Leader: Engaging customers is good for business

A few years ago at a Glee trade show seminar, a retail consultant described how a garden centre had instructed its staff to make a written note every time that they were unable to fulfil a customer's request.

After a few weeks, the majority of the notes referred to an item of garden furniture that everyone wanted in white, which the centre didn't stock.

When a white version was introduced, sales of the furniture line rose 40 per cent in six months. It was a simple illustration of just how profitable it can be to engage systematically with customers to find out what they really want.

For the past seven years, that is exactly what the owners of the Meadow Croft Garden Centre - managing director Michael Smith and his father Roland - have been doing through their Meadow Croft Pansy and Viola Festival, which two weeks ago saw members of the public vote for their favourite varieties from 900 of the latest offerings from breeders.

Thanks to the their decision to engage the public in this way, the festival organisers and partners now have access to an unrivalled database of customer likes, dislikes and - with seven years of trials data - important customer trends.

The striking thing, Michael Smith tells HW this week (see Analysis, p13), is how different are the choices the public makes from those of the growers: "The public aren't worried about things like habits, not in the way we are. They buy on impulse, looking for uniqueness and for colour, and they are not paranoid about plant shapes like we are."

The return on investment for the organisers comes in the form of Festival Favourites, a very successful retail line that includes the public's favourite 40 varieties chosen from the event.

Surprise success stories have included 'Purple Passion', which is a variety that Smith says the industry wouldn't normally have dreamt of taking on because of its variation in colour and high percentage of rogue blues. The public, however, loved it and the variety - including the rogues - sold out in three days. Knowledge, as they say, is power.

Email: kate.lowe@haymarket.com

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