Leverage your social media presence

Dimitri Gatanas

To cater to this audience at Urban Garden Center in New York City, Dimitri Gatanas uses Instagram to capture their attention. He suggests other IGC owners create an account if they don’t already have one.

“It’s a big source of business, even though we don’t sell directly through it. It attracts new customers and it also gives us new ideas and leads us into areas where we didn’t expect to,” Dimitri says.

Marketing by way of traditional ads is few and far between, with the exception of one community newsletter, he says. Urban Garden Center mostly uses Instagram and Facebook, and customers jump at the sight of rare or unique plants.

“I posted something about the Pink Princess philodendron — albeit, we were only able to get 10 of them, 10 little tiny forest plants — and we sold those within 12 hours from one post on Instagram at $120 apiece. I mean, that’s fascinating. It’s never been like that. It’s almost like the Dutch bulb craze. I mean, it’s crazy,” Dimitri says.

Due to the pandemic, the shift to online demand has surged. Online sales have tripled compared to last year’s entire sales — something Dimitri is pleased with. And while the demand is there, it has caused a supply chain backlog. Distributors can’t always get products and sometimes they have trouble refilling their shelves or making products available online.

“That’s creating chaos because now we have 1,400 items on our website and we have to keep going through them and seeing what’s available — or what’s not available — because things that were normally readily available are not now. So it becomes complicated,” he says.

Dimitri gleans inspiration from businesses like Terrain or The Sill, which are web-based businesses that also have brick and mortar storefronts.

“They’re internet businesses and they designed the business to be that way. They’re getting that right. And they’re doing it right online,” he says.

As far as small, mom and pop-owned garden centers, Dimitri thinks they’re miles ahead compared to others.

“They’re just not embracing the online culture at all in any meaningful way. And I think that could be devastating to them down the road. It’s kept us alive through this pandemic and it’s kept us relevant. And imagine if we spend more money and time on it, think what we can do,” Dimitri says.

— Julianne Mobilian, August 2020

Hire great seasonal workers

While it may seem like you just hired last year’s team, the time to do it once again is quickly approaching. Here are a few tips to help make hiring a little easier:

Start early

One of the secrets to being profitable, and having fun in the process, is hiring the right team. Just as the early bird gets the worm, the proactive leader gets to pick from the largest pool of qualified applicants. Advertising early and getting seasonal workers hired and trained enables you to be ahead of the game.

Ask for referrals

While they may not think of anyone immediately, your employees, friends and family have vast networks of acquaintances. Tap into the “hidden applicant market” by asking them to let others know you are looking for seasonal help. It’s amazing how often someone knows someone, who knows someone, who is looking for a job. When referrals come through, reward those who referred them with a gift card or a long weekend. Sincere gratitude is a great motivating factor.

Recruit favorite customers

Great customers love your products, and retirees, students and individuals who don’t want to work year-round can be great seasonal candidates. If they aren’t available or interested, tap into their network by asking for referrals.

Supervise seasonal employees like everyone else

Set seasonal team members up for success by being clear about expectations, providing great training, and erroring on the side of over-communicating. Additionally, being proactive and addressing problems as they arise, and reinforcing what they are doing well enables each employee to be a better team member.

— Sherene McHenry, October 2020

Engaging employees

A steady paycheck and some PTO are no longer enough to satisfy employees. Employees want to feel like they are a part of something bigger than just an office job — something bigger than themselves. They want the feeling that they are a part of a team that values them as an individual and respects their ideas. They want to be invested in.

The workforce isn’t the same environment that our parents and grandparents grew up with. As the millennials and Gen Z populations start to take over, the “work ‘til you drop” mentality is becoming less and less potent. The newer generations are focused on the concept of belonging to a team that creates value, not merely just working for a paycheck. When employees don’t feel challenged or fully engaged in the work they are doing, employee turnover rates skyrocket.

— Todd Downing and Tessa Rasmussen, February 2020



Watch the trends on social media.

Something that is broadly touted on Pinterest really can drive up demand, especially for the retailer that has a good online presence and can ship product a reasonable distance.

Do your homework.

See if you can find retailers selling your specific plant online.

Know your market.

You may be able to sell a plant at a higher price point in downtown Chicago than you could in rural South Dakota. However, even if your business is in the middle of nowhere, if it has a great online presence it really is in the same marketplace as most IGCs. Great foot traffic plus a strong online presence means you can expose more potential buyers to that product. The odds of finding someone who will pay a premium price go up when you have a broader customer base.

Consider difficulty level.

How tough is it to propagate or ship? If you don’t think you can get another one easily from your supplier, price it accordingly.

Don’t be afraid to price too high.

The easiest thing to do is to reduce a price without even putting it on sale.

— Bridget Behe, July 2020


Social media connects us, but it also keeps us apart, fooling us into thinking we’re up to date with all of our friends but some deeper part of us knows that we’re only seeing the highlights reel and that human connection happens in real time. In prior years we would host several in-person seminars a week, both paid and free. These days, our events are primarily virtual, both paid and free. But they are always LIVE.

