IGCs that faced the challenges of 2020 reported plenty of new customers. The next challenge is figuring out how to keep them.

Like many IGCs, Rosedale Nurseries (No. 69 on Garden Center’s 2019 Top 100 list) noticed an influx of new customers after reopening May 1 after a month of closure. Pat Colwell, co-manager of the New York-based IGC, says many of the new customers were purchasing seeds, herbs and vegetables. “Many of the customers were beginning to plant their first vegetable gardens,” she says.

Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop, a combination IGC and café near St. Louis, Missouri, also noted an increase in customers during the pandemic. Marketing director Laura Caldie says edibles, especially herbs, have been booming.

This presents an opportunity for the enterprising IGC. These gardening newbies are bored quarantiners. What can be done to turn their 2020 foray into the garden into a lifelong hobby?

Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center (No. 51 on our 2019 Top 100 list) is catering to the new Victory Garden crowd by producing more educational videos for its social media channels and newsletters. The aim is to help new gardeners understand what’s happening in their garden. Videos cover topics like how to tell when your potatoes are ready, when to harvest your broccoli and proper timing for fall crops like onions.

Marcy Cronin, marketing director for the Illinois IGC, says Countryside wants to meet these new gardeners where they are.

“If people have a question, we have lots of areas for them to find out the answer,” Cronin says. “Whether they come in the store or look at us online through the website or the social networks or through email, we’re just trying to keep them abreast of what they should be looking for now. Because if you haven’t gardened before, you just don’t know what to do next.”

The Victory Garden phenomenon isn’t news to LaManda Joy. Before becoming president of City Grange, a Chicago-based garden center that was established in 2019, she founded and ran The Peterson Garden Project, a nonprofit that taught people to grow their own food.

Even during a pandemic, the fast-growing IGC more than doubled its customer base. Joy says on a monthly basis, the IGC’s customer mix is approximately 70% new and 30% returning. City Grange opened a second store during the pandemic, complete with a socially-distant ribbon-cutting.

“We know from statements from grateful customers that many were indeed first-time gardeners in addition to first-time customers,” Joy says.

Photos courtesy of Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop
Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop sold themed gift boxes online during the pandemic. Now, they’ve begun a plant subscription box program.

EDUCATIONAL ENDEAVORS

Joy says the City Grange operation, which is designed to be scalable in Chicago and beyond, aims to create a garden center that is experiential, educational and empowering.

“Education is a real pillar of what we do,” she says.

“We believe the world would be a better place with more gardeners in it and the best way to create a lifelong gardener is to help them succeed via education. This has always been our mission, but this year people needed education even more.”

Before COVID-19, City Grange classes were, like many events, designed to get customers into the store. But when the pandemic hit, the IGC converted to online-only and attendance was boosted 60% over 2019’s in-person classes. To meet demand, Joy and her team provided more classes on a broader range of topics. City Grange had 29 classes just between January to August 2020 vs. 32 in the full 12 months of 2019.

Topics range from Gardening 101: Frequently Asked Questions to Garden Cocktails: Garnishes from the Garden, a how-to session on how to mix drinks using ingredients from your own plant selection.

In addition, City Grange offers “Ask the Expert” Garden Consultations with in-house experts on seven different topics.

These half-hour Zoom calls cost $50 and if the customer decides to purchase products, they get a $25 credit to use at City Grange.

Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop is tackling the education and retention challenge a different way. The IGC developed a plant subscription model that targets new gardeners. Subscription deliveries are ubiquitous these days, with everything from food to razors arriving on doorsteps, clad in cardboard. “The Beginner Box” is Maypop’s first planned box, launching in September 2020. Each month’s box will include a specially selected houseplant, care card and plant accessory.

“We thought The Beginner Box would be an awesome way for people that are interested in gardening, to ease into it and get a cute accessory with the plant,” Caldie says. “Then we would pick the easiest house plants and still some fun ones too. We figured if it’s working for all these other industries, why not give it a shot?”

Unlike many subscription models, these boxes are only available for in-store pick up and will not be shipped or delivered. Caldie says subscribers can expect a professionally curated selection of beautiful, easy-care plants.

Subscription payments are automated monthly, and can be cancelled at any time. Caldie says they expect subscribers to come and go, with new customers signing up as others drop off. Subscribers can even ask for special accommodations, such as lower lighting or pet-safe options. Plant selection will never repeat and accessories will typically be pottery, a watering tool, or plant-related decor.

The care cards capitalize on the trust customers have in Maypop’s staff knowledg and are crucial to give new gardeners the confidence to become plant parents.

“It really sets them up for success,” Caldie says.

The subscription box is $27 per month and can be bought for others as a gift, or as a onetime payment in lieu of a subscription. This option works for those trepidatious new gardeners testing the waters before committing to more.

City Grange has doubled its customer base since the hit of COVID-19, with 70% of customers being newbies and 30% being return customers.
CITY GRANGE PHOTOS COURTESY OF CITY GRANGE

FOLLOWING UP

At Rosedale Nurseries, employees are taught that by concentrating on providing good service along with a great selection of plant material, you create a shopping experience customers will want to repeat.

“We hire employees with more horticultural knowledge than most nurseries, so that we can provide our customers with more information when they interact with our sales staff,” Colwell says.

Rosedale also arms its employees with business cards so that the customers can try to stay in contact with them.

At Countryside, cashiers are trained to get the email address of any new customers. Cronin says the customers are more willing to give out that information when there is an e-newsletter printed out right there at the register. During the interaction, the cashiers can refer to its contents like gardening tips, store specials and more.

“And there’s usually some kind of cute story to get them engaged,” Cronin says. “It’s not a hard-sell thing; we don’t bombard you.” The cashiers make sure to say the e-newsletter hits inboxes every other Tuesday because email fatigue is a real problem. The newsletter itself can get wordy, Cronin admits, because she tries to cover something from each section of the garden center’s business — flower shop, nursery, greenhouse, landscape department. If it’s too much to read, gardeners can opt to watch a video instead.

“You’ve got to incorporate everything,” she says. “There’s so many eyeballs out there and you don’t know what they’re looking for.”

City Grange also takes an omni-channel approach to following up with its customers. Different types of customers like to receive information in different ways, Joy says. In addition to social media, which grew phenomenally in 2020 (4,000+ new organic Instagram followers since March), City Grange also uses traditional mailers, radio advertising and promotion via local partners such as Chambers of Commerce, garden clubs and other neighborhood specific groups.

The Chicago IGC uses a full digital ecosystem to follow up with customers, including a CRM, marketing automation and more.

“Experienced gardeners come to our website and find info they need, but new gardeners don’t yet know what they don’t know,” Joy says. “So we send out various notifications about blog posts, classes, etc.”

Before shifting to an online-only format, City Grange’s events were a good way to get customers in the store.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CITY GRANGE