Neophyte gardeners often claim to have a “black thumb” or the ability to kill a plant just by looking at it. Even the more experienced horticulturists suffer from their fair share of gardening fiascos. Associates of Armstrong Garden Centers, with 32 locations in California, have been conducting informal polls of their customers over the course of their 127 years of operation, sharing with managers why customers hesitate to buy plants.

“Most of our shoppers, especially the new ones, say the top emotions they feel when shopping for plants and garden-related products are fear and uncertainty,” says Desiree Heimann, vice president of marketing for Armstrong Garden Centers. “Our research has shown they have fear during every step of the process, from not knowing where to start, to asking dumb questions, to how to get the plants home without getting their car dirty or killing them.”

The challenge is to take the guesswork out of gardening in order to give garden center customers confidence, says Heimann, who also serves as vice president of marketing for Pike Nurseries in Georgia and North Carolina.

Length and type of guarantees

By offering a generous lifetime warranty on all trees and shrubs, Armstrong believes it is collaborating with clients on their gardening success. That also helps build long-term relationships between store personnel and customers, so that Armstrong and Pike become their preferred garden stores.

You may imagine that your bottom line will shrink from those returns if you offer a lifetime guarantee. Heimann says that doesn’t happen.

“Our lifetime warranty returns make up less than one percent of our sales,” Heimann says. “Most customers are very respectful of the policy and only use it as intended.”

For years, Jere Stauffer, chief operating officer of Stauffers of Kissel Hill in Lititz, Pa., says his store’s policy used to be crammed with negatives. Team members were expected to defend the store’s bottom line at the expense of the customer’s satisfaction.

“For the spring season of 2014, we rolled out a new policy. We wanted to give the message that a return was no hassle in the majority of cases,” Stauffer says. “We broadened our guidelines, loosened the restrictions and we also gave our team members a way to say ‘yes’ without any hassle.”

Some of the highlights of the new policy include:

  • Returns must include a receipt
  • Items must be returned in saleable condition
  • Unsalable items will be replaced or a store credit issued
  • Trees, shrubs and perennials — 1 year from purchase (limit)
  • Tropical and house plants — 1 month from purchase (limit)
  • Annual flowers and water plants — 1 week from purchase (limit)

After enacting this policy, the area served by Stauffers of Kissel Hill was walloped by a harsh winter and their returns doubled. In 2015 returns cost the store north of $500,000, but that amount decreased to $200,000 in 2016. But Stauffer says they had fewer customer complaints, which made the dollar-loss much easier to swallow.

No-hassle return policies can go a long way with customers. Train staff to handle returns and use the conversations as teaching moments with customers who have not been successful with plants.
Promoting your return policy

Once you’ve decided on your garden center’s return policy, you can let your patrons know about it in a variety of ways.

“We start by marketing the service before a customer enters our store,” Heimann says. “In our print, e-mail and radio advertising, we call out the lifetime guarantee when we feature a tree or shrub. In the store environment, we have it on signage throughout the shrub and tree section and have it posted at the register. However, our most powerful way to get this message to our customers is through our associates during the selling process.”

Besides placing the policy on their website and receipts, Swansons Nursery also uses it as a tool to help customers feel less apprehensive about the whole gardening process and to build customer trust, says Aimée Damman, director of marketing and communications for the garden center located in Seattle, Wash.

“For example, if a customer sends a photo of a plant that isn’t doing well to us on social media and asks us what to do, we instruct them on care. But we also mention that if the plant continues to deteriorate, they should feel free to bring it in for replacement,” Damman says.

Social media is a very public arena, and not only is the Swansons’ customer reassured, but other potential customers may see this conversation and decide to choose Swansons as their garden center because of the way the situation was handled, Damman says.

At Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, N.Y., the guarantee language is on their website, on in-store signage and on the receipt, says Nate Jackson, general manager.

Empower all staff, not just cashiers, to talk about the plant guarantees your store offers to help give hesitant customers confidence to buy.
Empowering your team members

At Hicks Nurseries, all of the store’s customer service representatives can handle and generate returns, Jackson says.

“Our employees are very gracious and don’t argue with customers about returns that fall within our policy, regardless of the reason,” Jackson says. “The team uses that as an opportunity to teach our customers and coach them on how to be successful with that plant moving forward.”

Associates at Swansons are also trained to offer the customer a refund or replacement depending on the shopper’s preference. Whether or not the buyer is at fault isn’t taken into consideration.

“We know that there are a small number of people who will try to take advantage of the system,” Damman says. “If we do identify an individual who serially takes advantage of the policy, upper management deals with that and usually revokes their return privileges.”

Mike Kunce, CEO of Armstrong Garden Centers and Pike Nurseries, poses in front of a marquee that proudly promotes the lifetime guarantee on trees and shrubs offered at both companies.
Swansons Nursery’s website assures new gardeners that, “part of growing is trying new things,” and that they will replace plants or issue store credit.

Chronic returners at Stauffers of Kissel Hill are encouraged to shop at that nursery’s competitors.

Garden centers offering a guarantee on their products usually have safeguards in their policies that address abuse of the policy. The businesses interviewed for this story indicated that offering the warranty made positive strides toward keeping customers and, for the most part, that the amount of money they lost was minimal.

“Guarantees should be looked at as a positive way to turn a potentially bad situation into a positive customer experience,” Jackson says. “We should not be punishing customers for their lack of success. Instead, the goal is to make them happy by helping them with their plants. In the long run, that will create a relationship and store culture that customers and employees want to be a part of.”

Heather is a freelancer based in Washington and a frequent contributor to GIE Media publications.