Imagine one of your loyal garden center customers pondering a problem with a plant they bought from you. Now imagine a wanna-be gardener who’s never graced your store, who’s just starting out brand new. Wouldn’t it be nice if both of these consumers automatically thought of your independent garden center as their top resource?

Establishing your IGC as the place to turn for information and problem-solving isn’t a simple task. Having enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff who connect with customers —and solve problems — is half the equation. But getting people in the door to discover and experience your problem-solving expertise must happen, too.

For insights into ways you can turn your IGC into the chosen authority on all things “green,” we spoke with three leading IGCs about what works for them. Becoming your community’s solution center for plant problems and plant dreams can bring existing customers and new customers through your doors, again and again.

GREENSCAPE GARDENS & GIFTS

Ballwin, Missouri (St. Louis metro)

Explore St. Louis, Missouri’s game-changing sustainability and biodiversity initiatives, and you’ll find Greenscape Gardens & Gifts mentioned prominently. The IGC’s support of native plants, pollinator health and biodiversity initiatives has positioned them in the public as an expert source for information, education, products, plants and problem-solving.

Establishing authority through community outreach

Spend a few moments talking with Greenscape General Manager Jennifer Schamber and it’s clear that passion and sincerity fuel her family owned IGC’s commitment to bettering their community. “We want to lead people down the paths they didn’t know they want to follow,” Schamber says.

One avenue to this goal is partnering as closely as possible with organizations that offer resources and support, such as the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge and the St. Louis Zoo. “We take what these organizations have already built for us and really try to get people engaged in these great programs,” Schamber says.

“A big part of our strategy for being an authority is not just offering programs; we’ve embedded ourselves in these organizations. We offer support by being part of committees, being advisors or offering plants,” she says. “It’s a really good way to establish authority — and it’s something that’s so easy to be passionate about.”

Recognizing and responding to community problems

Stepping up to solve your community’s pain points can position your IGC as their preferred resource. For Greenscape’s community, the biggest problem is deer. “We realized there was a huge market need about six years ago,” Schamber says. “No one had established any sort of program for being the go-to for deer-resistant plants.” So, Greenscape’s Deer-Free Zone was born.

Greenscape created an extensive deer-resistant plant list for people severely impacted by deer. Every plant department from tropicals to edibles is included. The resource is so good that other area businesses, including the local Home Depot, appropriated it. (Schamber focuses on the positive — Greenscape’s name is intact and it’s the only resource for many plants on the list.)

To announce the zone’s arrival, Greenscape advertised heavily the first year. All print ads read “Home of the area’s only deer-free zone.”

They offered a class through their local continuing adult education program. “The buck stops here” deer-free zone signage took shape and the deer-free handout went to every outreach event — and Greenscape’s reputation for deer-resistant plants and problem-solving grew.

Social media marketing … and the “big ask”

In addition to outreach events, Greenscape offers an extensive events program in-house. Social media drives their marketing. “Lately, one of our best ways of drawing people in for special events has been boosted Facebook posts. We do pay to post some of them and that’s been extremely helpful,” Schamber says. “We try to engage people, as best we can, to become advocates for us.” One major component in the social media strategy is getting community partners to share Greenscape’s information, too. The secret to getting cooperation in reaching that wider audience? First, build those relationships through support and involvement. Second, just ask. “We focus a lot on getting our partners to share our information,” Schamber says. “We’re sharing their information, trying to dispense their knowledge and their resources.

So, when it ties into their message, we just ask, ‘Would you mind sharing this with your network?’ They’re more than willing and just super-happy to do that. “That kind of marketing is priceless,” Schamber says. “A lot of garden centers are so generous and give so much and never get any sort of recognition for it. Now with social media, it’s so easy.” Solving problems for consumers (and staff) Greenscape’s many in-store services include free 45-minute garden coaching sessions. One full-time garden coach is available by appointment — or walk-ins, when the timing works. The service caters to people in the non-buying, planning stages, who leave with a simple outline. “We want to empower them to be part of the process,” Schamber says.

The service’s problem-solving benefits are three-fold. The “planning” customer gets personal, one-on-one assistance and encouragement. Ready-to-buy customers get the immediate sales help they seek. And sales staff can concentrate on sales, knowing both customer groups are being served, and avoid unnecessary frustration and stress.

