Traditional plant categories like “full sun” may not be effective when marketing to the modern garden center customer. Instead, use plant attributes such as “attracts butterflies” or other terms that satisfy the customers’ needs.

The research project SHIFT, an initiative launched by AmericanHort, has generated a lot of buzz, as it challenges the way that retailers think about their customers. The findings from the study of about 40 garden centers across the country revealed that it’s essential for retailers to foster connections with their customers and take the time to discover their motivators for coming to the store and purchasing plants. It sparked a conversation – a conversation that both Mick Mulhall of Mulhall’s garden center and Tom Hilgeman, general manager of White Oak Gardens, who have applied findings from SHIFT to their businesses, are actively engaged in.

Photo: Cassie Neiden

The SHIFT study produced about 30 insights that retailers can test and implement to improve their business and the likelihood that customers will walk through their doors. They aren’t data points, but rather suggestions, such as considering offering later weekday store hours to target busy professionals. But not all customers are the same. SHIFT encourages retailers to discover customer values and what brought them into the store to create customer profiles, which include information about their interests, passions and hobbies. People want plants for different reasons, and starting a dialogue is the best way to discover what those reasons are. For example, there’s “Do-it-all Allison,” who is young, single, and wants creative, unique décor for her apartment.

SHIFT research brings the industry back to the basics and explains how to build better relationships with consumers, who don’t necessarily consider themselves “gardeners.”
Photo: Cassie Neiden

One aspect that SHIFT has brought forward is that consumers want transparency in their plant products. “There is a big push to know where the product is coming from, how it’s treated and what its benefits are,” says Jennifer Noble, knowledge and professional development administrator for AmericanHort. This is particularly true for edibles, with foodie and health-conscious consumers wanting to know where and how the product was grown, it’s benefits and, in particular, the advantages to growing your own food. Retailers can respond to this need through signage, social media, events and in-store demonstrations.

“SHIFT encouraged me to question some of the prejudices that we make when we try to understand the different segments,” says Mulhall, who manages the retail side of the Omaha, Neb., business. “We talk a lot about age, but SHIFT really brought to light that perhaps we should be looking at their concerns, for example, if they are new to gardening, what could be their potential fears?”

Building confidence

Addressing consumers’ fears, like their fear of failure, is one area that Hilgeman has been focused on. “We strive to help our customers feel confident that they can be successful,” Hilgeman says. “They are not coming in looking for a sun or shade plant. They want a yellow flower, a plant that they won’t kill or a flower that attracts butterflies.”

Gardening can be very intimidating and very few customers consider themselves to be gardeners. “When the average customer thinks of a gardener, they think of the older lady in the garden club who has a beautiful garden free of weeds,” Noble says. “The majority of customers don’t identify with that term.”

White Oak Gardens, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, responds to customers concerns about gardening with tools, like their potting bar, “a place where they can get expert advice on how to plant and what to plant, helping build their confidence,” Hilgeman says. The potting bar structure is right in the sales area, providing an interactive experience. “We encourage our customers to bring in their containers to pot up at the garden center,” Hilgeman says. As a bonus, they don’t have to clean up the mess afterward. The potting bar is effective because it is a tool that directly responds to customers’ needs.

Focus on the end results

When it comes to target marketing, it is not about specific plants. Instead, it is about honing in on the benefits that particular plants will provide to specific customers. “We used to focus on the advertising first,” Mulhall says. “With the insights from SHIFT, we have now changed that behavior.” Prior to advertising, Mulhall’s considers the customer profile they want to target and then adjusts the marketing message accordingly. This begins with discovering what the particular type of consumer would be looking for in that product, for example a hanging basket, and then developing tailored marketing material that highlights those benefits. Mulhall has already seen some success with this strategy, emphasizing that when you market to everyone, you effectively market to no one.

The key is building the connection between the plant and the direct benefit that it provides. “Understanding your customer profile will help you target the right ones for that specific customer,” Noble says. “It is about sharing why it’s beneficial and how the plant responds to a customer’s want or need.” For example, if the benefit is beautification and curb appeal, the customer will want to know what the finished product will look like. Retailers can respond to this through an in-store vignette, signage, online presence, or tapping into existing customers to share what they’ve done.

Recently, Mulhall’s hosted a Cacti Show, showcasing speciality growers, tacos from La Fogata, how-to seminars and a mug giveaway for customers who brought in their own plants for entry into the cactus and succulent contest. “It was very serendipitous,” Mulhall says. “That part of the business has had a significant increase, and our hope is to now do this with the rest of the store.” Events have become a large part of their business, with a new one for each month specifically addressed to respond to a consumer’s concern, whether it’s Earth-friendly lawns or beekeeping.

“We want to create an experiential garden center,” Mulhall says. “Events are a great way to help do this, and we can further support this segment through social media.” Facebook and Instagram are the main social media tools that Mulhall’s uses, while also reposting images to Pinterest. One area that they have recently changed was shifting their focus from Twitter to Snapchat in order to target a younger clientele that they want to draw in their doorway. “We are marketing to the younger Millennial customers,” Mulhall says. “We have found the return on our investment has been great with social media helping us to connect and meet with these new customers.”

They announced the move to Snapchat on their other social media platforms to bring those followers to the new website, tweeting: Alright, Twitter, it’s time for a break. We’ve met someone else. Her name is Snapchat. And we’re keeping our @mulhalls handle.

Hilgeman says that targeting specific customers on social media, and understanding the demographics of each platform, is essential. So they brought experts in. “We started working with a marketing company to help run our social [platforms] during peak season,” Hilgeman says. “The company we work with helps run contests, and also makes sure any marketing going on in the store also is shared on our social media.” In fact, the social part of White Oak Gardens marketing budget continues to grow, with the campaigns driving customers to the store. Make-and-take workshops have been extremely popular, and social media helps reach new customers they may not have found. “A lot of the things that we learned from SHIFT make us feel that we are going in the right direction,” Hilgeman says.

Overall, SHIFT is about getting to know customers, discovering why they are looking for plants and their pain points. Our business is not only about plants, Noble says, it is about fostering relationships. There is the relationship between the business and the customer and then the one that is developed between the customer and the plant. Taking the time to understand your customer will help ensure that both of these relationships are cultivated.

Targeted signage, social media, marketing and events that focus on plants’ benefits helps to develop the connection between a plant and a consumer. The key is discovering what customers want, and then providing plants that offer solutions.

Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer from Barrie, Ontario, and part of the third generation of the family-owned garden center/wholesale business Bradford Greenhouses.