Competing for market share in the brick-and-mortar retail environment isn’t getting any easier. As online retailers continue to step up their game and branch deeper into the horticultural marketplace, independent garden centers are going to need innovative and noticeable strategies to keep the foot traffic coming. 

Direct-to-consumer plant shipping services is the new emerging niche for growers and brokers. There are a number of direct-to-door plant sales operations springing up. 

And, if you haven’t noticed, reputable growers are now selling plants direct through Amazon and offering good prices. While the online plant sales revolution has been slow in the making, we’re now beginning to see it manifest into what has been predicted for quite some time: a viable solution for gardening customers. 

That said, if you take some time to filter through customer reviews of online plant purchases, you’ll find they aren’t just ordering, but asking specific plant care questions within their reviews. 

This is a clear signal there is still a huge need for information, and an opportunity for you to remain the expert — if you can provide a direct line of communications to your customer, both when they are in your store and outside it. 

As always, the key is to focus in on what you do best and what you can do that online retailers can’t. Even with the ability to answer questions for customers online, online retailers still aren’t making good personal connections with customers, nor can they understand all their customers local gardening conditions. 

Offer curbside pickup

There are a couple of ways concierge-level services and personal shopping can enhance both your bottom line and your customer experience. First, you should consider how you can improve online shopping options for your customers. You don’t have to have an online shop that ships to offer online personal shopping at the local level. You can configure your website to offer a Personal Shopper option, with a form that allows customers to at least submit their want list to you, after which an assigned staff member can pull plants for the customer for pick-up or delivery within a set time frame. You can charge a concierge fee for this service to general customers and offer it to customer loyalty program members for free. Whatever makes sense for your business. Check what grocery stores in your area offer, as many are now offering this service. 

Provide in-store and at-home consultations

Years ago, when I ran North Haven Gardens in Dallas, I created an in-store personal consultation service with our Garden Coach program. Customers would reserve an in-store appointment with our Garden Coach for $50, then spend 45-minutes to an hour talking and walking the plant selection with her to address their needs and provide some instruction. After the appointment, they’d receive a $50 store gift card to apply to their purchases. Our Garden Coach also performed home property consultations, for which we charged a market-value consultation fee, but the in-store shopping session was typically the gateway to more in-depth services, more frequent visits and larger average sales. 

Invest in personal shopping services

If you have a similar program, you could expand it into a full-service concierge or personal shopping program, tied to a customer loyalty program — just like with the online shopping suggestion. 

Customers who are overwhelmed by plant choices and don’t know where to start can always use some personal service while they shop. By charging for, and making reservations for, personal shopping time in-store, your customer won’t have to scramble to find an available sales person on the floor. Offer an incentive for loyalty club members — be it a discount or gift cards that cover the appointment registration fee, so it’s “free”. 

Personal shopping services and varied pick-up or delivery options can set your IGC apart from your online and brick-and-mortar competition.

Partner with local experts and be the go-to outdoor company

There are plenty of other concierge-style services you can offer up to your customers, including connecting them with local verified landscape design/build companies if you don’t directly offer those services. Associated vendors, such as tree care professionals and irrigation specialists, are also good referrals to have at the ready. It’s a great opportunity to develop collateral marketing opportunities with supporting businesses and provide your customers with qualified pros to help install and maintain the plants your customers buy from you.

Even plant-addicts such as myself don’t have as much time as they’d like to spend shopping in-store at their favorite garden center. It’s frustrating to miss snapping up seasonal plants you want because you couldn’t make it to the garden center in time during the season or before closing hours. I pay someone to do personal plant shopping for me around town — no, really — because my time is my most valuable currency.

I trust them to pick the best specimens of the plants on my list, as I would a qualified garden center employee. If local garden centers offered the option for me to order via a personal shopping service online, then have my plants delivered, I’d be spending a lot more money on plants.

You should always be looking for ways to add value for customers to your loyalty program, and personal shopping is a great way to do it. By offering both online and in-store options for concierge-style shopping services, you’ll cater to a wider audience and send the message that you value your customers’ time.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.