Monday, November 24, 2008

Think Local, Not Independent

I was going through my notes from the trip and realized I left out one of the most important parts of the GCA Holiday Tour. I left out Lloyd Traven's opening-night talk. Lloyd spoke to a full and just-arrived room of tour members about being local, getting rid of your "crap" and being green. He's from Peace Tree Farm, and is currently in the process of getting certified organic through the State of California.

He made too many good points, there was no way I could leave any of it out. (And sorry for the picture, I was just starting to get a handle on the camera.) That's Lloyd in the yellow shirt. The following is a quick synapse on some of the points he touched on:

What's Independent?: Quit with the Independent Garden Center talk. What does it really mean. From now on, try saying "locally owned" instead. That's something people can connect with and something they can understand. "We are local, this is what people want," said Traven.

"Differentiate or Die!" was the first slide of his presentation, which is pretty self-explanatory.

Stop Pack-Ratting: "If you sell what you've always sold, you'll get what you've always got," he said. Quit being that person who says they'll buy new stock once the old stuff is gone. "There's a reason people aren't buying that crap." And it's taking up valuable space.

Timing: Work with your growers. Strenghten your relationship and get a sense of timing down with them.

seXY Tip: Generations X and Y love taking home tip sheets. Continue to teach them even when they've left your store.

A Green Sense: Of course going green makes environmental sense, but make sure it makes economical sense for your garden center first. And if you sell it, "You must also tell it." What's the point of selling organic plants if your customer then goes home and douses it with Sevin or Peters. You need to teach them. Explain to them the significance of going organic and why some things may cost more than others.

A Dream Teamer

Remember the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and the USA Dream Team? At the time, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley showed the world just how far ahead the U.S. was in the realm of basketball. If there was a garden center dream team, Homestead Gardens would be in the starting five and in line for a gold medal.

The size of Homestead is one thing, but it's what they're doing under their roofs that's something worthy of it's own HGTV show.

When you walk through the front doors, the first thing you notice is a runway of main-aisle that gives you an unobstructed view all the way to the back door. Dave Hanger, Homestead Gardens General Manager, said it gives the retail space a racetrack layout, which leads shoppers to everypart of the interior property. He compared it to Target's main, 15 foot aisle that runs throughout the store.

The space at Homestead Gardens is second to none and makes for a breatheable experience. And that space doesn't interrupt their holiday offerings.

Scott Daley is the resident creative genius. Hanger said that Scott is just "unbelievable with some of the things he's doing around here." A great example of this is the half taxi cab. Found in the Department 56 section, some Homestead workers went down to a junk yard and found this car. They had them cut it in half before they hauled it back to the store. A fresh coat of paint and instant display fixture meets conversation piece. Vintage chairs, freezers, tables and ovens can also be found in their displays.

Besides everything else going on during the holiday, Homestead's toy train track is a big ticket. With a full-time conductor on hand, "On weekends it's sometimes three deep in here (around the track)," says Hanger. "Sometimes you'll see three generations come in to watch the train."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Baby Vegas

Our final day on the road toured us to the crabcake state, Maryland. First stop: Valley View Farms in Cockeysville.

It may have been the cloudy day. It may have also been the “getting ready” transition between seasons, but Valley View Farms looked a little bare from the outside, which ill-prepared me for my first couple steps into the store.

It was like Clark Griswold’s house inside-out.

Ceilings were lit from corner to corner. And the rotating artificial trees decked in an assortment of ornaments and lights were an added touch that didn't/won't go unnoticed.

I’d be interested to see what it would look like if they turned down the normal house lighting a little. I bet the Christmas lights would pop even more, and save on the electric bill along the way.

The Little Things

Don’t let the title fool you, Bucks County’s Bucks Country Gardens does Christmas big, but they also do a lot of the little things. Not to mention, their barn turned retail center is a perfect place not to get lost.

Sometimes you want your customers to get sucked in at your store, it’s a testament to the experience you’re providing. But those who wander at Bucks are definitely not lost. Their centrally located customer service desk (I highlighted it in the photo) gives shoppers a great reference point. Think library, it’s kind of like that.

If you ever visit Bucks and you’re around the customer service center, be sure to look up. They make hanging banners easy. Bucks utilizes a pulley system to swap out the signs that hang high from the barn’s rafters. It cuts down on labor and from having to drag out the ladder.

And if your garden center sells Christmas trees and offers a delivery service, maybe you should think about getting your tree team a box of hospital booties. They can be used to slip on over their boots when entering a customer’s home, says Donna Denter, Bucks lifestyle/home décor manager. No more tracking mud and now into homes and no more having to take shoes off.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What The X?

