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If there is one thing you can count on in today’s marketplace, it’s change. Fast-paced change. Over the past decade, the way we all do business has changed both dramatically and dichotomously; with consumers shifting heavily to digital ordering and on-demand delivery from mass merchants. However, marketplace disrupters such as Uber have forced large corporations to confront redistribution of their core services and products to smaller companies and individual entrepreneurs. Digital platforms such as Etsy provide a direct-to-consumer retail shop for small businesses across the globe, while digital retail behemoths such as Amazon simultaneously continue to gobble up the brick-and-mortar marketplace share.

Consumers expect all businesses to be marketing experts and excel at representing themselves visually and contextually in relevant ways. They also expect to get all the information they need from you in the palm of their hands, 24/7. Consumers expect a lot that they didn’t previously expect from you.

What has not changed much over the past decade is how independent garden centers do business.

I was asked to share my thoughts in this month’s column on what IGCs need to do to stay ahead of this changing marketplace. From my perspective, it’s not really a matter of getting ahead right now; IGCs still need to figure out how to catch up to consumers before it’s too late.

What I have witnessed happening to IGCs since the Great Recession is a sort of desperate grab to assimilate a whole host of products and promotional tactics that have nothing to do with a garden center experience nor are relevant to our target customers. Anything, it seems, to drive traffic. Anyone who told you that selling bras as a core inventory item was going to save or turn around your garden center business never should have been given stage time in the first place, as far as I’m concerned. And yes, that was a thing.

The problem with trying to sell products and services that are completely and utterly out of the realm of relevancy at your garden center and your local market is that it usually ends up sucking away time, promotional energy, and your marketing budget without necessarily adding corresponding profits to your primary bottom line. Not to mention, it totally confuses your ideal target customers. Identify your core products and strengths as a garden center and invest in them. If those core products and strengths are no longer plants and gardening, then it may be time to pivot your business model. And that’s OK.

Independent garden centers are better off investing in services relevant to horticulture and that meet the needs of consumers, like custom container and florist services.
LAURA WATILO BLAKE

There has also been a distinct homogenization of appearance, merchandising and inventory among IGCs. I visit a lot of garden centers, and I admit the visits have really started to feel like déjà vu all over again. When it comes to product, large buying shows do make it easier to get inventory booked and buying duties off your plate. This also means many garden centers will be carrying the exact same product lines, which don’t look all that different from what consumers find at the mass merchants. I think social media has also enabled too many IGCs to copy products and ideas from one another. When it comes to buying and merchandising, it might be time to rely less on big hard good buying shows, industry merchandising workshops, and social media groups. Instead, hire experienced buyers and merchandisers with savvy who can give your business a personal identity and style.

The same goes for your plant selection. If you’re paying attention to consumer plant-related social media trends, then you know more people are looking for unusual plant varieties, funky edibles and indoor collectibles. Specialty is back in. But many consumers are forced to turn to online vendors, instead of IGCs, to fulfill their plant desires.

What has been successful for garden centers over the past 10 years is assimilating associated products and services that are relevant to their retail experience and their target customers. Products and services related to food gardening, community supported agriculture (CSAs), urban livestock, pollinators, conservation and the like. Services like garden design or container installation. Local products from local artisans that help support plant sales, such as pottery and the like. Cafes and coffee service, when well-managed, can also make the retail experience much more enjoyable. Social activities and “wine nights” that bring customers with similar interests together. It all comes down to you doing you … in a way that makes total sense to customers who want to spend money with a garden center.

There are a few silver linings and opportunities lurking in the marketplace right now. If you’re fast enough to recognize them and act, you can thrive. If you haven’t heard, paper books are back in (or still in). New, small book shops are opening because some tangible things just can’t be replaced by digital copies, and instant isn’t always better. This small-retail trend is a good sign for IGCs who capitalize on consumers’ desires for a hands-on experience. As people confront their smartphone addictions, they’ll also be turning back to nature, and the garden, for a helping hand.

In terms of categories, indoor gardening is an area almost completely untapped by most traditional IGCs. Given that most hydro-stores I’m familiar with do a terrible job at retail and customer service, there’s some serious main-stream market opportunity to be had with indoor growers. And I’m not just talking cannabis here; I’m talking about indoor food growers and plant collectors.

Once last piece of advice as you move into the next decade of business: When it comes to marketing, you have my permission to stop obsessing about Millennials. If IGCs spent a fraction of the time they spend trying to figure out Millennials and instead spent it on building on their core strengths as a garden center, paying attention to marketplace trends, innovating with new technology and becoming digitally accessible, the right target customers would come ready to spend — regardless of their age.

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. lesliehalleck.com