Invest in personal and digital shopping strategies because they’re here to stay for the long run after the pandemic passes.

Do-it-for-me has earned an entirely new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of our gardening customers have had no choice but to let us do it for them during stay-at-home orders and required quarantines. A desire to stay connected to nature and reduce stress with gardening has kept our customers engaged with us, and demand for our products high. Meeting that demand, however, has proved challenging for most garden centers.

When I originally scheduled this column topic, I was going to deep dive into some concepts and strategies for developing your own plant concierge service — a topic I’ve discussed multiple times. Let’s just say I’m a big fan of personal shopping. Alas, that was before the pandemic. As it turns out, IGCs were forced to adapt overnight this spring to handle remote orders from customers for curbside pickup or delivery. Not having an e-commerce platform in place was — and still is — a massive stumbling block for many businesses.

While some garden centers had to close their doors altogether for a period of time, others that were allowed to operate struggled to handle the volume of call-in or online orders; partially due to technology limitations but also because of the need for social distancing with their staff. Some also limited labor to one person only at the facility to put together orders for shipment or delivery.

Organize live inventory on an accessible online platform. The harder it is to find materials, the less likely it is customers will spend the time looking for them.

Pandemic aside, valuing your customers’ time by offering some form of personal shopping service is and always will be a smart strategy. Shortening the lines at your cash register in spring — not to mention freeing up parking spaces — while increasing your sales and margins is always a good thing. You also improve the in-house customer experience and reduce stress for your frontline staff.

As an intense indoor and outdoor gardener, I’m no stranger to mail-order plants. Let me tell you, my online plant purchases went WAY up during the shutdown. I know many other gardeners who also followed suit. Wouldn’t you rather I place some of those orders online with you, my local garden center, rather than a grower on the other side of the country? Trick is, you must make it super easy for me. If you aren’t going to put your live inventory online, then you at least need a way for me to easily submit a list of my “wants” through your website, email or text message. I will not call you and sit on hold. You then need dedicated staff to shop and pull that order for me. Finally, a good local delivery service and an organized system for local customer pickups is a must.

If you haven’t yet come up with a good reason to invest in a smartphone app for your garden center, a personal shopping system alone is a good enough reason. Even if you do not offer full e-commerce or a live inventory, creating an app to facilitate remote orders for local customer delivery and pickup would be fantastic.

Online shopping is here to stay. Your IGC should prepare to serve the next generation of tech-savvy customers.

Moving forward, personal shopping is not going to just be smart, it is also probably going to be mandatory and part of our new normal. Do not assume that after all “this has passed,” you’ll be able to ditch digital and remote orders and go back to your standard form of business operations altogether. You must look to the future and accept that new generations of customers have now been trained to maintain more social distance and do more shopping remotely. It is unlikely people are going to drop these new habits quickly or completely.

Yes, many customers will want to get back out into the world at some point and do in-person shopping. In many ways, we’ve created a transactional society in America — one in which shopping constitutes socializing and community participation for many. But this pandemic is not only going to transform our shopping habits but potentially, our priorities and how we view consumerism and time spent with family. More importantly, many of our customers have spent their mandatory time at home getting back in touch with — or discovering a new enthusiasm for — gardening and spending time outdoors. Let us make sure our customers do not lose that available gardening time by forcing them to go back to in-person shopping only.

When customers can spend less time driving around to multiple garden centers to find plants and garden supplies, they can spend more time on actual garden activities and with their houseplants. This makes for both a more invested and successful gardener who is likely to spend more with you. That’s exactly the kind of customer you need to cultivate — even if it is from a socially acceptable distance.

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.