Hiring managers can teach skills, but not attitude. Bring on people with positive personalities, and train them on the rest.
LAURA WATILO BLAKE

It’s February, meaning parts of the country are still bundling up against ice, snow and other forms of wintry weather. The nation’s garden centers are thinking toward spring, at least when it comes to bringing on an influx of employees for the industry’s busiest season.

Retailers hire seasonal workers to enhance the roster of regular full-time and part-time employees kept on throughout the year. These new associates must be ready for the hectic schedule and long hours of the spring months.

Meanwhile, those doing the hiring have to engage a variety of management techniques to ensure a happy staff during the most fertile months of a garden center’s financial calendar.

“This is not a typical retail job, as we’re competing for disposable income,” says Gwynn Lehigh, vice president of human resources for Pike Nurseries. “You have to be excited to come in while it’s crazy-busy, and have fun doing it.”

Gwynn Lehigh
Dealing with the spring rush

Pike Nurseries, an IGC chain with 16 locations in Georgia and North Carolina, will be hiring up to 250 seasonal employees this spring, Lehigh says.

The company, which offers full-service retail garden centers as well as landscape design services, will bring in loaders, maintenance workers, cashiers and others to help with the spring rush. There are also management positions open in sales and other key departments. New workers will be in place by March 1 following two weeks of training and onboarding.

“We’re casting a wide net to find employees who could stay with us (beyond nine to 12 weeks),” Lehigh says. “We’re not afraid to take a risk. Our president (Monte Enright) started as a seasonal maintenance worker.”

Each of Pike’s stores is responsible for choosing its own staff, she adds. Hiring managers look for people with a customer service background and a “sense of passion” for being outside among the greenery.

“That’s where we start,” Lehigh says. “If a person comes in with a smile and a great attitude, we can teach them something.”

The biggest stumbling block for new associates is burnout. While all hands are needed during the frenzied spring hours, Pike changes products in-season as a way to freshen workers’ minds with new challenges.

“It’s like running a marathon where you have to pace yourself,” Lehigh says. “New products can make it exciting for a store.”

A 30 percent employee discount is given to all staffers, temporary workers included. The perk connects staff with the lifestyle they’re selling, Lehigh says. “The reward for us is an associate base that uses the things on the shelves,” she says. “They’re bringing personal testimony to products that allow our customers to be more successful.”

The right impression

Finding the right employee means asking position-specific questions during the interview process, says Jean Seawright of Seawright & Associates, an HR consultant agency.

Among other queries, hiring managers should ask would-be workers about their gardening interests and whether they prefer a working environment based around routine or one that involves frequent variety and change.

“Seasonal work is very intense, so the willingness to work hard is going to be a key trait,” Seawright says.

When assessing interviewees interested in customer-facing positions, the correct person for the job usually makes an immediate impression.

“You know right away as an interviewer when you’re being introduced to that person,” Seawright says. “They look you in the eye, shake your hand and have confidence in their communication.”

Once in-house, new workers can be paired up with a “buddy” for on-site training, says Sid Raisch, president of Horticultural Advantage and a consultant with Garden Center Group.

Buddies work side-by-side with hires to answer questions about products, make the person comfortable, and familiarize them with the fast-paced season.

“There has to be clear communication on what’s expected,” says Raisch. “Even sweeping the floor can mean different things to different people.”

Pike Nurseries will hire up to 250 seasonal employees this spring across its 16 stores — 15 in Georgia and one in North Carolina.
COURTESY OF PIKE NURSERIES
Thinking ahead

Springtime staffing requires preparing for illness, tardiness and other unpredictable elements of the human condition. Garden centers can control unforeseen issues through aggressive hiring practices, says Lehigh of Pike Nurseries.

“It should be factored in as part of the business,” she says. “Don’t staff so tightly that if one person goes down, it’s going to put you in a lurch.”

Raymond’s Garden Center, a family owned retailer in Hendersonville, N.C., founded in 1993, will be onboarding 10 additional hires by the end of March. Some of these workers are returnees from past years, says owner Christine Raymond, adding that one staff member has been with her for 18 seasons.

“[Staff] all get a 25 percent discount on plants. I give them plants throughout the season, and we do an employee of the month [program] with gift cards,” Raymond says, adding that special parking spots are also designated for employees of the month.

Raymond’s Garden Center

At least five workers are in-store at any given time during the spring months, Raymond says. As schedules are made a month in advance, employees are encouraged to find someone to cover their shift should an emergency or illness arise.

Raymond spends a staffer’s first day showing him or her the property and answering questions. Though she knows the constant flow of customers and phone calls gets frustrating, seeing the owner handle stress with aplomb usually filters down to the rest of the crew.

“It helps my staff when I stay calm,” Raymond says. “They know I want every customer to be waited on, so they’ll jump in and get that person taken care of. I couldn’t do this work without them.”

Hiring should always be top of mind, no matter the size of your store, Lehigh says. Smaller retailers must use their resources wisely, as an incorrect hire can be an expensive proposition.

“When hiring for a huger retailer or a mom and pop shop, to be effective you better know what it takes to bring in the right personnel,” Lehigh says. “Find someone who can wear the brand well.”

Douglas is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Garden Center, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Crain’s Cleveland Business and Fresh Water Cleveland.