Gale’s Westlake Garden Center in Westlake, Ohio, offers wine tasting in December, during a peak holiday shopping season.

Have you ever been going about your normal routine and had something unanticipated happen that made you smile? Maybe it was a surprising kindness from a stranger. Perhaps you stumbled upon a street performer while traveling, or were suddenly witness to a wedding proposal at a restaurant. Such happy, unforeseen events made that activity memorable. Oftentimes, these small, random incidents are what we recall over all else.

So why don’t we occasionally create unexpected experiences at the garden center? They are fun for garden center customers and employees alike, and more importantly, they can leave a lasting impression with customers.

Surprising events don’t have to be huge or expensive, but in order to create something memorable, it’s important to appeal to the senses. When planning for these occasions, think about sight, scent, taste, touch and sound. Additionally, if what you do is humorous or touches the heart, you’re on the road to extraordinary.

The key to making these experiences successful is planning in advance and random timing. You’ll want to schedule these surprises well in advance, but you don’t want to advertise or otherwise alert your customers about what’s going to happen. These experiences are only effective if customers don’t anticipate them in advance; so, no leaking on social media or in the company newsletter.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.


Sweet tastings of lavender

Offer tiny lavender butter cookies in your perennial section when your lavender plants are coming into bloom. This is unexpected because shoppers in the perennial section won’t be thinking “food.” Should one of your employees or helpers be willing or able, have him or her dress up in shades of lavender and circulate the store with a tray of cookies.

Give away bouquets

Put together small bouquets of four or five flowers tied with a ribbon. Have someone volunteer to be the Flower Fairy or Bouquet Boss for the day, and hand them out to the most unsuspecting, unknown customers who come into the store. Suggested language: “We want you to have these flowers and hope that they brighten your day. You can keep them or pass them on to someone else in a random act of kindness. Thanks for stopping in today!” 



Create small bunches of mint, lemon verbena, or a sprig of lavender foliage. Tie them with small piece of twine. This is especially effective in the early spring when your herb section is fully stocked. Suggested language: “Did you know that herbs are not only for cocktails and garnishes, but they can brighten your mood? Here — have some aromatherapy, and make the rest of your day happier.”

Create “aromatherapy” by decorating your store with sprigs of herbs.

“Mustache Monday”

Paint a mustache on every employee and give any customer with a mustache (real or painted) a 25 percent discount. Yes, this means that mostly men will get the discount … all the better since this is a population we want to encourage! When a customer asks, “Why the mustaches?” your employees could answer, “I mustache you a question, I can’t shave it for later … what was your favorite thing today at our garden center?”

Hiring a musician to play music throughout your garden center can set a comfortable atmosphere that customers will remember.

Fiddling around

Hire a fiddle player or another musician to stroll the garden center playing music. Schedule this not during a special event, but on a random shopping day. Ask that musician to engage musically with anyone of any age who responds to their playing.

“Wine Tasting Wednesday”

Arrange for a local wine merchant to set up an impromptu wine tasting among the plants. They might promote a local vineyard, or a botanically named wine, and offer special coupons to their store. The magic here is that your customers won’t expect to be greeted with a wine tasting in the nursery on an arbitrary late afternoon or early evening.

Lavender cookies appeal to customers’ sense of taste, and the treat is a welcome surprise.

May flash mob

This one takes more planning but could pay off long term in both word-of-mouth and digital marketing. Contact a local choir, vocal group or other musical ensemble and ask if they’d be interested in performing a flash mob event in the garden center. Set this up for a day when you expect to be busy so that the maximum number of customers will be exposed, and you can expect a number of cellphone videos to be made. Have the singers pose as customers picking out plants before they begin, one by one, to burst into song or bring out instruments and start playing. Be sure to have a few employees on hand to capture the music and customer responses on their cellphones.

“Favorite Customer Friday”

On a random Friday, ask every employee to pick one customer and hand him or her a token for a 30 percent discount on what they are purchasing that day. Make sure that your employees choose someone that they don’t know. “I’ve chosen you as my Favorite Friday Customer, and want to say thank you for coming in today by giving you this coupon. But don’t tell anyone else … this is something just for you. Happy Friday!”

Brainstorm with your entire team about other unexpected experiences that you can provide throughout the year. And as 2018 unfolds, let Garden Center magazine know how you’ve made someone’s trip to your garden center memorable.

C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at