Garden centers can still ease the minds of their customers and employees despite the challenges of the pandemic.

Sleepless, anxiety-ridden, overwhelmed, forgetful, irritated … COVID cranky. This is what the pandemic has done to many of us and it is playing out in challenging ways in the retail environment. Employees are exhausted and stretched thin, and customers may or may not be cooperative when it comes to safe shopping protocols. Garden centers are supposed to be places of happiness and refuge for customers during stressful times or crises. But in order to create that customer experience, garden center owners must first ensure employees are well taken care of and supported.

Over the past year, I have heard plenty of stories from folks working at garden centers about what they have had to deal with day to day. Off the record, I have heard some choice words about how they feel about COVID cranky customer behavior. On the record, most are still trying to project kindness because plants and gardening are supposed to be a happy thing. But behind that projected kindness may be a whole lot of anxiety.

I asked my friend Amy Overman, who works at Piedmont Feed and Garden Center, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, her thoughts about being an essential garden center worker during these times. “I try to keep in mind that although I’m doing my normal day to day job, there’s nothing normal about life in general right now” she said. “We’re all freaked, exhausted and burnt out, customer and retail worker alike. So, I try to take a deep breath before each interaction and remind myself of that.”

Put your mask on first

Spring in garden center retail is stressful enough without losing staff to multi-week quarantines. Staff safety must come first. Now that you have had time to practice, make sure you have clear protocols for how staff should safely interact on site through spring. Make it clear when they should not show up to work based on their exposure or symptoms, as well as report exposure. Reassure employees their job is not at risk if they have been exposed or become infected and need to quarantine. Consider providing or facilitating employee access to rapid testing or at-home testing services; and even vaccines once they become available and accessible. Most importantly, be sure to walk your talk. As an owner or manager, your staff will take their cues from your behavior.

Curbside pickup is still an efficient method of keeping customers and employees safe.

Take it or leave it

If it is your policy, then no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. Do not put your good customers in a bad position — one that may force them to walk out of your garden center without spending — by tolerating customers who refuse to accept your terms of service. The more upfront you are with customers, the better. Post your safe shopping protocols clearly and repeatedly throughout your store using clear signage and markers throughout your shopping areas. Don’t forget to clearly post your terms on your website, email and social media.

Your employees need to know they are empowered to enforce your terms of service — but they need tools with which to do so safely. Give your staff some verbiage they can memorize to kindly confront customers who enter without following your rules. Have a protocol in place for staff to follow if a customer is refusing to comply. When I asked Overman how she deals with customers who get too close she said, “Water wands have proven great for enforcing the 6-foot distancing.” That one gave me a chuckle.

Maintaining safety precautions and comfort will continue to drive clientele and ease employees during the busy season.

Shop smarter

For a smooth spring season, you should assertively market how easy it is for customers to shop online and pick up curbside, or have products delivered. Ramp up your online e-commerce capabilities and offer key popular products or bundles available for online purchase. (For quick tips on this listen to my recent podcast with Dr. Bridget Behe: Spin up a personal plant shopper service immediately, if you haven’t already.

Remote and do-it-for-me sales will not only make life easier for those choosing not to shop in person for safety reasons, but also assuage those who may not agree with masking or distancing rules. If you make it easy for them to still get what they need, even if they cannot or will not shop in person, you can keep their business. Plus, you will be creating valuable new revenue streams that are not going to go away post-pandemic.

While many garden center and grower businesses survived last spring by securing “essential” status, let’s face it: no one needs petunias to survive.

“Ultimately, yes, we may be deemed essential, but a purchase of a geranium is not worth my health or the customer’s,” Overman says. I imagine many of your employees feel the same. Overman advises other garden center employees to take care of themselves first and make sure to wear their masks, take breaks and stay fueled up this spring. And take a lot of deep breaths — at a safe distance.

“Ultimately,” she says, “it’s not my responsibility to change the customer or their mood, but I can and must maintain my equanimity and emotional health through all this.” Good advice for all of us.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.