Hiring people that support your IGC’s goals

About half the speakers at Greenscape’s educational events come from staff, who receive an honorarium for doing the classes. “Our staff is very talented. They have some very interesting and diverse backgrounds and knowledge bases,” Schamber says. Hiring people that like to share knowledge is a naturally good fit for other employees and the IGC.

“Hiring the right people to make you an authority, finding the right people to plug into those key areas that you seek growth in has really been a big key for us,” Schamber says. She suggests finding people in tune with the needs in the community — and scout organizations you support for possible recruits.

Community outreach, like partnerships with local elementary schools, is a major part of Greenscape Gardens & Gifts’ outreach strategy.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENSCAPE GARDENS & GIFTS
PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENSCAPE GARDEN & GIFTS
Greenscape Gardens & Gifts has made itself the area’s leading resource for deer-resistant plants and supports local organizations to help establish their authority on topics like pollinator-friendly plants and other eco-friendly endeavors.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENSCAPE GARDENS & GIFTS
PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENSCAPE GARDENS & GIFTS
PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENSCAPE GARDENS & GIFTS

OSUNA NURSERY

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Jason Seo

As general manager of Osuna Nursery, Jason Seo has prioritized becoming the community’s “horticulture hub.” For Seo and his staff, that means embracing all corners of the horticulture community, so gardeners and horticulture-minded groups naturally think of Osuna first.

Connecting through education and results

The heart of Osuna’s plan to be Albuquerque’s horticultural solution center is “Osuna University.” The educational program runs in three sessions: spring, fall and winter. Spring and fall programs focus on Osuna customers and the larger community, while winter focuses strictly on Osuna Nursery employees.

“Osuna University is not only educational programs,” Seo says. “We also introduce industry trends and environmental things, like having the water authority come and explain how people can save water.” Program speakers are almost exclusively from outside the IGC. They include renowned local authors, university scholars and local clubs such as the bonsai club or orchid guild.

“We have great communications, and those communications build up the relationship. Then that relationship makes for everyone’s success. It’s a win-win concept,” Seo says. “We’re always working on building a better connection.”

Marketing Director Shannon Cody says that the 15 classes in 2019’s spring session drew more than 550 people. And the year’s first class on soil amendments drew 75.

Cody relies primarily on word of mouth and social media to advertise classes and suggest potential attendees RSVP, so Osuna is prepared for any extra-large turnout.

Cultivating customer ease and loyalty

Seo and Cody both feel Osuna University is integral to building customer loyalty and positioning the IGC as the place to turn for problem-solving, authoritative information or just plain fun.

“If someone brings a friend to a class, that person comes back,” Cody says. “A lot of the Osuna University attendees attended every class, so we were on a first-name basis with them. They felt comfortable talking to any one of our staff about problems with their plants or suggestions. Our customers are very loyal — and they bring their friends.”

Classes are held in a flexible outdoor area, unless bad weather moves them indoors. Seo’s plans include a permanent dedicated area as Osuna University offerings expand and the IGC’s position as the authoritative hort hub grows.

Valuing relationships and responsibility

Another problem-solving Osuna service is its Plant Pharmacy, an area staffed with one part-time and two full-time employees who stand ready to diagnose and solve plant problems, regardless of where plants were bought. “It’s really the same concept as Osuna University. Success is our goal,” Seo says. “Their success is our success.”

Seo acknowledges that the plant pharmacy — on the surface — isn’t as profitable as other departments, but he says its value comes from investing in customer success. “We don’t want people just to buy and then feel ‘It’s all your responsibility after you pay.’ We want to service them after they purchase,” Seo says. “We staff the pharmacy every day, so customers can get help, and we keep trying to improve the knowledge of our employees, in the pharmacy and other areas.”

Going beyond physical IGC walls

Shannon Cody

Osuna’s quest to be the community’s solution center extends beyond the nursery’s physical boundaries to its website and community outreach. All of these efforts are meant to strengthen its position as the authoritative resource for information, plants, and help.

“We use the website as a tool,” Cody says. “Instead of people coming in and asking questions, we try to have more answers on the website, so they can be informed without having to come in. It also works as a forum to learn about things like water conservation or wellness.” Website offerings span videos, planting guides, monthly gardening information and detailed information on New Mexico-friendly plants.

Community outreach, particularly involving local schools, is key to Osuna’s strategy. Viewed as part of their social responsibility, it’s one more way to take the principles behind Osuna University and connect with new and existing customers. “There are tons of people out there,” Seo says. “We want to build what they want. We want to build that connection.”

