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When we spoke with Nicole Bent, president of Shelmerdine Garden Centre, the Canadian IGC was in the midst of a province-wide shutdown. Even businesses deemed essential in the spring, like IGCs, are barred from selling any non-essential goods.
“When we heard that, we closed our doors,” she says. “It’s Christmas, we can’t rely on seed sales.”
Shelmerdine is a destination garden center outside Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. Much of Bent’s marketing is directed toward city dwellers. In fact, the IGC’s robust online store was designed mainly as a showcase to convince Winnipeggers to make the drive out of the city to the store. However, it was quite handy to have the infrastructure for an online store already in place. This year, when the pandemic forced many businesses to close their doors and change their operating procedures, they were scrambling to build a system like Shelmerdine’s.
“Once we closed due to COVID, it was, ‘Thank God we had this website already in place,’ so we could just start selling online,” she says.
Bent gets a lot of questions from other IGC owners about her site. She’s hands-on in every aspect of Shelmerdine’s web presence.
“It’s kind of my baby, to be honest with you,” she says. “I design the home page. I write the copy. I pick the colors. So it’s not an accident. A lot of hard work goes into it, and it has a consistent set of design eyes looking at it and planning it. If you want to have a strong web and brand presence, you have to be prepared to put the work into it and to be consistent with it and to invest in it too.”
It’s been a struggle to populate the online store with more and more items that are stocked in the brick-and-mortar store, but Bent believes the effort will pay off as customer behaviors change.
“Even when we are allowed to reopen, I feel that people will be more comfortable placing online orders with us,” she says. “I think that that arm of our business will remain strong now that people are used to the service.”
Shelmerdine Garden Centre set up an online form where customers can order Christmas trees, and make a few requests (i.e. skinny/wide).
A year of strong sales
Despite all the challenges, 2020 has been Shelmerdine’s strongest year yet in terms of sales. In the spring, seeds, tomato plants and anything to do with vegetable gardening was king.
“I consider this a blessing for the horticultural industry because it literally took a pandemic to get people into gardening,” she says. “It’s been there all the time, and I believe that research is showing anybody that starts gardening now intends to continue.”
In the 2020 Christmas season, greenery and poinsettias have been strong sellers. Looking at shopping trends, Bent sees customers returning to basics and the traditional comforts of home.
“People can do without fancy soaps and candles, but they can’t do without their Christmas tree,” she says.
The IGC has been innovative in developing ways to keep the business rolling. Even though customers aren’t able to shop for their traditional Christmas tree like they would in a normal year, Bent set up a special order form with detailed instructions explaining the seven-step process culminating with contactless curbside service or delivery. While it’s a little nerve-wracking to tell customers they can’t pick out their own trees this year, shoppers have been grateful that the business is still open to serve them at all. The phone has been ringing off the hook and Shelmerdine’s online form has been getting a lot of traction as well. It’s another way 2020 has been unique.
“I tell people, ‘When you get the tree home, it’s like opening a present,’” Bent says.
Building a strong brand
Another factor that differentiates Shelmerdine from other IGCs is the high level of quality photography on display. Bent insisted on a “no stock photos” policy everywhere, from social media to the online store. While stock photos get the message across, they aren’t doing your brand any favors.
“They’re actually our photographs of our products, our store, our team,” she says. “And that really does help to improve your brand presence and tell a story about who you are.”
Bent says one of Shelmerdine’s keys to success is the work its owners put into building the company’s culture. That culture includes charitable donations and fundraisers to help its community and internal initiatives to support its team. Even though the challenges of COVID-19, Shelmerdine has taken steps to keep a positive workplace, steps rewarded by excellent staff retention.
“Our internal motto is ‘Work hard and be nice,’” Bent says. “And at the end of the day, I feel that if you do those two things, you’ve had a successful day here at Shelmerdine.”