Matthew PopplewellChanging times at the garden centre

I don’t usually need an excuse to head south from the Sunshine to the Gold Coast but normally it’s to nestle in the comfortable soft blankets of sand and watch surf wizards make a mockery of the powerful waves. However, the powerful waves on this visit were not indeed being made at the beaches but by some of the presenters at the Nursery and Garden Industry Conference a few blocks inland.

Using animals in garden centres to create a fun experience for children

Core to many of the discussions was technology and in particular, the use of social media and how that has radically changed the consumers behaviour and shopping habits. The message to the garden centre; you must react to this transformation and swim with the tide, not get caught in a rip and succumb.

On a day when I was educated, at times disheartened and often proud, the closing debate brought three young guns to one table supporting the use of social media. Opposing them, three successful nurseryman of a slightly (vastly) different era when tin cans were plant pots and customer service was a smile and handshake and orders were taken by phone and fax. The debate produced a fair few chuckles and naturally focused on the lighter side of what is becoming a pivotal point of discussion in our industry. How we grow and produce a plant has changed little, other than perhaps the quantity of choice and what we grow it in but the key point to the debate was the way we sell a plant now, how we package a plant and how we treat the customer.

Garden centres must now make every visit an experience. Whitehall Garden Centre in the UK brings a real Christmas feel to selling a cut tree

Earlier in the day, I sat in on an extensive and thoroughly absorbing presentation by John Stanley of John Stanley Associates. John Stanley is a coach, consultant, author, speaker and trainer. He has been described as the ‘Retail Guru’ and a leading horticultural consultant in the world today. He stated that the fastest growing horticulture business in the world today was Plants4Perth. An online horticultural supplier. Pick-up is not an option. Everything is delivered. So where does this leave the humble garden centre?

John Stanley went on to state that it was the 4 E’s that a garden centre must have to be successful in the world today: Experience, Education, Entertainment and Events. He had visited a garden centre that had hosted 60 weddings. He went on to state that what the customer wanted now was weekday convenience and weekend experience. Your basic horticultural comities would be bought online (slug pellets, fertiliser) and inspiration and education would be found at the garden centre. Some successful garden centres had hosted “pink” events in aid of cancer charities and many garden centres in America and the UK make theatre events a regular function during seasonal events, such as Halloween. In short, garden centres can no longer just sell plants in a pretty display. The consumer would rather grab their smart phone whilst on the train and order a fruit tree. Job done. Scary hey!

Kings Plant Barn in NZ with the staff supporting cancer research

I write this with some sadness. I have spent a good deal of my career working in garden centres and as a child, loved bouncing in there and choosing my strawberry plant. But the truth is, consumers are changing their habits. They want convenience, to save time and reduce stress and a knowledgeable sales assistant and well rooted, colourful gerbera is not enough any more at the garden centre.

This was the overwhelming message from my day at the conference. A priceless experience, that I can’t seem to buy online.

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