Garden Centers Meet Customers, Apparently for the First Time


One of the horticultural industry insider newsletters I get reported on the latest "Consumer Buzz Live" event at a nursery industry conference.  Retailers packed the room to hear what a panel of "typical" consumers had to say about their business.  Apparently they were fascinated:

Overall, we got some great feedback from the audience. As a matter of fact, despite the late hour, many of them didn’t want to leave. Some stopped the panelists on their way out to ask them more questions; we practically had to force the retailers back on the buses.

if only owners of garden centers could get to talk to their customers more than once a year!  What insight they could gain!

But wait — who are all those people milling about in your shop?  Or, for that matter, who are all those people milling about at the Home Depot garden center?  What do they have to say?

I shop at three independent garden centers in my hometown.  At one of them, the entire staff stays behind the cash register and nobody ever says anything to me.  (Mind you, I’m the local garden columnist.  Can you think of a better time to pitch a story to me than when I’m in your store, browsing around, probably procrastinating because my column is due?)

And at the other two garden centers, the one and only thing anyone ever says to me is: "Finding everything okay?"

Now, seriously.  It’s a small town.  I’m a regular customer. I’m a known plant junkie. I’m here looking for something to spend my money on. It’s not that I’m having trouble locating the penstemons–I’ve been in your store a million times and I know every inch of it.  I’m wandering around looking for something to inspire me.

What if somebody came up to me and said, "Hey, how’s your garden?" I might roll my eyes and say that it looks like shit and that I hate this dead zone in August when nothing blooms. Now we’re having a conversation!

Or what about, "Ooooh, you found our heucheras.   Did you see we’ve got the 4 inch pots, too?"

Or, "I love that salvia.  I’ve got three of them in my garden, and the hummingbirds are all over them this time of year.   Did you know there’s a taller variety, too?"

Or, when I’m lucky enough to run into somebody who remembers me from last time I was in, "Hey, Amy!  Come see our new shipment of dahlias.  It’s this new variety that doesn’t get powdery mildew."

Or–if you’re really looking for your customer’s opinions–"Hey, you’re in here a lot.  What you think of these new stepping stones we just got in?  Do you think we should carry another brand of organic fertilizer, or do you like the ones we have? Have you bought this insecticidal soap before, or is this your first time to try it?  How did it work for you?"

So: Conversations at garden centers.  Are you for them or against them?



  1. LOL, I’m FOR it in theory. But I can see where this could get a little out of hand. I hope that panel of consumers was well-picked and balanced. I’d hate to have some whacko on there that says something inane and all the garden center owners earnestly note it and next year all the stores have nothing but mauve plants in stock!

  2. I’d love it if anybody at the garden center would bother to talk to me. I have so much to learn that I don’t always know the right questions to ask. You’re right–they’re oddly silent, more so than at any other store I can think of.

  3. I was at Natural Gardener nursery yesterday and had a wonderful, 10-minute conversation with a staff member who knew all about the native ornamental trees I was looking at. To top it off, she’d only been in Austin for a few months (from Colorado). I asked her, “How did you learn so much about these Austin natives so fast?” She smiled and said, “I’m just a plant geek.” And that’s what I love about Natural Gardener, as well as Barton Springs Nursery—they hire friendly plant geeks.

  4. I know what you mean. Our local gardening spot, which had outrageous prices, but never a parking spot because it was worth the money, closed two years ago, and nothing can replace the personal connection. They helped my daughter with her herb selections when she was tiny and remembered to ask about her when she went away to college. I can drive forty-five minutes to shop at a fabulous nursery with a great attitude about gardening, but we have nothing in our own neighborhood; I hate to admit how many times a season I skip chores to make that drive just to buy plants from gardenters. There are tremendous seed and plant catalogues online, but they have yet to ask me how my kids are doing when I place my order.

  5. Just to give the other side of the coin here… I worked part-time at a local garden center this spring and summer. (In fact, yesterday was my last day there of the season even though I was supposedly only hired for April-June.)

    I actually asked a lot of the kinds of questions that Amy suggested above. I also have opened up conversations with people by saying things like, “I have three of those twisty alliums you’re buying, and keep moving them around because I can’t seem to find a spot that shows them off well enough. May I ask where you’re going to put them in your garden? It may give me some ideas…”

    Most of the time, these openers have led to fabulous conversations. Among the highlights are one guy who grows squash from seed every year just for the tropical-looking leaves! (He lets them grow across his front lawn, picking up the vines and moving them when he has to mow and then placing them back on the grass afterward.) Another guy finally realized why he and I thought we knew each other–when I worked at a different small garden center two years before, I had helped him pick out all of the plants for his front yard garden. “They’re all getting tall this year, like you said they would, so now it’s time to widen the bed and find some shorter stuff for the front,” he told me.

