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Each year when I’m asked to weigh in on the state of the garden center industry for this special issue, I pause for a moment and consider how to best deliver opinions that are useful. While it’s tempting to want to cheerlead, regardless of realities, that’s not really my style. So, here it is: modernize is the name of the game right now. If you aren’t quickly adapting, you’re going to get left behind. That said, there are good opportunities for the taking if you’re ready to get outside of your comfort zone.

As in any industry, there are always stories of businesses opening — and closing. There always seem to be more stories of garden center closings than openings. But is that such a bad thing? At least, metaphorically. I know, that might sound a bit sacrilegious, given this is Garden Center magazine. The reality is gardening changes. How people garden, who gardens, where they garden, and what they garden with — it always changes. And that’s OK. But most conventional garden centers haven’t kept pace with the evolving retail industry and consumer trends — not to mention customer service expectations. What happened?

Frankly, I feel we’ve left huge gaps in the marketplace, huge gaps that have left existing and potential customers feeling unfulfilled in our relationship. Or, leaving them unaware of our existence altogether. These gaps have also provided outsiders great opportunity. Be it online ordering and fulfillment or creating a more modern updated shopping experience for brick and mortar visitors. Dated branding, dated facilities, dated technology, and dated product selections haven’t helped IGCs.

There are, of course, significant logistical challenges facing us as an industry — namely serious staffing difficulties and labor costs, which are an ongoing struggle for most garden centers.

Based on the State of the Industry survey results in this issue, you can also see that a reduced customer base is a significant concern for many of you. Not as many of you see marketing and advertising as the top challenge, but I’d say the two are intrinsically intertwined. You can’t continually replenish your customer base without solid ongoing marketing efforts. Just as important is the perception you create — with your marketing — of the experience you’re going to offer someone when they visit you in person. Exactly what are you going to deliver once you get them through your doors?

I feel like a broken record, but the last garden center I recently visited was yet again a huge let down for me in terms of my visitor experience and customer service. So much missed opportunity.

Who has moved in to capture this market share, beyond the conventional mass merchants and Amazon? It’s specialty online plant ordering outfits as well as niche boutique plant shops that cater to younger houseplant-obsessed customers in urban locations. They aren’t only taking market share, they’re starting to capture most of the market voice. This new online and brick and mortar plant retailer model has been sprouting right under our noses for the past few years. Modern takes on hardware stores/plant shops are also sprouting up. Old-school hydroponics stores are grabbing for your mainstream gardening market share, and most of them already have sophisticated ordering capabilities. The closet garden is coming out of the closet.

Now, these real challenges aside, there is some low hanging fruit you can grab if you’re fast. If you’re marketing looks dated, updating your logo and other visual marketing tools can quickly put a new shine on your perception of experience. Fix your website, or for heaven’s sake, spend the money to build a new one. Post-recession, the economy has been steadily growing, and people want to buy plants. Most of you have probably seen your houseplant category sales rise significantly over the past year, as results of the State of the Industry also show. Houseplants and indoor gardening trends are big and only getting bigger. Plus, plant quality is looking darn good these days. Growers are pushing hard to deliver beautiful, high-quality plants that you can probably charge more for to boost your margins. These are the easy tasks.

So, what’s new? Plant subscription clubs are IN, and it’s hip to be a plant collector. As I was writing this column, I received the new Mountain Crest Gardens Succulent of the Month Club announcement — $20 a month with free shipping for four assorted succulents or cactus, no repeats, and you can cancel anytime. (Editor’s Note: You can read about The Sill’s membership and monthly subscription programs in Digital Focus.) Boy howdy, I think I’m going to sign up. Forecasted recurring income is the name of the game folks. Where are your monthly plant club subscriptions?

Growers are pushing hard to deliver beautiful, high-quality [houseplants] that you can probably charge more for to boost your margins.

Growing food is still an inspiring force driving many gardeners. The urban farm and prairie are still enticing, but more of them want to do it indoors and in smaller spaces. That takes the right plants, gear, grow lights, and staff who knows what they are talking about. Outdoor gardens are getting smaller as many Boomer homeowners scale down and everyone else urbanizes; but that creates landscape renovation and replanting opportunities. Not to mention, opportunities for more do-it-for-me concierge services.

Amazon and Uber have trained us all to expect goods and services on demand and delivered. What are you doing as a retail garden center to give customers gardening on demand? Ultimately you must spend some quality time analyzing your specific market, find the holes and how to fill them, and determine what people really want from you as a garden center. How you do that will certainly look different based on your location and specific market demographics. Market differences and geography aside, customer expectations are modernizing across the board.

A garden center that is successful and profitable in 2019 and beyond might look a whole lot different than traditional IGCs today in terms of their physical size and appearance, what they sell, and how and where they sell it. Customers might not even call them garden centers anymore. That’s OK. My advice to anyone wanting to start a garden center or revitalize an existing one? Don’t be afraid to shake off the old model. Ultimately, you need to be who your customer needs you to be.

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