It’s a fundamental concept: people won’t come to your business if they don’t know your brand or what you can do for them. Marketing is a crucial part of any successful business venture, especially for independent garden retailers.

Many businesses consider marketing a costly and complicated proposition, but marketing consultant Jennifer Kerns works with companies hoping to raise their marketing profile without breaking the bank. Kerns delivered a talk during Cultivate’17 about cost-effective methods for marketing on a limited budget, and spoke with Garden Center magazine to extrapolate on these ideas.

Jennifer Kerns

GC: For our readers who didn’t attend Cultivate’17, could you give a quick gist of what you discussed during your talk?
JK: At Cultivate, I wanted to convey to small business owners that they could take away some great lessons and ideas from what major brands are currently doing for their marketing strategies.

You might be a small business with limited resources, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do marketing like the major retailers out there. You can learn a lot from Costco, Nordstrom, Maytag and other major retailers, even with a small staff and limited marketing budget. I covered tips and tricks to improve sales without a huge investment.

GC: Even when a business has difficulty finding room in its budget for a marketing campaign, why do you think it’s important to still have a coherent, modern strategy?
JK: It is so important to have a coherent, modern marketing strategy as you need to be continually monitoring your industry and your target audience. With the development of online shopping and at-home delivery services, consumers have more options than ever before. It is easy to not be brand loyal anymore, as there are so many options for what they need available with just a click of the button. You need to stay in the forefront of your target audience’s minds and continually find ways for them to pay attention to your company.

And then there is the educational element that comes along with the green industry. New generations want to get involved with plants, but they are afraid of failure. It’s up to you to educate them and give them the confidence to try. If you just sit back and wait for people to come to your business without engaging them, you will lose them to your competitors.

GC: Are there low-cost marketing tools and resources available to businesses that they may not be aware of?
JK: Of course, I always mention social media as a very cost-effective tool to help your business gain more recognition. It costs nothing to set up a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or LinkedIn account. You can also request control of your Google business location page and post updates there for free. The key to any of these is to pay attention to it. You can’t just create a Facebook page and expect people to automatically come. You must engage in social media by always posting relevant news, responding to comments and injecting fun into it. The best news is that the green industry is so visually vibrant, so there is always something that can be posted and promoted.

Many will say that they don’t have time for social media, but your social media accounts can be managed by multiple people, so you can share the load. Ask your employees to help with developing fun posts. I’m sure a lot of you hire Millennials, and they are perfect helpers when it comes to social media. Give them the task of coming up with fun ways to showcase your business on social media. They will be excited to help as well as become a more engaged employee for you.

Get your customers to help with your social media, too! Create photo opportunities at your business and customers will post for you. That’s an effortless way to get a free marketing boost on social media. You can also run photo contests to get people to tag you in more posts. Get creative and have fun with it!

Advertising on social media is also very affordable and easy to do. Gone are the days of long-lead times and high design costs for newspaper and magazine ads, as you can easily create your own ad on Facebook or Instagram. You can choose your target audience, budget, timeframe and more, all within a few minutes. Then it’s easy to monitor to see how your ad campaign is performing every day. If it’s not giving you the results you want, just stop it. If you like the results, it’s easy to extend it.

Another low cost option: ask your suppliers! Many of your plant and product suppliers have marketing tools to help you sell. If you sell more, then they sell more, so of course they want to help. Reach out to your vendors and ask what they can do for you.

GC: Garden centers have specific strengths that other retailers may not. Do you have any tips particularly for specialty/horticulture retailers like independent garden centers?

JK: 1. Signage. Ever notice the elaborate displays and signage in grocery stores? Those are there to grab your attention and help sell more of that product. Garden center retailers need to be thinking in the same frame of mind.

Make sure your signage is helping you sell. About 68 percent of consumers believe that a business’ signage reflects the quality of its products or services. Think of your in-store signage as your silent salespeople. Although it can’t verbally interact with your customers, it can communicate messages and make a sale as well as your employees. We all know you are busy during the spring rush and your employees might not be able to help everyone, so let your signage sell for you!

Also read: "Good signage is not optional," - http://bit.ly/2eIh4IZ

2. Superior Customer Service. Providing a superior shopping experience makes all the difference in making a customer return and be your brand advocate. The big box stores can’t provide the customer care and knowledge you can, so use it to your advantage.

Make your shopping experience fun and relaxing. Messy stores take away from the fun. I went to a garden store this past spring to shop and there were plants shoved in every nook and cranny. Plant racks were blocking tables so you couldn’t see all your options and the aisles were narrow, making it hard to navigate around other people with a cart. You want your in-store experience to be welcoming and inspiring; not chaotic and overwhelming.

3. Incorporate Samples. Have you ever shopped at Costco? I urge you to check it out and see how successful they are with their free samples carts stationed around the store. According to Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, “Reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct. If somebody does something for you, you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them.” Sales of products jump 300 to 600 percent when samples are offered. So how can you do samples in a garden center? Show off fun recipes that you can make with fresh garden ingredients. Make a flavored water refreshment stand and highlight the ingredients used, create a fun salsa recipe and have an end-cap display showcasing the plants customers need to do it at home. When you show people how easy it can be, they will get inspired and try new things. Ask your suppliers for samples. Again, if you can get your customers to buy more, then they sell more too, so they want to help in any way they can.

GC: Any final thoughts on marketing with a limited budget or anything else you’d like to mention?
JK: Never grow complacent in your branding and marketing. Take time at the end of each busy season to analyze how your marketing programs helped your customers, as well as discuss fresh solutions for them. Continually look for ways to improve and offer your customers not only the best plants, but the best shopping experience. Offer to go the extra mile for your customers. It’s worth it.