I was born into the independent garden center biz, and I have seen my share of the generational ebb and flow. In the past 10 years, a demographic shift, a Great Recession (which hit you differently depending on what part of the industry you’re in), and a seismic shift in how we garden (heirloom tomatoes, anyone?) have resulted in a complex business landscape.
Let the good times roll
The mid ’90s to the Great Recession was a peak time for Baby Boomer shoppers. Women in their 50s flooded our stores and, as long as we knew how to sell to them, we prospered.
This was the era when annuals were king, giftware sections and cafes became common in mid to large garden centers and owners looked to bigger and more complex Christmas products to diversify their sales year.
Only the innovative few had shifted seriously to digital marketing. Many of us had websites. A few of us were even experimenting with this strange new website called Facebook. But mass media ruled. I’d like to say that I was in the pioneering vanguard, but I was still lining up half page ads in the local paper when other garden center owners were taking a chance on social media.
Our ad budgets were bloated with newspapers, radio and even TV ads. We sent out mailers and flyers, door hangers and fridge magnets. Boomers read the paper, so we assumed it was all working.
Recessions hit every industry differently. During the Great Recession, people canceled their vacations and stayed home instead. “Staycationing” became a huge opportunity for garden centers. At my garden center, 2009 was a record revenue year, not beaten until 2015.
As unemployment surged and money became tight, people began to examine how financially dependent they were on things like fresh produce. Consumers realized that, if worse came to worse, they didn’t have the skills needed to survive without conveniences like grocery stores. So the grow-your-own movement, which began in earnest after 9/11, got fresh fuel.
Where you were, and what kind of garden center you had determined how much you suffered. Big ticket items and high-end landscaping were hit the hardest.
Big advertising budgets turned from wings to anchors. Tighter bottom lines forced innovation, and savvy garden centers started putting their marketing money toward talent like designers, writers, and strategists, rather than media buys.
At the same time, the term “Millennial” began circulating through the air. It was a curious term for teens and 20-somethings. We didn’t really take it seriously.
Recovery and Millennial angst
The past five years have been good to our industry. Canada has had an average annual growth rate of 3.7 percent, according to market research conducted by IBISWorld, and despite massive competition from all sides, garden centers are at the forefront of success when it comes to independents.
But our traditional base is eroding. Baby Boomer women are now mostly in their 60s and older, and are downsizing and buying less. The Xers don’t seem as interested in gardening as their parents were and are a much smaller group.
Millennials (definitions vary, but generally people born between 1980 and 2000) are a massive generation, surpassing Baby Boomers in numbers, with more idealism and less money than ever before. Two generations removed from the customer we’ve spent 30 years adapting to, the rules are changing dramatically.
If you haven’t switched most of your marketing spend to digital, you’re scrambling. A strange world of pay-per-click, SEO, content, social engagement and organic reach awaits you. The learning curve is vertical, but climb it we must.
And here we are. Every year, we’re adapting to a new pace of change, a pace that is the cost of doing business with an increasingly younger customer.
What will our garden centers look like in 5 and 10 years? Those who are successful will be centers of inspiration and education rather than focusing on rows of plants on the bench.
Our in-store experience will match our online experience. Right now, many of us have refined our online presence to adjust to the demographic shift, but the in-store experience takes longer to change. Old habits of display, traffic flow, product selection die hard.
Embracing Millennials isn’t about putting big interactive screens all over your Garden Center. It’s about crafting on in-store and online experience that empowers them to take a chance on growing. How you do that will be different for every garden center, because all of you have a separate business model, brand promise and customer mix.
The thing I know for sure is that, if you want to grow and thrive, you must adapt.