Like many garden centers that scrambled to accommodate the circumstances of 2020, Tom Mahoney, CFO of Mahoney’s Garden Centers, contributes much of the IGC’s success to the hard work of his employees.

“We have a real special group. When you look at how many people have been with my company for over 30 years, that number of team members is a big number,” Mahoney says. “We have one guy that’s been with the company for over 50 years.”

The Massachusetts IGC employs 150 career-oriented workers annually and flexes to about 500 in the peak season. However, the COVID-19 pandemic put the business in a tough position, which the IGC had to adapt to “rapidly and intensely,” he says.

“At that time, no one understood the seriousness of it, and where this thing was going. Everybody on the team really pushed hard on developing everything. Our messaging to our customers, especially in the beginning, was ‘safety first,’” Mahoney says.

Like most IGCs, Mahoney’s set up plexiglass barriers and outdoor registers, monitored employee traffic and followed social distancing guidelines to maximize both employee and customer safety.

“We spent a lot of time back in April trying to figure out the best way to operate. And we’re very blessed. We have very large stores with significant outdoor space that allowed us to adapt in a way that made our customers feel safe and our employees feel safe,” Mahoney says.

Tom Mahoney says houseplants, potting soil and pottery containers were “the big three” in terms of 2020 sales.

Employee protection

Mahoney stressed the importance of employee safety and says that if employees didn’t feel safe coming into work, the choice to come in was optional. The IGC supported these employees with government programs, and also hired a chief human resource officer to work closely with the CEO on all personnel issues to navigate through the crisis.

“We had certain people, especially the older team members, who said, ‘Look, I don’t feel safe at work. My kids won’t let me work. I can’t. I need to take time off.’ And we said, ‘That’s fine. Go ahead. We don’t want anybody here that doesn’t feel safe and feel like they can’t do this,’” Mahoney says.

There were some employees who requested to work, and agreed to take the necessary safety precautions in order to do so. Mahoney says the employees who stayed on through that initial, uncertain eight-week period were rewarded with an extra week’s pay on top of their regular pay. Hourly employees received $2 on top of their pay during that time period, and everyone was provided with masks, disinfectants and cleaning supplies.

To further protect employees, Mahoney’s even stopped accepting cash, which is considered illegal in the state of Massachusetts. Luckily, most patrons were understanding, he says.

“We had a few customers call us out, “Mahoney laughs. “We just said, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not going to put our employees at risk.’ We even changed our credit card machines to not require a signature and went to contactless transactions.”

Eventually, as the country learned more about how the virus spread, they lifted the cash ban with a few safety precautions.

After the pandemic hit in March, Mahoney’s wasted no time making sure employees and customers were protected. From installing plexiglass barriers to banning cash, the IGC took many precautions against COVID-19.

Coming back around

Spring sales were a rollercoaster after a disastrous March and April, and sales were down by 45% at the end of April, he says. Chaos reigned in that initial time period, and when they reopened to curbside and delivery, Mahoney says they weren’t equipped to handle the demands of the curbside delivery model.

“Every transaction took somebody half an hour to do, so we learned that that wasn’t us. We just didn’t handle that well. That forced us to really move quickly on working with the CDC guidelines and getting the store open on a safe level,” he says.

In order to ensure safety protocols, they hired a security firm to guard the entrances and count the number of patrons entering and leaving the building. Gradually, they reopened the outdoor areas with CDC guidelines in place. Then, they focused on the indoor layout and applied similar guidelines (creating one-way aisles, the use of wireless POS, using social distancing markers etc.) Once they were open to 100%, sales were terrific, he says.

Rewarding repeat customers

One of the unique draws for the IGC is its rewards program. In fact, over half of the IGC’s transactions are through the rewards program, he says — which is especially crucial in retaining the influx of gardener traffic spurred by the coronavirus.

“We’re always trying to sign up people to our rewards program, and our social media is really aimed at repeat visits, too,” Mahoney says. “Our rewards program is plugged into our marketing messaging. It’s a great group that we can rely on — and do rely on — for consistent business.”

The IGC’s marketing changes, he says, but this year’s message was focused on safety above all else. They convey safety protocols, plant specials and seasonal tips through social media and email newsletter blasts. Typically, the garden center shares videos of the interior of the stores to its channels, and provides customers with inspiring shots of rich, green plants.

“We try to keep it fun. We have this cat that lives here at the Winchester garden center. If you’re looking at Facebook, you’ll see her name is Abby. It’s funny because when we put Abby into a Facebook post, we get more likes than any of the other posts that we put out there. She’s a rock star,” he laughs.

Social media and newsletters are its No. 1 way of communicating with customers now that events are off the table, so frequent online interaction is crucial, he says.

Booming business

In terms of trends, Mahoney says the biggest one that’s taken off in the past few years is the rise of houseplants, especially this year.

“The houseplant department has been a gift to the garden center business in general because of the 12-month nature of it. And the pottery sales and potting mix sales go right along with it. So, it’s been those three combined that have been terrific,” he says.

Another transition the IGC faced was moving the store online, an endeavor they just recently launched.

“We’re trying to be very deliberate with it. The last thing we want to do is open up our online store and then disappoint people,” Mahoney says.

Looking ahead to 2021, Mahoney says they’re going to continue what they’re doing as long as business continues to be successful and customers feel safe.

“We really don’t know what tomorrow brings, but one thing that COVID has taught us is to be nimble and whatever we get, whatever gets thrown at us, we have a management team here that can react very quickly and implement anything,” he says.

Mahoney is optimistic about the industry and says in times of facing existential threats — such as the rise of big box stores in the 1990s — garden centers are resilient. He believes IGCs will emerge from the COVID crisis stronger than ever.

“One thing we learned was that the biggest strength we have is our team, and our customers recognize that,” Mahoney says. “The reason why we were able to thrive after the introduction of those two giants was because of our team, and the resilience of our team.”