This is crucial because when there are thousands of gardening video tutorials online, the engagement of live events is what will set you and your expert staff apart. For free seminars (like October’s Spooky Plants talk) we host them on Facebook Live and Instagram Live. Anyone can tune in and join the conversation, and they are archived on our page so that anyone can watch them in future. We host paid events (like September’s three-part virtual pollinator series) on Zoom.

Participants receive a gift certificate to the gardens as well as a copy of the recording via email. We want our customers to know (especially the new fledgling gardeners) that we have resources to support them.

— Liz Lark-Riley, November 2020


Van Wilgen’s Garden Center in Connecticut uses a robust point of sales system that it upgraded around five years ago, allowing the company to track and reduce inventory discrepancies and increase its gross profit margin. “We’re nice and lean there. We’re not throwing a lot of stuff away,” says Ryan Van Wilgen, owner. But he also tracks customer traffic, sales trends, staffing hours and more — comparing weekly, monthly and year-to-year numbers — in order to help his department, managers prepare for and anticipate coming ebbs and flows in their projected future sales and labor needs. “As managers, we have to be thinking two to three weeks out to ensure that needed inventory is coming in and to watch when revenue starts to dip, so we can be ahead of that in terms of our labor budget, understanding that in June, it’s always going to be half of what May was,” Van Wilgen says. “We’ve challenged our department heads to be conscious of what’s going on [sales-wise] and be quicker to respond with how many hours they actually schedule.” This so-called “labor budget,” implemented by Van Wilgen three years ago, has saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars to date, he says.

— Robin Roenker, February 2020



Pick the right price point

When determining prices, Forest Lake Greenhouses in Florence, South Carolina, takes into account the wholesale cost of the plant, the demand and the size of the pot. The company tries to stick to a 55% to 65% margin, but there are exceptions to that goal. “If I don’t have as many plants, of course I’m going to try to get a little bit more on those particular plants,” says co-owner Lisa King.

Wingard’s Market in Lexington, South Carolina, tries to price everything, including houseplants, at two and a half times the wholesale cost, including freight. The ultimate goal is to have a 50% or higher margin. And, of course, there are additional markups for plants that come in looking “absolutely stunning,” and those that are in high demand, co-owner Delores Steinhauser. And if a plant isn’t looking as good as it could, there are discounts.

Depending on what time of year it is and what kind of stock the IGC has coming up from their growers in Florida, plants that cost the same to Forest Lake, but arrive looking better than average. “Certain times a year, you can get more for the plant based on what it looks like,” King says. “So we have to try to make a little bit more on a plant that might look a little bit bigger, a little bit better.”

Riddle Plant Farm uses two considerations for pricing, starting with a blanket price based on container size. “And then from that, there are a few that we will increase the price on for some of the rare or more difficult to find plants,” Dickinson says. “But that’s not very many. Most of all, it’s all cost.”

— Kate Spirgen, April 2020


Follow up with your customers

At Rosedale Nurseries in New York, employees are taught that by concentrating on providing good service along with a great selection of plant material, you create a shopping experience customers will want to repeat.

“We hire employees with more horticultural knowledge than most nurseries, so that we can provide our customers with more information when they interact with our sales staff,” says Pat Colwell, co-manager.

Rosedale also arms its employees with business cards so that the customers can try to stay in contact with them.

At Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center in Illinois, cashiers are trained to get the email address of any new customers. Mary Cronin, marketing director, says the customers are more willing to give out that information when there is an e-newsletter printed out right there at the register. During the sales interaction, the cashiers can refer to its contents like gardening tips, store specials and more.

“And there’s usually some kind of cute story to get them engaged,” Cronin says. “It’s not a hard-sell thing. We don’t bombard you.” The cashiers make sure to say the e-newsletter hits inboxes every other Tuesday because email fatigue is a real problem. The newsletter itself can get wordy, Cronin admits, because she tries to cover something from each section of the garden center’s business — flower shop, nursery, greenhouse, landscape department. If it’s too much to read, gardeners can opt to watch a video instead.

“You’ve got to incorporate everything,” she says. “There’s so many eyeballs out there and you don’t know what they’re looking for.”

City Grange in Chicago also takes an omni-channel approach to following up with its customers. Different types of customers like to receive information in different ways, says LaManda Joy, president. In addition to social media, which grew phenomenally in 2020, City Grange also uses traditional mailers, radio advertising and promotion via local partners such as Chambers of Commerce, garden clubs and other neighborhood specific groups.

The IGC uses a full digital ecosystem to follow up with customers, including a CRM, marketing automation and more.

“Experienced gardeners come to our website and find info they need, but new gardeners don’t yet know what they don’t know,” Joy says. “So we send out various notifications about blog posts, classes, etc.”

— Matt McClellan, September 2020