Is Your Garden Center Doomed Because of Rotten Customer Service?

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Garden center retail stores should be the best places to find great customer service.

Maybe I’m spoiled...

This is how garden center retail used to work ...

When I lived in Long Beach, there was a garden center called Park. You could walk in there and six or seven people were behind the register, approaching, to the side, or in front of the counter.

And when they saw you, they came over to see how they could help you. Their customer service training had them take you to what you needed. Their retail sales training suggested alternatives.

They always asked while ringing up the sale, “And the planting mix for that?” and offered plastic for the car so the dirt and water from the pots wouldn't ruin your trunk or seats.

It was a great experience.

It was busy, fully stocked, and wait times were short. I spent thousands creating my dream gardens. They were so busy they were purchased by Armstrong garden centers who kept that tradition alive.

This is how garden center retail works for many nurseries today ...

Now I live in upstate NY…

It started Saturday with a hunt for hanging geraniums to fit in two specific pots.

I proceeded to my garden center retail store, with the BUY LOCAL sign plastered on the front, and spent about a half-hour looking fruitlessly for the geraniums among all the beautiful plants.

Employees came and went, watering the flowers without even turning to acknowledge me or anyone else in their vicinity. They didn't have what I needed so I left.

I remembered hearing about a nursery center as one of the best in the area. So I drove an hour north, got out of my car with a red bushel basket the perfect size I needed, and opened their door.

A young woman turned to me and said "Hi”, and quickly turned away. I walked out to where the plants were. I went from greenhouse to greenhouse looking for geraniums and finally found them.

I had to pull up each plant marker to try to find hanging varieties. All in vain. Five employees came around talking to each other oblivious to my search with the red basket - or the other people in the greenhouse. All they could talk about was the weather and their weekend.

After 45 min of this, I left with nothing again and drove to a competitor.

I finally got a guy to pull down two hanging pots of hanging geraniums that were seven feet above me and then he left. I decided to cut my nursery visit short. With no more than a “Cash or charge?“ I paid the cashier and started to leave.

Then I spotted a group of “squirrel-proof” bird feeders on a far wall, so I headed over. I found one I really liked which cuts off the supply of food for squirrels. Perfect.

$90? It’s worth it, I hate squirrels eating all of the food.

I grabbed some bird food and headed back to the cashier. Now the cashier had two people in line with cartfuls of plants, ringing them up slowly. I realized this could take a while. 

After a few minutes more, I pulled out my iPhone, scanned the bird feeder in my hand, and found it online for $35 with free shipping, put theirs back on the shelf, and left.

The next day I needed some more plants and supplies and wanted to visit a garden center just south of me. I got to the turnoff and saw their sign OPEN 9:30-6. It was 8:30 am so I drove past them to Lowe's.

I left Lowe’s about an hour later with over $450 of garden merchandise.

I decided to try the local garden center that by now was open. I pulled in and signs were posted all around "Cash or Check ONLY" With only a ten spot, I left for home.

On the way, I pulled into the first garden center to see if they had any English Ivy since they took credit cards and Lowe’s was sold out. They did, but no one said a word to me except, "Cash or charge?"

Does "Buy Local" mean we need to settle for non-existent service?

A laissez-faire attitude towards shoppers? A lack of hospitality?

I would love to compete against any of these stores. Here's how:

  • Have the prettiest, healthiest plants in the world. But also have an abundant, knowledgeable selling staff to handle the demand. Especially during spring, your high season.

  • Have more than one cashier and they better hustle and call someone if there's more than one customer waiting.

  • Have cashier training to anticipate what customers will need and suggest to everyone.

  • Be open when customers want to buy, not when it is convenient for you.

  • Take payment how customers want to pay you, not so you can save two measly percent. It's not 1941, cash businesses don't get the big sales.

See also: What Customer Service Avoids and What It Should Offer

Garden center retail must improve in order to survive!

If it is hard for a garden center employee to say, “What a great day for planting!” or“How can we make your yard more beautiful?” OR help a young mother carrying three baskets of petunias and comment on how pretty they look... then why keep them? To water plants?

This isn't limited to nursery centers but similar points could be made about restaurants, hardware stores, toy stores, apparel stores - you name it.

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