest into a profession. “People are limited by their own experiences. The customers that garden centers are going to serve have a totally different point of view,” she says. “Garden center owners and managers need to reach out and get inside the heads of the people who need those services. They’re not the do-it-yourselfers and hobbyists.”

Cullen suggests that IGCs look to other retail segments as well. “It’s important to look at what’s becoming sort of standard across retail. How consumers are shopping for clothes affects the experience they expect when they’re shopping in garden centers and vice versa,” she says. Consumers, including members of the Millennial generation and Gen Z, still want to shop in-store and interact with products in person, but early product research happens online.

“By the time they come through your doors, they know what they want to buy and they’re looking for a frictionless shopping experience,” Cullen says. Services around retail payment are increasingly important. “One of the services we’re seeing customers really gravitate toward is buy online and pick up in store,” she says.

A demand for services is good news for retailers, as it means people have more disposable income than time.

4. Market — and deliver — services effectively.

Successful service marketing depends on understanding differences between marketing the tangible and the intangible. “The whole key to services is making promises and then delivering on the promise,” Bitner says.

“It’s different from a product, because the customers can actually see a product and touch it and use it. But with a service, they’re typically looking for results. They’re looking for a quality experience, a quality delivery — it’s very different. Most people that have gone into services find that out very quickly.”

Danziger suggests building marketing relationships with other businesses that serve your clientele, such as realtors and home furnishing stores. “These are natural partners in a local community that a garden center can cultivate to reach the kind of customers that they need to grow,” she says.

For example, offer realtors a great price on houseplants or birdfeeders to use as homebuyer gifts, and then include a free consult on how to enhance the new property. “Every realtor gives a gift to new homeowners,” Danziger says. “Do things through the realtor to develop those relationships. These are great ways to open the door and get yourself on their radar as being a destination and a place to find garden help and support.”

Cullen underscores that special retailer events that present opportunities to engage with products, learn and try new things are important retail services. “About a quarter of consumers overall are very interested in these kinds of events, and that’s nearly double for Millennials,” she says. Social media channels provide an excellent means to market these events and engage customers of your services.

Whatever your plans for service offerings, Bitner advises starting slowly and allowing yourself a learning curve. “Start with perhaps one service most in demand. Work out the bugs with customers — which you will have — and then go from there,” she says. “It’s easy to either not price it right, or bite off more than you can do, or not anticipate all of the issues or challenges that might arise. And, of course, you have to do it profitably.”

Jolene is a freelance writer and former hort professional. Reach her at jolene@lovesgarden.com.