It’s no secret, I love Christmas. I have Johnny Mathis’s Christmas album on my iPod year-round. So forgive me if I get upset for seeing signage that uses the term “Xmas” instead of Christmas. It just rubs me the wrong way.

So here it is, a decree of sorts. No more “Xmas,” or else.

Let’s agree not to take shortcuts on holiday names. It just takes something away, the sparkle.

What brings this up? After we departed from a place that’s Christmas through and through, we visited Gasper Home & Garden Showplace in Richboro.

Gasper is a relatively new operation that focuses on landscape services. There’s no getting around it, it’s a sharp place. High-end granite tables and benches, and striking modern statues are placed neatly throughout the grounds.

My only gripe came in their storeroom. Small signs posting holiday deals used “XMAS” instead of Christmas. I cringed, and I wasn’t the only one. Cyndee Carvalho of Alden Lane Nursery in California agreed, saying there’s something not right with the way it sounds or looks. I would be interested to hear what other garden centerers think about using “XMAS.” I know it’s not a deal-breaker...well, maybe it is.

Day 2: Feeney's

There are those places you come across in life where you just feel comfortable and safe.
Feeney’s is one of those places.

When bus-driver Fred heard we were starting day two off with Feeney’s, he wasted no time telling a story about his wife’s shopping experiences there. He also made sure to tell us they have a reputation for excellent customer service, which is hard to tell on a tour visit (everyone’s on their best behavior), but easy to believe.

With displays from floor to ceiling, I felt fully encapsulated by the store. I was starting to think Feeney’s main goal is to give their customers a sore neck…flying reindeers, airplanes, clouds, to name a few.

You never know what catches a person’s eye or what fills a void in someone’s home. On that premise, Feeney’s offers a bidding process to customers on select pieces-parts of displays. On the way out, I saw slips of red paper on a large china cabinet. Sometimes fixtures need to move and make room for newer ones. The bidding gives customers a chance to grab something (e.g., baker’s rack) for cheap, and Feeney’s makes out too, getting money for a piece that might otherwise find it’s way to the dumpster.

Feeney’s figurine collection is just one more knife in the drawer. I’m not sure that saying makes any sense. What I mean is aside from their seemingly unlimited Christmas merchandise, they are a destination location for Byer’s Christmas Carolers and everything Department 56 (plus retired pieces). They don’t skimp and that’s why it works for them. If you decide to run with a collection line, thoroughness is a good way to go. It gives your customers a sense of security with their investment. If they want to continue collecting, they’ll know where to turn first.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Terrain: The Not-So Bad And Everything Else

Not even a year old, it’s only natural for Terrain to have a couple hiccups in the growing process, right?

While a big fan of what Terrain had to offer under ceilings and between walls, I was a little less confident in their exterior efforts. Here are a few key points members of the tour made on more than one occasion:

1. Wheelchair accessibility- edging that sectioned off locations in the yard sometimes stuck out above the ground in many places. Also, there were steps, but hardly any ramps.

2. It was hard to locate a cart to load up your selections.

3. Unlike Waterloo, there was no map of the property.

4. Terrain’s structures are all unattached, something that might fall out of favor with customers during the cold winter months. Dress warm and bring your boots.

Is Terrain unpractical? Maybe. Or are we just to knit-picky? Probably. I have a bad feeling that Terrain may never be accepted by the independent garden center community. I've heard a bunch of opinions isolating Terrain as one of them and not one of us. They're approach is unfamiliar, but is that a gateway to judge the heck out of them?

Terrain: The Good

Pier One dressed in an expensive flannel shirt. That’s my initial take on Terrain. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.With live garland wired and streamed over the main walkway, it was easy to see that “rustic” oozes out of everything. And isn’t it funny that this is considered cutting edge?
From Waterloo’s sharp, shiny and packed to Terrain’s rough, earthy and hip, the tour did a complete 180, really challenging our perception of garden centers.

There’s no doubt that Terrain has a definite cool factor. The indoor retail space is full of “one of a kinds” and post modern merchandise displays—using huge tree stumps, old school running faucets, boxed frames, and refurbished doors and dressers.
Terrain is not the type of place you’re going to find a lot of one thing in a bunch of different colors. They are not looking to appease the demand for run-of-the-mill products. They want you to leave with a “treasure,” something that not everyone can get their hands on.