New Mexico’s Osuna Nursery has focused on becoming its area’s “horticulture hub.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF OSUNA NURSERY
An Osuna University class on soil amendments with Greg Birkenfeld drew 75 attendees.
PHOTO COURTESY OF OSUNA NURSERY
Cellist Ryan Smith performs at Osuna Nursery.
PHOTO COURTESY OF OSUNA NURSERY

TAGAWA GARDENS

Centennial, Colorado (Denver metro)

A commitment to the Denver community is engrained deep in the fabric of Tagawa Gardens. “Our commitment is not so much just to have the products, but the education and the service,” says General Manager Beth Zwinak. That attitude has helped establish the IGC as a premier problem-solving resource in the area.

Educating on site and in the community

Year-round educational events anchor Tagawa’s offerings. Any given Saturday finds their calendar filled with multiple classes throughout the day. A Tagawa feature for close to 25 years, the public classes and events average about 130 per year. But those aren’t the IGC’s only educational events.

Tagawa’s OutReach department, established about 10 years ago, also conducts roughly 130 private classes or workshops annually. Done in store by appointment or off site, these include workshops on popular garden topics, hands-on birthday parties, and appearances at community events, businesses and schools.

Zwinak says these programs are crucial in positioning Tagawa’s as a community resource. “We have three full-time people involved in OutReach and Events, and we pull in more staff when we need to,” she says. “It takes a big team and a good team to really do those things well. It can’t be a side job for somebody.”

The store’s dedicated events area includes a 72-inch screen and a mirrored demo table to help attendees see demonstrations more easily. “That classroom space is typically open every weekend for classes,” Zwinak says. Attendance averages around 25 per class, but some have drawn 150 or more.

Speakers come from in-house staff and local industry experts, and attendees always go home with some sort of handout. “They expect it,” Zwinak says.

And speakers understand classes are about information. No infomercials allowed.

Solving consumer problems with services

In additional to educational and outreach offerings, Tagawa offers many problem-solving services, including the following:

Perennial gardening consultations

— This free, 30-minute, in-store consult has been offered for about 10 years. Customers schedule a time and receive a questionnaire to help prepare so they make the most of their time. “It can be about whatever they need a little extra help with,” Zwinak says.

Custom growing of container gardens — This fee service became a formal offering about 15 years ago. “We have such a short growing season. This way people get a head start on their planters,” Zwinak says. Customers bring pots in in late winter and answer questions on location, sunlight, wind exposure, color, and plant likes and dislikes. The containers are planted and grown on in Tagawa’s annual production area. After Mother’s Day, when the danger of frost has passed, the custom creations are ready for pickup or delivery.

Custom container planting — This fee service asks customers the same questions as the custom growing service, but the container planting happens at the customer’s site. “We’ve been doing this for about three years now. It’s mainly word-of-mouth, but we have people that have us do four planters and some who do 40 planters,” Zwinak says. Many do seasonal updates as well.

Dick’s Corner — This free help desk service honors a retiree who came to work at Tagawa and stayed for 30 years, until he was 92. “For years and years, people came in and wanted to talk with Dick,” Zwinak says. Staffed at all times, the help desk fields emails, Facebook messages, phone calls and more. During peak-season weekends, three to four people staff Dick’s Corner.

“If you want to be a resource, you have to have really great information. We try to keep up on the latest from our local extensions,” Zwinak says. “We help people navigate the available information and get what they need for a solution, even if it’s not getting a product.”

Seizing opportunities through marketing and media

Tagawa’s marketing strategy for events and services emphasizes their customer database and social media. “We get it out on Facebook and Instagram,” Zwinak says. “Instagram seems to be a really good place for us for the classes.” When Facebook ads are used, they reach people that “Like” the Tagawa Facebook page and people who haven’t clicked “Like” yet.

Another powerful strategy is being responsive to traditional media. “Any time the media calls, we jump,” Zwinak says. “The local media knows they can call on us and we can get them what they need quickly.” That reputation earns Tagawa valuable name recognition with existing and would-be customers.

“It all helps build customer loyalty. People know we can help them in different ways. We’re not just a place to come and buy plants,” Zwinak says.

People come for education, for parties and events — and for productive problem-solving.

The author is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to GIE Media publications. Reach her at jolene@lovesgarden.com.