Garden centers transform themselves into destinations for fall and Christmas
The months leading up to December can lead to a slowdown in business at many garden centers, as gardening activity decreases. But some retailers have made these months quite profitable, and without going too far off mission, if at all.
After all, nurseries and garden centers aren’t just in the nursery and garden center business. Some see their true mission as providing beauty to the customer. Among them is Laura Hammond, director of marketing at Al’s Garden & Home, which has four locations in Oregon.
“We bring beauty into people’s lives, and that comes in different forms,” Hammond said. “What you are selling is that finished product and the ability for clients to enjoy their life in a very certain way.”
Garden centers today can be more than just a place to buy plants. Some have become holiday destinations. Many put on events to provide customers with creativity, inspiration, learning, fun and, importantly, gifts and décor.
In the United States, more than 50 percent of gardeners in the baby boomer generation are female, and among millennials, it is more than 70 percent, according to the National Gardening Survey.
At Al’s, they drew on that knowledge to create a persona for their buyers in each of those groups — Sally and Kristin.
Sally is of the boomer and slightly younger generation. An educated homeowner, she knows some botanical nomenclature and about varieties, and may even come in with specific ones to request. She doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty.
Kristin is 20–30 years younger than Sally, with one or two kids she may need to keep busy. She knows no nomenclature. She wants the look of a garden but doesn’t necessarily want to get her hands dirty. Convenience is important. “If the party is tomorrow, and she wants her table a certain way, she might sacrifice a little bit of quality to do it on time,” Hammond said.
Importantly, both Sally and Kristin have said their home, garden and how they entertain is an extension of their personal style.
At garden centers such as Al’s, Bauman’s Farm & Garden (Gervais, Oregon) and Farmington Gardens (Hillsboro and Beaverton, Oregon), targeting Kristin and Sally in the holiday months means, in part, meeting their respective needs for personal self-expression in the home, garden and free time; family time; and fun.
Setting the scene
Brian Bauman, general manager at Bauman’s, said that by September 1, the idea of a “wonderland” is not just for winter anymore. Fall décor — including harvest, pumpkin-themed and Halloween decorations and gifts — is the fastest growing category for the business. Therefore, Bauman’s takes more than three greenhouses and fills them with displays from September through January.
Heading to gift shows and locations such as AmericasMart, a wholesale marketplace with more than 300 showrooms in Atlanta, Geogia for home décor products, Bauman’s staff pick out hundreds of items, from mittens — “Our hottest selling item,” said Bauman — to glass pumpkins, planters, chimineas, scarecrows, decorative wheat bundles and more.
The deadline for having everything in place is the annual Chicks Night Out. The free, just-for-women event starts on the first Thursday of September. It not only jump-starts fall sales of new items, but cleans out end-of-season items as well.
It offers music; classes related to merchandise in the store (e.g., flower arranging); massages; and some free cider and food samples, but mostly food, wine and cider for purchase. Regular store items are discounted — like this year’s offer of 50-70 percent off all pottery — and guests get an extra incentive to shop end-of-season items.
In this way, the center becomes a destination for some well-planned fun while providing an opportunity for the women to get first dibs on new décor items.
Show a little appreciation
In a challenging time for sales during the year, what better way than to show a little appreciation and create a holiday just for customers? This is exactly what Farmington Gardens does at the end of September: it holds a customer appreciation event as a segue into the holiday season.
Each year, the event has a theme where staff dresses up, items are deeply discounted, and there are carnival games, scavenger hunts, 4-H displays, beehive viewing, a cake walk and more activities to bring in customers.
Michelle Shepard, marketing manager, states that the nursery is saving money by selling plants that would otherwise have to be overwintered.
“We will have potted plants because everything is on sale, and we try to have some color, and we have a lot of classes for sprucing up your fall containers, which helps us get coupons out for later events,” Shepard said. “It takes us into the next phase.”
That, of course, is Christmas — their big season. But the event also provides an opportunity to remind customers of the big upcoming delivery of pumpkins.
Pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins
More than 1.5 billion pounds of usable pumpkins were produced in the United States in 2018, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, and only 15 percent were for processing; the rest were sold whole. The National Retail Federation estimates that 49 percent of adult Americans decorate for Halloween, with specialty pumpkins like Cinderella, white (ghost), multicolored and green pumpkins gaining in demand the last five years.
Pumpkins offer workshop opportunities for pumpkin-centric masterpieces that incorporate plants to promote sales of existing inventory. Farmington has its pumpkins delivered, along with gourds, to provide their customers front porch decorating and workshops.
Al’s grow and sells its classic pumpkins, no matter the size, at $1.99 (until the end of October, when they slash the price to .99 cents); specialty pumpkins at a higher price; and (last year) minis at 3 for $4. They bring people in and prompt one of Al’s most successful Wine & Workshop Wednesday classes (a regular year-round event priced at $40) in October, when customers make a succulents and pumpkin centerpiece.
Al’s then gives customers other reasons to stay and buy things they need for beautifying their homes. These include a full line of Pacific Northwest-perfect fashionable clothing; gourds; pumpkins of all colors and sizes, smooth and warty; decorative corn; mums and other fall plants galore to brighten the home. There is also the fall inspiration package, a starter kit for porch decorating that includes a corn stalk, straw bale and pumpkin.
The combination provides the fall aesthetic a Kristin would appreciate with its nod toward convenience — someone else has done the design work. Groupings like the inspiration package (similar to pre-picked mixes of tulip bulbs) can prompt the customer to walk away with more than the pumpkin she came shopping for, including other plants and goods.
