Michelle Simakis

A few years ago, Heinen’s Fine Foods, a grocery store chain that has its roots in Northeast Ohio, renovated an old bank in Cleveland’s downtown with a historic rotunda and transformed it into a gorgeous space to hang out.

They sell quick bites like meat and cheese boards, soft pretzels and hummus, offer a selection of local craft beers at about $2 less than you’d get at a bar, and installed self-serve wine taps. You can also pick up one of the many prepared food options and enjoy it in-store. Combine that with regular tastings and other events, and it’s a hit. They recently opened another in-store café that features an outdoor patio and a guacamole bar, too.

I thought about Heinen’s when listening to a story on NPR recently about the fact that people are gathering for happy hours and meals at grocery stores — dubbed groceraunts — across the country. Maybe they’re tired of the sticky floors, fluorescent lighting and scream talking to be heard by friends at the bar, or waiting for tables at restaurants. Or perhaps they’re attracted by the prices and the convenient location. But people of all ages are shopping, sipping and dining at their local markets.

Grocery stores were struggling with online shopping and meal subscription services like Blue Apron and HelloFresh. They were also losing business to smaller markets. IGCs can relate — they are competing with the convenience that online merchants, grocery stores, big box retailers and even pharmacies offer, as they also stock plants. The quality of the fall mums and hanging baskets may not be as good, but consumers are not hearing that argument. People weren’t listening to grocery stores, either, when they said in-store shopping offered better quality, choice and prices. So, they offered an experience, and those that do it well are succeeding.

IGCs are doing the same, and some have been for years. The urgency seems greater now, though, and companies are getting even more creative. “Experiences are central to modern retailing,” says Ron Vanderhoff, vice president and general manager of Roger’s Gardens. At this year’s IGC Show in Chicago, consultant John Stanley urged attendees to give people spaces and reasons to “gather” at their stores.

Many garden centers featured in our annual Top 100 Independent Garden Centers issue are offering everything from ice cream shops and farm-to-table restaurants to pottery classes and mini golf courses to bring customers in. It’s helping diversify their business and boost profits, and customers are enjoying the lush, verdant spaces. They’re also finding that sometimes, people are rediscovering how wonderful their plants and retail nurseries are, too. They just needed a reason and a reminder.

Michelle Simakis