Manage customer expectations by marketing popular items when you have them. When you run out of in-demand inventory, take control early and highlight the benefits of similar products so customers leave satisfied.
PHOTO © LEKSANN | ADOBE STOCK

Feeling uncertain about how the IGC business is going to fare over the coming months? Not sure how best to plan for fall sales and beyond? You are not alone. The ups and downs of the pandemic pressure on the industry have left many with mixed feelings about how to meet consumer demand and expectations, weather, potential plant shortages and hang on to the recent upswing in gardening interest. While many of us have taken hard hits to our businesses over the last year, we have also seen some new highs with consumer interest and fresh opportunities for innovation and growth. I would say, latch on to the latter, relax a bit and let it grow!

Put people first

First, let’s talk about infrastructure. There is no more important infrastructure to a garden center business than its people. Customer service through the pandemic, especially this spring, has been tough on IGC employees. While it is wonderful that many garden centers have seen unprecedented growth over the past year, the increased demand and necessary safety protocols have left many of your customer service staff worn thin. If you expect to carry positive momentum into the fall and 2022, then a staff health assessment is probably in order. To best plan for a great fall season, plan time to sit down with your staff and review how new protocols are working — or not working — how they are feeling, and what they need personally to feel refreshed and energized for fall.

I do not know about you, but I worked double-time through the entire pandemic. It was not a relaxing time for me in any way shape or form, nor did I get the opportunity to “step back and take stock” through 2020. It is only now that I can downshift and reassess my business priorities and strategies moving into the new year. In other words, maybe relax a little? I suspect many of you are in the same boat. As owners, it is just as important to assess how we are doing, mentally and emotionally through this tough time, so that we can be good leaders and provide the support our employees need. If you have not invested any time in some self-care lately, I would highly recommend doing so. Recharging your batteries for fall 2021 and spring 2022 preparations is crucial to your success.

PHOTO © MARIO | ADOBE STOCK
Houseplant care workshops are a good way to educate new plant parents while selling extra pottery and plant care tools.
PHOTO © SEVENTYFOUR | ADOBE STOCK

Grow strategically

In terms of customer enthusiasm and sales potential, I would say the sky’s the limit right now. Problem is, plant and product supply issues may limit your sales potential through this year and into the next; as they are limiting many IGCs right now. Planning for fall this year may look much different than it has in the past. You may not be able to secure the types or quantities of plants you would normally book, or at least not at the levels you will need to meet increased consumer demand.

So, what can you do? You can be more strategic about marketing what you can and will have and controlling your messaging; all with the goal of managing customer expectations. Native species as alternatives to commodity cultivars in low supply, habitat-friendly perennials and waterwise plants are prime for a push. When you look at gardening trends for 2021, it is easy to see that growing edibles and indoor plants are top of the list for many of our new gardening customers. If you can go deeper in your bookings for these plants and associated products, you will have an easy marketing target to hit for fall and spring 2022.

Tiny is big in 2021. By tiny I mean gardening in smaller spaces and with smaller plants. Balcony and patio gardening for those without yards, and smaller-scale houseplants, vegetables and herbs for the indoor garden. Stuck at home, many homeowners — even those with itty bitty outdoor spaces — are creating tiny gardens in which they can find some mental respite from day-to-day stress. Consider catering to outdoor and indoor container gardeners across your customer demographics. Tiny gardening is also a great way for beginners to get an easier start in the hobby with a better initial experience of success. As far as I am concerned, if you have one plant and one pot, you’re gardening.

If possible, consider expanding your educational opportunities and workshops — be they in-person or online. Cannot get quite enough vegetable transplants to meet demand? Charge for extra workshops on seed starting or veggie garden care to help sell a bevy of associated hardgoods. Cannot find as much indoor plant inventory as you need to hit sales goals? Charge for houseplant care workshops to help you sell lots of extra pottery and plant care tools. With many of us (hopefully) fully vaccinated come summer, it will be safer for us to get back to in-person events and gatherings this fall. You may still provide better distancing options for your classes or limit registrations, but I suspect gardeners are eager to re-join their community of fellow plant lovers and are ready to get their hands dirty.

Keep working on your digital infrastructure as well. Many IGCs were forced to make leaps and bounds in the realm of online sales and coordinating pick-ups and deliveries. Do not abandon these efforts. Rather, keep expanding them. If you still have not updated to a modern responsive website with some e-commerce capacity, do it ASAP.

All challenges aside, I would say the gardening industry has an amazing opportunity right now on which it can capitalize. That’s going to take clear minds. If you have not yet taken a step back to reassess, refresh and reprioritize for fall, now’s a good time to relax…and let it grow! That is probably good advice for our customers as well.