Mentioned in the morning talk, chalkboards provided plenty of useful signage space. This time of year, they keep their customers up to date on any current or upcoming events.
At the counters, customers can find Terrain branded grid paper to jot down their ideas or draw up that masterpiece in the works. An outdoor fireplace and an indoor café (which has a full menu) also offer places to mull over any remaining gardening or home décor decisions your customers may have.

Christmas On Steroids

There’s about 75 of us on this tour of Southeastern Pennsylvania and beyond. We’re split into two buses, and GCA’s Shanan Molnar wasted no time informing us that we were on the official “fun bus.” With Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer playing on the radio, the tour’s very first stop started at Waterloo Gardens in Exton.

To the right of Waterloo’s front entrance, I noticed two things right away. First, before you even step through the doors, there’s an easy-to-read map of the grounds. Second, they had this week’s savings flyer framed and at eye level (I’m not sure if it’s sent out in the local paper or not). It lets the customer know right away what’s on sale this week. Both eliminate some FAQs upfront. 
As we piled into Waterloo’s, a manager mentioned a few tidbits about their Christmas layout, one of which was half-trees. Waterloo removed one side from a handful of the artificial Christmas trees used in the displays. This lets the tree lay flush against the wall, preventing wasted space. It’s one of those, why didn’t I think of that (if you haven’t already) concepts.

Overall, Waterloo was a bit overwhelming for me, but a huge hit with almost everyone else on the bus. The garden center received loads of praise for their ability to merchandise a high volume of product. 

There were rooms upon rooms with unfathomable amounts of Christmas goods. Ornaments and ornaments. They are all well thought out, and plenty of them carry themes. One garden center owner and tour member said the sheer volume alone would keep her up at night. 

As we drove off, Dave Williams of Williams Nursery in New Jersey told us that Waterloo’s employees are trained to listen for no music. If they are walking through the storeroom and aren’t hearing anything, they need to seek out a music box and wind it up. “Customers can’t experience quiet music boxes. It only takes a few seconds.”

She, She, She

The 2008 GCA Holiday Tour (Pennsylvania/Washington D.C.) started bright and early Tuesday morning. With a room full of groggy faces, and plates full of bacon and eggs, Greg Lehmkuhl, creative director of Urban Outfitters/Terrain at Styer's, talked about the new-garden-center-on-the-block’s target, their ideal customer: an affluent, trendy female in her forties and fifties. 

He referred to her as “she” more than a number of times.     

The whole time I was thinking, well, what about me? I’m 26, male and a fan of Urban Outfitters. What about marketing to the next wave of would-be gardeners? I’ve heard a mixed bag of impressions Terrain’s left on its visitors and I’m looking forward to seeing if Terrain lives up to any of the hype they’ve received. It’s our second stop on the first full day of the GCA Holiday Tour.   

For the rest of Terrain’s morning breakfast presentation, Greg explained his take on redeveloping a dated garden center and also a few things he’s implemented that help set Terrain apart from everyone else in the industry.   

Here are a few things he wanted us to think about and also look for during our visit to Terrain: 

1. Use chalkboards, handwritten signs. They’re easy to update and they can help explain products. Greg went on to say, if you buy a wacky or expensive product, use simple signage to “explain to your customers why you bought it. Don’t assume they know.” 

2. Use stencils for branding. Terrain’s name is tagged throughout the grounds with a stencil and some bright colored paint. On mailboxes, benches, screens…it creatively burns your brand into your customer’s memory. 

3. You don’t always have to use the fixtures manufacturers send you. For Terrain, most POP isn’t cohesive with their style. Sometimes it won’t mesh well with your store either and that’s okay. 

4. Along with the property, always update your Web site. Terrain updates at least once a week. Like products in the store, the same can be said for your site—customers need a new reason to come back.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Bottomless Mug Club

Bruegger's Bagels just introduced an interesting new promotion to keep customers coming into its stores. "The savings go up with every cup" is the tagline for Bruegger's Bottomless Mug Club, which allows patrons who pay a flat fee of $129 to receive unlimited coffee, tea and soft drinks in 2009. To sweeten the deal, they also receive a Bruegger's coupon book worth $40.

So, $129 for coffee seems like a lot, doesn't it? Not when Bruegger's illustrates your savings on its promotional pieces. If you get three cups a week in 2009, you'll save more than $130. Five cups a week saves you $310, and seven cups a week gives you a savings of $485 (plus a case of the caffeine jittters).

The concept is genius. Save the few people who will go in there, get their cup of coffee and be on their merry way, the majority of customers won't be able to resist that cream cheese-slathered bagel or egg and ham breakfast sandwich to go along with their beverages. Bruegger's has pretty much got a customer for life. Or at least for a whole year.