Matt Stueck

This year brought a lot of new consumers and challenges to the retail garden center market. Matt Stueck, vice president and second-generation owner of Suburban Lawn & Garden, Inc., says many of them were new gardeners looking for a quarantine activity. Some were forced to a garden center because their local big box was out of product.

“It was a great opportunity to meet new customers, many of whom were getting into gardening for the first time,” he says.

Located in the greater Kansas City area, Suburban has three retail/wholesale garden centers, two production nurseries and a full-service lawn maintenance division. The company has been running an Epicor Eagle-based system since 2008.

Epicor’s iNet online catalog and simple purchase tools has been extremely helpful during the chaos of 2020. Inventory, pricing, orders, and other pertinent information is automatically synchronized between iNet and the Epicor Eagle retail business management solution and the retailers’ website.

The increase in new customers was tough to balance, when Suburban had to close one of its three locations during the pandemic due to difficulty finding employees that were willing to work. Suburban also reduced its marketing spend because it didn’t feel appropriate to encourage customers to visit their garden center when they might have to make them wait outside in the parking lot because the store had hit capacity. Instead, the business pivoted to marketing online, specifically with Google ads.

“With iNet and having an online catalog with Epicor, people were finding our site. Without knowing the particulars of how Google does their algorithms, they generate front page results for sites that local customers are visiting. And because we have our catalog and our products online and show an available inventory, if people are looking for an item that we carry, (Google is) no longer funneling everybody to Walmart or the big chains. That’s been a real benefit.”

Suburban will continue to focus marketing dollars and messaging on a strong local presence through Google in 2021.

“Given that we’ll probably have to limit the number of the people to the store, our messaging and our money needs to be spent on guiding people who search for particular products that we actually carry to our iNet site,” he says. “90% of all retail transactions that take place in brick and mortar locations start with a Google search.”

Suburban’s 2020 online sales grew 6.5 times over 2019. This is hugely profitable for Suburban because they weren’t spending 6.5 times the labor costs to run the site. In fact, the IGC’s in-store hours were reduced because of the pandemic and the related lack of labor. However, the online catalog and iNet site were under no such restrictions. The vast majority of Suburban’s online purchases took place between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., Stueck says.

“You’ve essentially extended your hours without extending your hours,” he says.

The iNet store and the IGC’s website are designed to be seamless. The search function works particularly well, Stueck says. It helps customers find any like items, which helps them find that item their neighbor recommended without jumping through too many hoops.

“It saves so many calls on the phone from the sales staff, which keeps them on the floor with the customers in the store,” he says.

The big question for IGCs now is how to keep these new customers. Stueck is planning to engage with messaging that aims to leverage Suburban’s rewards program to help new gardeners build on their initial success.