Differentiate your business from other IGCs by expanding your offerings, but make sure you do it in a way that makes sense for your IGC.
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New isn’t always better, but the same old product selection year after year at your garden center can leave your customers with a stale taste in their mouth. Infusing your inventory with at least a few new finds, or entirely new categories, can help keep your reputation and customer experience fresh and exciting.

Homogeneity in the independent garden center market is a real phenomenon these days. As buying became more global and access to new product lines became easier in the last two decades — and growing operations grew and began offering long-distance shipping — I started to see the same “stuff” show up at IGCs everywhere I shopped and traveled. What always excited me about shopping at local garden and plant shops — back in the day — was that I could find a wide variety of offerings at each stop. Be it a cool hard-to-find plant species or some handmade or locally sourced garden accessory. I loved “garden center hopping” as I liked to call it, which meant making visits to multiple garden centers on the same day, or travel trips.

Déjà vu

Over the past decade, each trip to a different garden center started to fill me with feelings of déjà vu. Wait, didn’t I essentially see the same product selection at the last two places I went? It felt like making multiple trips to independent retailers was becoming less fruitful. With many of you visiting the same gift markets, hardgoods categories can often be almost identical from IGC to IGC. Of course, you’ll always have regional differences when it comes to plant selection, but even that seems relatively homogenous these days.

I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here, rather just offer some authentic perspective as both an IGC customer and a green industry analyst. If I’m seeing too much replication of products from store to store, so are your customers. With brand differentiation at the core of IGC success, not standing out when it comes to your inventory is a big missed opportunity. Yet, as with any downside, it comes with lots of low-hanging fruit of opportunity.

Crunch the numbers

Much like recruiting and training new staff is a labor-intensive and costly process, so is bringing on new categories of plants or products. New categories take an investment of money and time, and they don’t always work out. However, if you never try new things, you risk your business becoming stale and outdated.

Let me start by saying that when it comes to analyzing if a new category is a good fit for your business, you first have to be able to deeply analyze the categories you already have. If you aren’t working with a robust POS, have a full grasp of buying-related metrics such as turns and GMROI, and how to employ an Open-to-Buy system, then you’re going to be casting darts in the wind no matter what.

Reducing or eliminating bad categories that are negatively impacting your bottom line is often the easiest and quickest way to positively impact your category profits. You don’t always need to replace a category you reduce or eliminate; sometimes you can make more money by simply buying deeper in your successful categories and turning that inventory faster. Again, adding new products or categories for the sake of it is not the way to go.

Drop the deadweight

That said, once you’ve dropped the deadweight, you may now have the floor or bench space to shake things up with new categories or lines of product. The trick, as it always is, is to know your audience. Choosing new products or plants just because you or your buyers like them and think they are cool is a bad strategy. Your target customer profile is always the decider when it comes to a new category being a good fit, or not. Will your new category resonate with your ideal customer, in that it solves their problems or fulfills their needs? Will it delight them? Of course, you may be trying to attract a totally new type of target customer. If that’s the case, then going completely out of bounds with new items can be effective.

I’ve seen more than my share of out-of-the-box categories being touted as the next savior for IGCs...from dog food to bras. Yes, bras, one of my all-time “favorites.” I mean hey, you do you, and if a totally random category like that is a perfect fit for your ideal customer, then absolutely go for it! It just has to make sense for your customer, company mission and brand identity. Just don’t invest a lot of money on new space or fixtures unless you’ve done your research and feel confident your new category is the way to go.

Dabbling

Conversely, don’t expect to lightly dabble in a new product or category and see big returns. There’s certainly something to be said for scarcity or limited stock driving demand and price. But, if you’re bringing on a new category, then committing to enough items with a deep enough selection is important to its success. Certainly, testing out a limited product selection can be a prudent approach, but you also want to inspire customer confidence in your new category. Just a sprinkling of items may either not do enough to capture their fancy, or frustrate them that you haven’t committed to enough inventory.

Talk before you buy

So, how do you dip your toes into a new product category without over-committing time and resources? The great thing about the world of retail today is that your online community and social media afford you the opportunity to have live, meaningful conversations with your customers about new items or categories that might excite them. If you are considering adding a new category to your mix, reach out online and have one-on-one conversations with the people who will be buying it … or not!

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. lesliehalleck.com