Garden center advice
Find out how
both large and small retailers grow their nursery sales.
Cynthia L. McGowan
With spring just
around the corner, many retailers are setting up nurseries for
their garden-loving customers. To find out how retailers both
large and small handle garden sales, we talked to floral
executives from Price Chopper, with more than 100 stores
in the Northeast, and the Lin’s Marketplace in St.
George, Utah. We also asked a floral consultant to offer tips on
growing the garden business. Read on to get ideas from these
floral professionals on making the most of your garden center
With so many stores
to supply, Price Chopper begins its spring planning as early as
mid-August. “When you have a major multitruckload program like
we do, you work with your growers before they plant,” says
Jon Strom, vice president, floral and lifestyle
merchandising at Price Chopper. Some of the vendors grow solely
for Price Chopper, and they need to know early what to plant.
At Lin’s Marketplace, Sandi Probst,
manager and events coordinator, places orders for the garden
center about a month before products arrive, but she keeps in
close contact with her growers and has informal talks with them
months in advance. “They know from year to year the volume I
carry,” so they know what to plan for.
determining what to sell
Both companies carry
all the products homeowners want, including annuals, perennials,
vegetables and hanging baskets,
but climate is a factor in
deciding what varieties to sell. “We won’t sell anything that’s
not hardy in the areas
our stores are located in,” Mr. Strom
says. Price Chopper has stores in four climate zones, so
Missy Gallagher, the company’s junior category manager for
the outdoor product line, makes sure to order products that will
thrive in each zone.
While Price Chopper orders for the cooler New England
weather, Ms. Probst copes with a desert climate. She isn’t a
native to the area, so when she started her store’s garden
center 10 years ago, she talked with growers and locals to learn
what would thrive in the heat. “It took me a couple of years to
really figure out what was the best to carry,” she describes.
The companies talk to their growers and review past years’
sales trends when ordering for the garden centers. Both saw
growth in sales of vegetables last year, most likely due to the
economy, and expect those sales to remain strong. In addition,
Ms. Gallagher describes, “We saw incredible growth in the seeds
section. We attributed that to the economic times and people
growing a lot more at home.” Organics also are on the rise at
Price Chopper uses its volume buying to price its products
“very competitively,” Mr. Strom confides. It also has “hot
values” every week to entice value-conscious shoppers to the
Ms. Probst’s strategy is to offer the same types of
products in several price points. “I carry plants from a 4-inch
single in a pot to jumbo six-packs, and then after that they
jump to the gallon size,” she elaborates.
setting up the garden
determines when the garden centers are set up. Ms. Probst starts
hers in mid-February, usually right after Valentine’s Day, and
takes it down after Memorial Day, before it gets too hot for the
products to be outside. Price Chopper, with its colder winters,
starts in March and replaces garden merchandise with fall
products in August.
Careful planning and organization make setup quick and
easy. Ms. Probst runs a one-woman operation, and for efficiency,
she plans exactly where everything is going before it arrives.
In February, the growers’ trucks pull up to an empty patio at
the front of the store, unload shelving and products, and within
an hour, the garden center is ready for customers. Ms. Probst
makes sure to display products by variety; otherwise, she points
out, the garden center will look unorganized and unappealing to
At Price Chopper, Ms. Gallagher sets up a prototype garden
center display at one of the stores and sends photos of it to
the other floral departments to use as a guide for building
their own displays. Stores can then expand on the guide,
depending on how much space they can devote to the garden center
and their employees’ expertise in the area. Most Price Choppers
have a large section in front of the stores for the garden
centers, and the floral and store managers work together to get
the nurseries ready for customers. The stores use their own
outdoor shelving, which is stored during the winter months.
At both companies, products arrive in stages according to
hardiness. At Price Chopper, for example, the indoor floral
departments get customers thinking about spring in January with
seeds, followed by pansies, soil and hard goods outside in
March. The rest of the product “comes out in waves after that,”
Ms. Gallagher describes.
10 ways to build your
One of the bright spots last year in the floral business
was gardening, notes
Sandy Hering, owner of
Marketing Innovations and a consultant for the
horticulture industry. Ms. Hering, who oversaw Stop &
Shop’s garden business when she served as director of
floral merchandising, offers these tips for businesses
considering starting outdoor nurseries or who want to
grow their garden sales.
Stores make a mistake when they add garden programs
without having the labor hours to tend to them, Ms.
Hering cautions. These highly perishable products
require care, and that should be taken into
consideration before increasing or adding programs.
She does suggest ways to minimize the time involved;
a simple sidewalk display, for example, may require
just an hour a day of watering and condensing the
products. Larger displays, however, will need staff
to care for them. Seek candidates who already have
an interest in gardening. Your customers will want
to talk to associates who can help them make the
“Whether you have a small sidewalk display or an
expanded, large display in the parking lot, garden
merchandise needs to be cared for, and the staff
needs to understand how to do that,” Ms. Hering
points out. Training in care and handling should
come before the merchandise arrives. She also
suggests creating a pocket-size brochure that
associates can carry for easy reference. It would
have information on that year’s merchandise,
including important characteristics, care and
pronunciation—the most important things customers
want to know.
