Capturing Spring Information By Roger C. Styer

I always encourage growers to make notes as they go through spring, not just about crop quality and how they are achieving it, but about what is selling, what's not and what customers want that you don't have. I call it the "Stop, Look and Listen" technique. We get so busy with growing, moving, shipping, selling and everything else during spring that we forget to tune in to what our customers really want or what they think of our business. So what did you really learn from this past spring season?

What's Hot; What's Not

What's hot is usually the first thing growers and garden center managers notice, but you really need to break down what is selling and why. Keep notes not just on what crops are selling but what varieties or colors are selling as well. The big thing now is different container sizes, with larger containers being sold now more than ever. Are your flat numbers going down and 4-inch pots going up? Look into the quality of your plants. Great quality always sells well, and great displays just show them off more. What colors seem to be in demand this year?

Combinations of different crops in any container size are always popular, but what combinations did you do? Do you need more of them, or something different? Finally, how fast did you sell out of anything, and not just when you had a fire sale at the end of the season?

Now, on to the bigger problemÉwhat's not selling! Quantify what crops, colors and container sizes did not sell well. You need to identify if the plants did not sell because of poor quality, and also make sure this was not due to being too old. As mentioned earlier, bedding flats are less in demand, and other container sizes are increasing. Are you behind the eight ball on this trend? Color trends change every year, but some colors are always in fashion. What was your color mix on various crops? Sometimes, certain colors do not sell well because they are not positioned properly next to complementary colors, which show off both well. An interesting trend is displaying crops in monochromatic order, regardless of whether they are petunias, impatiens or pansies. If you offered a number of new varieties this year, did you advertise them, position them properly and educate the consumer about them? I have a client who has more than 1,000 different items on their list, but some of their customers have no idea what a lot of them are, so they don't order them.

What to do about it

Talk to your customers about what they want, what they think of doing business with your operation and what else you can do for them. I know this takes time and face-to-face interaction with customers. Maybe it would be easier for you to do customer surveys.

There are a number of areas you can focus on for improving your sales. Quality of your product is the first step. Are you proud of your crop quality, and do your customers think the same way? I see a number of growers trying to get by with old plants that should have been dumped a while ago, but they think they can sell them. Is that quality? Many operations need to do a better job of crop scheduling, especially if you grow product for your own garden center. Plan on potting up more vegetative annuals for later in the spring, so you have fresh product for June. You can also use up older product in combination planters and baskets, but only if it is still good quality.

Every year, you have customers asking, "What do you have that is new?" Put together a list of new crops and varieties, and emphasize them in your display at the garden center or how you list them on paper. Figure on adding up to 10 percent more new items every year, but you must drop the "dogs" as well. You can also make displays look new to your customers by changing them out every two weeks, especially end caps. Highlight different combinations, and have the component plants right there for customers to make their own.

Look at your layout with a fresh set of eyes. Are you displaying product properly and keeping fresh stock in front of the customers? Is your operation too cluttered? Dump the old stuff and keep quality material for sale! Do you have a lot of product that is not displayed? I know one garden center that had a lot of Mini-Cascade geranium baskets for sale in June, but he had them in his back quonset. Once he put them in front of the garden center they sold like hotcakes.

Oftentimes, it is not your product quality and selection that is the problem but your employees. How much training do you provide? It is always hard to find good help during the hectic weeks of spring, but give your employees the tools and directions they need to do a better job. Have them practice greeting customers, giving directions, offering helpful advice when they can and keeping fresh product on display. Do they know how to water? Are they clearly identified with shirts and nametags?

Make some notes now so you can change things for next year. If you are reading this article before the end of spring, make changes now for June sales. And don't include your end-of-season sales into your notes. You really are not making money when you drop your prices 50 percent! You are just avoiding having to dump product onto your compost pile.

Finally, look into hiring some "secret shoppers." These should be people your employees do not know. You may want to give them a checklist ahead of time, but I prefer a debriefing right after the visit. That way your "secret shoppers" can act normally and make the purchases they want. Review their impressions and complaints, as well as positive comments, with your staff. Put together an action plan and training program to address these issues, even if it will not be in place until next year. Remember, next spring comes faster than you think!

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Roger C. Styer

Roger Styer is president of Styer's Horticultural Consulting, Inc., Batavia, Ill. He can be reached by phone at (630) 208-0542 or E-mail at [email protected]

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