Dear Independent Garden Center Owner,
I can only imagine you get advice all the time about how to give your independent garden center (IGC) a competitive edge against the big box stores and other local IGCs. You already understand that the seemingly endless decisions you make everyday , branded vs. non-branded plants, is this the year to really push organics, etc., can have a serious impact on bottom line.
Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I worked in retail. The last time was over 20 years ago when I worked as a sales associate during the holidays at Macy’s while I was putting myself through graduate school. (I was also working full-time and going to school at night so I cringe now when I think about how poor my customer service skills must have been!) I know it can be difficult to deal with the public. And I know it can be challenging to find ‘good’ employees. Believe me, I get it. I know your job is not easy.
Recently, I visited several local IGCs on the same day looking for holiday gifts for gardeners to highlight in an article I was writing for a local newspaper. I got paid a flat rate for the article so it would have been easier (read: more cost-effective) for me to use online gift sources. But I decided, as a local business owner myself, I wanted to use my little soapbox to shine a spotlight on some other local businesses. You know what they say…a rising tide raises all boats.
Sadly, what I encountered on my gift-finding spree was disappointing. Perhaps the experiences were amplified because I visited 4 IGCs in one day. And it was a raw, rainy, windy day at that. Sure, I am writing this letter partly as a rant but mainly because I want to let you, wherever your IGC is located, to succeed. So it’s in that spirit that I write this letter to you. Because it’s the little things, the seemingly inconsequential aspects of a visit to your IGC that are impacting your bottom line more than you may realize.
So here they are. All the petty inconveniences, miscues, slights and blunders I encountered that day. The thing is, each one sends a subtle, but undeniable, signal that I was not really valued as a customer. That you’re not on your game. That maybe there’s a better place for me to bring my business because, when it comes right down to it, the bar is higher for you than it is for the big box store down the road.
◊ You and your employees should not park in all the closest parking spots. I might not have even noticed this if it weren’t such a nasty day, but in several IGCs, all the prime spots were taken. At the first location I thought ‘Oh, good, someone else is here, too’ but, as it turns out, there were no customers in the place. Honestly, if I ’d been there for any other reason except doing research for an article that was due in a few days, I would have driven away. That could have been a lost sale. Leave the best parking spots for customers, regardless of the weather.
◊ When I walk in the door, say hello. You don’t have to jump all over me and ask if I need help as soon as I cross the threshold, but when there is no one else in the place and the bell on the door rings when I open it and you look up from what you’re doing, be welcoming and say hello. Or smile. Or wave. Do something to acknowledge me, otherwise it’s a little uncomfortable walking around your store.
◊ If you do decide to ask me if I need any help, do it BEFORE I have my hand on the door to walk out. You probably already know this, but by that time it’s too late. Because I’m nursing a bad attitude already about your store because no one acknowledged my presence. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think you really want to help me.
◊ Please don’t let your employees smoke inside your IGC. This seems like a no-brainer, but I was in one store that reeked of cigarette smoke. As did the woman at the register (who said hello, just in case you’re wondering). The stench was so bad I had to wash my jacket when I got home. As someone who does not smoke, I found that such a turn off. And I started wondering, if this nursery allows employees to make such obvious blunders, what other blunders are happening that I can’t readily sniff out.
◊ Teach your employees about the products you sell. Empower them to be your best advocates. They are sales people, not simply cashiers or stock boys. I understand you deserve a day off, but when someone walks through the door and hands you a free advertising opportunity (granted I’m not offering national media coverage, but still) everyone on your staff should know how to capitalize on it. Your employees should not ask me to come back tomorrow because they can’t answer my simple questions. I don’t want to come back tomorrow, I’m here today.
◊ When it’s a slow sales day, dust. Don’t just straighten up, clean up. A heavy layer of dust on the shelves or the bottles of fungicide or the little bags of Plant-Tone or the bird feeders makes it seem like you A) simply can’t be bothered to keep your IGC clean or B) don’t move any product. Both are bad options.
So there you have it. Thanks for listening to my mini-rant about the subtle cues you may not even realize are being sent by your IGC. But now you know, I’m picking up on them and so are many of the other people who walk through the door.
Wishing you a prosperous 2011,