Garden Retail: Training for success

Frequently neglected, it makes sense to invest in the best assets you have in your organisation -- your staff, says Leslie Kossoff

Whenever the word "investment" is used to describe the money to be spent on a retail centre, the first thought is that it must be a capital investment. New real estate for expansion of current premises, new equipment ranging from signage to IT systems to tills, new designs or redesigns of the retail floor.

What doesn't spring to mind at first - but should, if you want to differentiate yourself from your competitors - is the investment in your talent. Yes, talent - as in those people who work for you.

Industries across many sectors have gone from "call them employees" to "call them associates" phases. That was designed to establish a sense of belonging and an associated sense of responsibility on the part of the employees toward the business.

Now, for the first time, businesses are starting to refer to their employees for what they really bring to the workplace: talent. Whether it's someone out on the sales floor working with your customers or in the back office identifying new suitable suppliers to contract, you want to hire the best - and then you want to invest in them to ensure that they have the knowledge, skills and abilities that your centre needs to succeed.

Grow your sales

Let's take that sales floor "associate". In fact, let's make it someone at the tills who usually doesn't work anywhere else on the floor. What added value might that person bring?

If you have adequately trained and educated that employee, he or she will be able to observe what your customer is planning on buying and gently ask the equivalent to McDonald's "Would you like fries with that?" question. Potting compost? New planters? Do you have the right kinds of secateurs? Gloves?

You'd be amazed not only at how your sales will grow, but also at the extent to which the goodwill of your customers will increase. Contrary to many people's assumptions, customers appreciate being asked questions such as these. After all, they don't know what they don't know - and if you invest in your staff (and increase their talent levels accordingly), they will be your best resource for goodwill, return visits and profits.

While we're here, let's visit the back-office operations too. You want your suppliers to be the smartest, most competitively aware creative purchasers you can find. It isn't about getting the "best deal" out of your suppliers - which, of course, you want as well. It's about creating co-operative systems that lead your suppliers to make you a preferred customer for their existing as well as new offerings.

After all, differentiation is the name of the game - especially if you're a small or mid-sized garden centre. The Dobbies and Wyevales of this world differentiate themselves simply by existing. You have to create a reason to become a destination for all things garden retail to a populace that is being actively courted by the "convenience" of the big players.

By working with your suppliers - not just among the standard horticultural offerings, but also by having strategic buyers who are always on the lookout for consumer trends that lend themselves to your centre or your geographic area - you can keep ahead of the game. Speciality stores are attractive to upper-end clients. If you've developed your talent by ensuring that they are market-savvy and know your strategy and vision for the centre, they'll deliver.

Return on investment

There is no such thing as too much employee training. Granted, you can't do it all at once (just-in-time training programmes provide the highest, most immediate return), but you can make sure that there isn't a time in which you aren't developing the people who work for you.

And, as part of that training, don't forget the value of education - which is not skills-based but improves the critical-thinking skills of your staff - and innovation, which is the ultimate differentiator. The return on investment you're creating goes beyond the standard customer service "Have a nice day" mentality, even as your employees tell your customers they can't do what your customers have asked.

Smiling faces - attractive and important as they are - don't create repeat customer visits by themselves. They simply create a more convivial time while your customers are not getting what they want - or obtaining everything that you could have sold.

Your investment in your talent is designed to ensure that, in every interaction - customer or supplier - your employees are creating the highest possible return for your business. It also means that no stone is left unturned in assisting your customers in finding everything they want - and more - to create the interior or exterior plant-based environment they desire.

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