Putting the enjoyment back into garden centre visits

After the most turbulent peak-season in history it’s great to see our garden centres back open and customers slowly rebuilding their confidence in shopping… but there is a long way to go, writes Andy Newman from retail consultants mdj2.

Andy Newman - image: HW
Andy Newman - image: HW

"Whilst the immediate focus is rightly on providing customers and colleagues with a safe shopping environment, it’s going to be really important for garden centres to start looking forward again. There is a very real challenge ahead – how do you shift the focus from practical, safe shopping to making it an enjoyable day out again?

Everyone has seen the masses of column inches being devoted to the difficulties being felt by most retailers, even the retail-bellwether John Lewis, as customers have turned increasingly to online shopping during the pandemic. There are also big questions about the future shape of our high streets – a debate that was already underway but has simply been turbocharged by COVID-19.

But cast your mind back just six months and most garden centres were feeling positive about the future. Over the past few years they have bucked the trend of general retail, with sales and footfall climbing and this is not down to chance.

Confident investment by leading groups such as Dobbies, Blue Diamond, Notcutts, Squires, etc has resulted in better shopping experiences for customers, with great coffee shops and restaurants at the forefront of those improvements. Lots of independent centres have also invested in their future, and most centres have positioned themselves really well as a ‘great trip out’ and it's going to be crucially important to put the enjoyment back into that trip as soon as is safely possible.

So how do you start to do this? We believe one of the most important factors will be remotivating sales floor teams to deliver service with a smile. It has been a really stressful time for colleagues over the past few weeks, with the emphasis of their roles having changed towards guidance and enforcement, and interaction with customers taking on a more serious and practical nature. Listening to those colleagues and helping to rebuild their confidence and enthusiasm will be key to making your customers feel welcome again.

Another area for focus is display standards, which have had to be compromised over recent weeks in favour of improvised layouts and the many additional tasks having to be completed by a similar number of staff. Centres have understandably become covered with hazard tape and temporary signage, often creating anxious emotions in shoppers, and detracting from the impulsive and fun nature of shopping. In fact, this may be more pronounced in garden centres given the older age profile of customers. It may not be time to take that away just yet, but it’s something for businesses to be very mindful of, especially as centres approach their plans for the all-important Christmas season.

From a marketing perspective, shifting the conversation away from the pandemic and back to the emotions of enjoying the garden, or treating yourself or others, will also be a step in the right direction — let’s face it, who isn’t fed up talking about COVID-19 now? Engaging customers with competitions and incentives can also help with creating the motivation and confidence for them to visit again.

The sector can be justifiably proud of the resilience and adaptability it has shown during the pandemic, and it’s with that same energy and passion that it’s now time to start the journey to put the enjoyment back into a visit to the garden centre."

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