If you’re just getting into the garden business and
aren’t sure of what growers to use, turn to area
grower organizations and your state extension
program. Visit growers to get a feel for their
TAP INTO GROWERS' EXPERTISE
Before ordering, talk to your growers, and get their
advice on the best products for your area and
customers. They’ll know the hot varieties and what
gardeners want. “They’re just a tremendous
resource,” Ms. Hering reminds.
GET YOUR TIMING RIGHT
The timing of your orders depends on the size of
your operation. Large, multistate retailers may need
to develop their plans nine months ahead; smaller
stores may need to give growers just a few months of
lead time. Work with your growers to determine the
ANTICIPATE PEAK TIMES
“The person doing the ordering has to have the
knowledge of how to order and how to anticipate the
business that’s going to come during the peak
times,” such as weekends, Ms. Hering cautions.
Growers will be a great resource for this
information, and companies also can study their
demographics, weather and shopping patterns to
determine when and how much to order. “It’s not
forgiving merchandise,” she reminds. “It really
needs to turn.”
HAVE A PLAN
Create a merchandising plan before products arrive,
making setup quick and easy. Merchandise should go
directly from the trucks to its designated shelving,
eliminating the need to handle it again.
Every display should have a sign with price points.
“I have seen so many displays that are beautifully
blocked, the merchandising is fresh ... and you walk
on by and don’t even consider purchasing anything
because there isn’t one price on anything,” Ms.
Weather is one of the biggest variables when running
an outdoor nursery. If a storm arises unexpectedly
and no one is available to protect the merchandise,
it likely will be ruined. Garden employees must make
the needs of their products a priority.
CONSIDER A GREENHOUSE
A greenhouse brings extra considerations—storage and
setup logistics, staffing, and electricity and water
needs—but Ms. Hering says it can pay off with
increased sales. She cites an example from her Stop
& Shop days, when a store reaped 10 times the garden
sales one year after putting up a greenhouse rather
than a sidewalk display. A greenhouse tells
customers, “This store really is in the garden
business. They really care about it.”
It can be a challenge
for floral departments to staff both the indoor shop and the
outdoor garden center, but Mr. Strom advises it can be done. An
employee may handle a wedding in the morning and find herself
outside watering plants in the afternoon, so flexibility is
important. Price Chopper’s garden departments also earn the
sales to justify the labor they require, he reports.
Ms. Probst is a testament to the flexibility that garden
center work requires. Because she runs both the indoor and
outdoor departments herself, she has had to work out a routine
that manages to meet the needs of all her customers. She waters
the nursery stock as soon as she arrives at the store in the
morning, checks her supply and does any necessary reordering.
After that, she takes care of the indoor floral department while
going out to the nursery throughout the day. A sign in the
garden center advises customers to go to the floral department
(just inside the entrance) if they have any questions. All
products have price signage so customers won’t need to ask.
Whether formal or
informal, training is important to making sure both companies
give customers the service they need in the garden center. Price
Chopper has meetings and conference calls about the spring
products, its floral product specialists go to each store for
hands-on training, vendors offer advice and Ms. Gallagher
produces a manual on merchandising and care for the garden
In addition, some stores have floral managers who are
master gardeners, and they share their knowledge with the other
managers. “I certainly will be picking their brains for
information when my merchandising lawn and garden book is put
together,” Ms. Gallagher remarks.
Ms. Probst, whose parents owned a garden center in Washington state,
has much experience with nursery products but takes advantage of
opportunities to expand her knowledge. She attends free classes
that retail garden centers offer, talks to farmers who visit her
store and gets her growers’ advice. When she travels, she visits
greenhouses to get ideas on display and new products to sell.
She’s also a believer in going to the Internet for help. If a
customer has a question, she advises, “and if you don’t know the
answer, get on there and Google.”
Having the garden
centers at the front of the stores at both companies is a key
element to getting customers’ sales, but marketing also is
important. In addition to its weekly ads, Price Chopper teams up
with the general merchandise and produce departments for
promotions such as farmers markets and truckload sales.
Ms. Probst’s growers’ have radio ads announcing that their
products can be found at Lin’s Marketplace, and she also
distributes fliers at the local chamber of commerce. In
addition, she is in the second year of a partnership with a
local high school’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) program. The
youngsters grow and display their garden crops in the nursery,
and the profits finance FFA events. Signage indicates Lin’s
support, earning it community good will. This year, the program
will have the backing of “Utah’s Own,” a program that promotes
Utah-grown products, and Lin’s will receive a free banner to
show its local ties.
The merchandising, training and promotions are
paying off for both companies. Ms. Probst reports that garden
center sales contribute 75 percent to 80 percent of her floral
business in the spring. Mr. Strom, although declining to reveal
sales figures, did offer, “It is a substantial business.”
Reach Editor in Chief
Cynthia L. McGowan at
email@example.com or (800) 355-8086.