There's been a quiet revolution going on while everyone has been watching the two Sirs battling it out for more and more retail centres. Only this revolution hasn't been about expansion in the normal sense. Instead, a new world of marketing has presented itself to the sector. And in this revolution, you have far more control and far greater opportunity than when you're battling with the leviathans.
There is a very real difference between sales and marketing. Sales are what you achieve on the retail floor, in all your display areas and from those impulse purchase opportunities you so conveniently put near the tills. They're concrete and quantifiable - every minute of every day.
Marketing, on the other hand, is just as important but far more nuanced. Marketing creates a perceived need that leads to sales. It engenders interest not just in what you have to offer now, but how you'll be able to solve your customers' retail problems later. Marketing, along with excellent product and service, creates customers for years.
Creating a buzz
Marketing transcends seasons. It isn't advertising, so it isn't event-specific. Marketing is branding and creating a buzz around your business that leads people to think of you first and foremost when they think of anything to do with gardens or gifts. Whether you are positioning yourself as a destination or not, a destination is what you want to be.
That's why this most recent revolution has been so interesting. In both cases, retailers are benefiting from a perceived need created by other vendors in other situations. They're not even having to do the work on their own. The suppliers create their own buzz - and you simply work it and benefit from it.
By letting the other guys do the work - and make the buzz-creating investment - you get the edge. You've differentiated yourself from your competitors and made yourself the provider of choice.
The Porsche strategy
When the marketing people launched their campaign for Wollemi Pines, they knew quite well what they wanted to accomplish. They wanted differentiation. Wollemi pines were exclusive - both for the retailers and the consumers. And they were also high end.
This opportunity wasn't for everybody - that was made clear from the start. Not only was what Wollemi Pines had to offer limited and unusual, these pines were going to be offered differently to the retail sector than any of their predecessors.
The Wollemi Pine was rediscovered in an Australian rainforest gorge after having been thought to be extinct. Without going into detail, suffice to say that very quickly a wholesale machine was created that would benefit the distributors, retailers and the conservation effort for Wollemis and other threatened Australian plant species.
Not only would consumers get an exclusive product, but they could feel good while paying out the big bucks.
To achieve that elite appearance, Wollemi Australia Pty (the parent company) designed what it calls a "measured marketing strategy". In its simplest terms, the company created a sense of exclusivity for the involved retailers, necessitated a level of commitment not usually found in a first release of product and was clearly geared from the first for a high-end niche market. They used the Porsche Cayenne strategy.
When Porsche decided to release its new SUV, the Cayenne, the company wanted to ensure that its sales would justify the investment it had put in. Moreover, it wanted to match production to demand so that it wasn't left out of pocket afterwards.
Porsche dealerships were given just one Cayenne to display on the retail floor. In many cases, these couldn't even be test driven. Some dealers only allowed prospective buyers to sit in the vehicle and look under the hood - but not take it on the road. After all, there was only one to play with.
It was also made clear to prospective buyers that there was only a limited number that would be produced in the first year. If you wanted one, you had to get in fast or plan on losing the opportunity. In effect, if you snooze, you lose.
And the price point was high. That didn't make a difference, of course, because the buyers Porsche was targeting wouldn't hesitate to pay tens of thousands of pounds for that exclusivity. Not only would they end up with a cool car, they would also be the talk of the town.
But back to the Wollemi campaign. By insisting that retailers submit an "expression of interest" document - and always making clear that there was only so much product available to sell - the Wollemi marketing team established a competition among retailers to be among the very few, very fashionable providers of this unusual product.
Wollemi, like Porsche, controlled the marketing mechanisms and point of sales materials to an incredible degree. The marketing people invested heavily in how best to present their product - from its near extinction and amazing rediscovery to the beauty that it will provide in a garden. They even included dinosaurs to keep the kids interested.
And while they promote the pines as being for everyone on any occasion, the price point tells a different story. Ranging from £85 to £1,000, there's only a certain segment of the market that will be interested, let alone be able to afford buying one of these.
The Wollemi campaigners have cracked the code for creating a buzz around a high end garden retail product. For those who can afford the pines, their landscapers will build them into designs so that the buyers can troop their guests outside and show them their forest primeval. For those who can't afford them, the aspiration has been craftily designed that one day, they, too, might be able to have an almost extinct tree in their backyard.
Coffee, WiFi and a new gardening generation
Establishing a footprint in a new location or sector is one of the things that Starbucks does best. And when the company does so, it invariably assists that locale in becoming a destination. After all, what could be nicer than sitting in pleasant surroundings with a good cup of coffee, enjoying an interesting discussion with your friends?
Welcome to the new world of garden retail cafes. The catering function is finding a new life in garden centres throughout the country. The question is, how does the cafe differentiate itself from its nearby competitors - now in the form of coffee houses and restaurants as well as cafes in other retail garden centres?
Bring in Starbucks. That's your answer.Starbucks has worked for years to establish a cachet that - like it or not - works. For all the people who bemoan the "American" taste of Starbucks coffee as compared to its Italian or French counterparts, Starbucks has perfected how to create a destination that people enjoy.
Starbucks is always looking for new ways to get its product into new markets. Beginning with bookstores, expanding into supermarkets, providing coffee to offices and more, Starbucks works outreach in any and every form it can find that fits. And garden retailers fit perfectly.
When Barnett Hill Garden & Leisure decided to incorporate Starbucks coffee into its Terrace Cafe offerings, the company was opening new doors not just in their own location but for Starbucks - and thus, other retailers - across the country.
Starbucks has now found a new market niche. For garden retailers, you can have the instant cachet - and incredible destination strength - of a coffee house that already has brand recognition. Add in WiFi and you're guaranteed a new generation of customers who will just have to buy that gift or bring some flowers or a plant home to Mum.
First mover advantage
For garden retailers both these marketing strategies are the signs and portents of things to come. Big players are entering the market - and they're bringing big money with them.
Strategically, you have to figure out how to make these and other vendors' offerings most attractive to your customers. You need to assess the current demographics of your customer base, whether those demographic statistics will sustain you over the long term and how you need to change your marketing and product strategies now to ensure long-term success.
Too often existing retailers will say, "We don't want to be a destination" as they turn their backs on specialised offerings - particularly those bankrolled by someone else. Get over it. You don't have a choice. If customers are not pointed in your direction, they're pointed elsewhere. It's your responsibility to figure out how to make sure they make their way to you.
The Wollemi and Starbucks marketeers of the world have already figured out how to get customers to your retail centre. They've spent a lot of money to gain that know-how. Why not take advantage of what they have already figured out, make a small investment in what it will take to bring them - or others - into your centre and ride their wave?
If you can nail it, the returns could be immense.