Before putting new products on the shelves, try to get feedback from some of your most loyal customers.

How many times has a restaurant you frequent removed your very favorite item from the menu without asking you? That’s the worst! Why didn’t they ask you? Don’t they care? How and why did they make the decision without you?! I wonder how many restaurants take time to collaborate with customers before they make significant menu changes.

Taking your favorite dish off the menu wasn’t done for your benefit. It was done for the restaurant’s benefit, probably without any explanation offered to customers. Yet, powerful innovation and change comes from doing what’s best for the customer, with the customer’s input.

Change is hard, especially for the independent garden center industry. It’s a fair bet that many of your customers or yet-to-be customers wish you’d think more about innovation, and probably have ideas on how you could improve their shopping experience. You’d be well-served by bringing them into the creative fold. Co-creation doesn’t mean you’re putting your customers in charge of your innovation decisions, but you are giving them a bit of co-ownership when making changes that will benefit them.

So, how do you put co-creation and co-innovation to work in a garden center? Think about the restaurant scenario, but replace the food options with your product selection. How many of you involve customers in your buying decisions before you buy? Most of us hit any number of industry conferences each year. At these behind-the-scenes events, we get to see all the cool, new, upcoming plant varieties and products. Giving your customers a sneak peek at this information presents a grand opportunity for collaboration.

Put together a short video or slideshow that includes previews of standout plant varieties, tools, pottery and other gear, that you can post on social media and include in customer emails. Set specific deadlines for customer responses to your special previews, then shift your buy, or add items, based on the responses. Now, your customers feel like they’ve collaborated with you on buying decisions. They also have something specific to look forward to in the next buying season. This partnership creates opportunities for pre-orders, as well. We all pre-book product when we buy; wouldn’t it be great to see what your customers love before you commit to the inventory?

Test it before you’ve blessed it:

DIY Kits. Did you really know how simple or complex that raised bed kit is to put together before you ordered two pallets of them? Order a few test units and throw a DIY assembly party for a select group of customers. They could earn a 50 percent discount on the item by coming to your event and putting one together with you — a little wine, a little DIY — and if the kit is a hit with your group, then order few pallets. If not, then you know you need to offer an up-sell assembly service or pass on the product.

Need to rearrange your check-out area or use some new technology to get customers through your lines faster?

Invite some of them before or after hours, with refreshments, to test your new strategy — find out what works for them and what doesn’t before you make the change.

Some say they can’t take online orders with a local, in-store pickup option because it just “won’t work.” Have you tried? Have you tried with customer input? Again, working with a select group of customers to test the system first before you deploy it for all customers can make the difference between success and failure. Remember, your products and services aren’t for you.

Listening to your customers is great, but don’t stop at just getting input. Follow through is non-negotiable. Taking tangible action on customer input shows you care. If you make the effort to reach out to customers and encourage their feedback on products or customer service, then you need to have a plan for putting their relevant advice into action.

Customers don’t just want to be part of your innovation process, they also want to see your process. Getting brand buy-in these days means building trust through transparency. Finished product out on the tables isn’t enough to inspire. Customers want to see how your plants are grown, who planted them, how they get loaded onto trucks, and how you care for them in your store. You might think that’s boring back-end work, but it can be quite fascinating to non-industry customers. Plus, it shows your customers you’re confident enough in your process to share it. Videos on YouTube, Live posts on Facebook, and Live and Story videos on Instagram are powerful and popular sharing tools. If you really want to take co-creation and process reveal to the next level, consider sharing videos and photos of your customer collaborative experiences with customers. Whoa, that’s meta.

Are you afraid that your competition will see your process or your public requests for customer input? Skip the stress. We all make sausage. The beauty of it is we all go about making the sausage a little differently. As they say, the devil is in the retail details. Subtle differences matter. Small yet conspicuous differentiation in your products, displays, and service approach help you stand out. Don’t be afraid to celebrate what makes you special or that you’re open to collaboration by showing customers the work that goes into their happy shopping experience and garden success.

“We” is the one-word description of the present and future of product and service innovation. Getting ahead in the innovation game takes more than coming up with good ideas for your customers; you must involve them in the process. We need to grow beyond just listening to our customers and invite them to collaborate and co-create.

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.