A harvest marketing juggernaut
Bauman’s Farm & Garden also grows its own pumpkins and sells out of them every year at its Harvest Festival (bauamanshf.com), which runs from the third week of September until the end of October. It began 31 years ago with Brian’s second-grade class coming in for a tour of the garden, and has turned into 100,000 visitors — existing and potential customers — in six weeks.
Notably, the ideas for festival activities originated from things the younger Baumans did growing up on the farm, like making hay forts and swings and picking pumpkins, which the farm had been growing since the late 1800s. “Everything we do is based on that idea of sharing the farm and all the fun stuff we shared as kids,” Bauman said.
The Harvest Festival offers guests 12 activities for an $8 weekend admission, including an animal barn and hayride. A $20 wristband unlocks unlimited turns on 20 more activities, including a maze, sock hop and apple slingshot.
Activities are changed each year based on what provides the best customer experience. The activities always focus on children and lots and lots of food. There is also something for the adults, such as a two-day Cider Festival (where Bauman does an exit survey to capture contact information) at the end of September; one to two musical acts on weekend; a pumpkin weigh off (with 10,000 visitors alone the day of the event — last year a 2,157.5-pound winner!); and coupons.
Visitors gets a 16-page, four-color harvest guide to apprise them of festival activities as well as advertise future events and other businesses, and provide a sheet of coupons for discounts on plants and other goods at the event and in the garden center post-event, between November and March.
“It’s a lot to pull this off, but the reason I’m still doing it, it is part of a who we are,” Bauman said. “There is a demand among consumers; they are looking for traditions to do as a family. People who came here as kids are coming here with their families.”
Bauman is always looking for ways to enhance visitors’ connection to the farm beyond just the pumpkin patch, which sticks in their memories. Some visitors think the fall festival is all Bauman’s does.
To partially remedy that, the first weekend of the festival, Bauman’s offers a $5 discount on the unlimited ride wristband for those who sign up for the rewards program. Bauman’s then reaches back out to let them know about such products as U-cut Christmas trees, hanging basket reveals in spring, produce in summer, and more.
“A lot of new people can go through the whole farm and not realize the retail store is there, so we do a scavenger hunt to see all parts of the farm,” Bauman said.
Farmington Gardens’ Holiday Market in December follows on the heels of its popular wreath-making workshops that begin the day after Thanksgiving.
Coupons and reminders go out as the mass of pumpkins are being delivered in October, and each workshop provides an opportunity to continue promotion plus hand out more coupons — every participant gets one to shop in the store.
Farmington has a consistent partnership with Shannon Feltus, a private chef at Urban Farm Foods, whose success translates into her followers attending her regular workshops at Farmington (on such topics as canning, vinegar and pickel making, and decorating) and visiting her at Farmington’s Holiday Market, where she maintains a booth for the two Saturdays in December that it runs.
“It is so great when you can team up with someone trying to boost themselves,” Shepard said. “Shannon has a big following, and we have a big following, and it is nice to put those two together.”
In its fourth year, the Holiday Market keeps growing, Shepard said, as customers now expect it and more vendors find it and apply for a spot.
“We have 20 to 30 vendors each year, and all of them have people who follow them, so they themselves bring in people,” Shepard said.
Vendors are focused on gifts, and include everything from woodworking, carved trees and wood toys to yard art, canned preserves, and photography.
Farmington, for its part, has wreath workshops, sells wreaths and Christmas trees (cut and live), hosts the real Santa Claus (Shepard insists!) and of course provides plenty of impulse buys of plants in Christmas colors, such as pots with coral bells (Heucheras), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), hellebore, dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) and lemon cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’).
“It’s supposed to be a slow time to get things done, and it’s not,” Shepard said. “I do believe that we do get new customers every year because of the holiday activities. We hear it all the time, ‘We never knew you were here! That you were this big!’”
Lights, camera, action
Like at Farmington Gardens, staff at Al’s are already gearing up for its big Christmas merchandizing events by September. They decorate four stores in preparation for the Evening of Lights open house events in early November, which attract more than 4,800 people at the four stores combined
At the event, there are more than 40 varieties of locally grown poinsettias and lavishly designed displays with gifts for everyone, right down to dog lovers, and up to 20 “designer” trees.
“It gives customers ideas well ahead of Thanksgiving,” Hammond said. “Seventy-five percent will put up their tree Thanksgiving weekend, and we’ve got to be primed to take advantage of that small window, because the first to second week of December, we’re done.”
As well, the Rose City Garden Railway Society sets a Christmas-themed toy train route, carolers come calling, and there is other live music plus local vendor-provided holiday treats, including wine, beer, cupcakes, cakes and cookies.
The sheer numbers who come out for the events may be a testament to its success, and yet Al’s conducts plenty of activities leading-up to the event to help build interest in the store.
For example, Al’s offers a special Kids’ Club hands-on planting activity — normally $7 — for free in October, and they make it Halloween themed. The December activity includes storytime and cookies with Mrs. Claus.
Al’s also offers autumn-themed and Christmas-themed child photo sessions in the fall to bring the kids and their parents into the store. Sessions cost $35. They are limited and typically sell out, keeping demand high.
For these and all events, Al’s has a consistent Facebook marketing strategy that becomes laser-focused in fall on the holiday months and the retail purchases possible at the store during that time.
Garden retail centers that have made their businesses a destination for holiday season fun, gifts and décor have found a way to maximize the utility of their location, get rid of season-end products, provide opportunities and benefits to existing customers and cultivate new loyal customers who become attached through the many experiences, a reason to return.
By targeting a holiday for a larger marketing and event effort, they begin to perfect the execution and their success.
Tracy Ilene Miller is a freelance writer and editor who covers several topics, including gardening. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.