Call us at 1-800-355-8086

Garden center advice

Find out how both large and small retailers grow their nursery sales.
  by 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 business.

planning ahead
     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, floral 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.

     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 garden centers.

     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 centers
     Climate also 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 customers.

     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 garden business

       One of the bright spots last year in the floral business was gardening, notes Sandy Hering, owner of Floral 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.
  1. STAFF CORRECTLY 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 right selections.

  2. TRAIN WELL “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.

  3. DISCOVER RESOURCES 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 operations.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 right timing.

  6. 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.”

  7. 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.

  8. USE SIGNAGE 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. Hering says.

  9. EXPECT CHALLENGES 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.

  10. 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 products.

     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 or (800) 355-8086.

Super Floral Retailing • Copyright 2010
Florists' Review Enterprises, Inc.