    About 40% of the time, though, I receive the brush-off, sometimes delivered in a rather rude manner. (“Don’t even try to sell me something here, I just came in to look for ideas before I go to Home Depot,” was one lady’s response to my comment about how nice it was to see the sun again after a rainy week. Ouch.) I have also learned that if someone doesn’t respond to my initial smile, it’s best not to open my mouth at all because they are likely trying to avoid contact with “the salesperson.” (Nevermind that I’m more likely to tell someone that he/she shouldn’t plant a certain plant, or that if they want 20 of something that’s a fast-grower they should wait until we get the smaller pots in next spring or start it from seed.) I’m a pretty resilient, optimistic girl, but if I’ve had a string of such comments first thing in the morning I’ll admit it’s hard to be upbeat and approach the next 10 customers with more than a hello smile.

    So… is it possible that we plant junkies, as we intently search out new plants and fun combinations, might just be sending a “Don’t talk to me?” vibe to salespeople? Maybe our focus is a little too laser-like and a little effort on our part to ask where best to place a chocolate eupatorium for good leaf color without wilting would open the lines of communication. Or maybe it would make it apparent that the place just employs people who can water plants at a cheap rate of pay… which is also something I’d rather know.

  6. Depends on whether you’re an E-type or an I-type, doesn’t it? (Forgot…no links here. Well Google MBTI). I prefer an informed conversation from the staff if I initiate it. I hate going to stores where in every aisle a different person asks me how I’m doing. I’d be doing a lot better if they gave me time to think and mull and read labels and mull some more.

    What I really like is a place where the prices are clearly marked and there are lots of informative labels on the plants. In Austin, Barton Springs Nursery is one of the best in that regard. And the staff is friendly without being intrusive.

  7. The question is : ” Do you know the names of the sales help at your local garden store ?.

    That just might make a difference to how you are greeted and treated.

    I frequent only one retail nursery in my hood along with the local Home Depot because I am a professional and usually do all my shopping at the big wholesalers.
    But on days when I am lacking for inspiration or need a quick ‘plant fix’ I’ll drive to the San Rafael Home Depot and say hi to Charlie Rossi the nursery manager and we’ll shoot the horticultural breeze for as long as he can before another local customer catches his attention.

    At the town nursery, Sloats garden center, regular hort- head customers are introduced to other regular plant junkies by the Sloats staff while waiting in line or while browsing the ‘Garden Picture Photo Wall’ .
    John and Melissa, the two main managers of the Novato Sloats might not always have a chance to chat it up with all the customers all of the time but you can usually always depend on a wave or a nod or if they have a chance the time to chat about the new hort. introductions.

    The road to the garden nurseries go both ways.
    Be an open and friendly customer and they are going to be an open and friendly sales staff.
    Send the message that you are closed up and don’t want to be bothered and the sales staff will probably respect that and leave you alone.

  8. I just had a creepy experience at Home Depot (I was there to buy a shovel) where this elderly staffer followed me INSISTING that I needed his help. I felt bad and let him load a bag of soil into my cart.

    But normally I chat up a storm with the folks at my favorite local nurseries. It’s expected and it’s part of the experience. They’ve pointd me to many a great plant.

    And our co-op nursery actually conducted a series of phone interviews before they opened. These interviews had a big impact on what they decided to carry.

  9. I read that newsletter too- it can be a little…well…it has no edge. There I said it. Your last line was perfect.

  10. Being a garden writer in Nova Scotia is really entertaining. I really encourage people as much as possible to support locally owned and operated nurseries, rather than big box bullies that pushed in here from elsewhere. Nurseries know that. Some respond appreciatively, while others expect it’s their due. The ones I DON’T like, I simply don’t talk about at all–not in my columns, not in my blog or newsletter.

    I’m well known at a lot of nurseries because I shop at as many as I can, plus when it’s not busy, staff or owners and I ‘shoot the horticultural breeze,’ as Michelle wrote above. They tell me about new plants, or I suggest ones I’ve tried or seen. I’ve also warned them about certain plants based on the plant’s behaviour in MY garden, or on the wisdom of other gardeners. From many of these operators and staff, I have learned–and continue to learn–so much. What’s really fun is when they will turn to me when a customer has a question and WE will try to puzzle it out together. (Or sometimes customers see me skulking through the shrubs or poking through the perennials and come talk to me.)Unfortunately my photo is posted with my newspaper column, plus it’s on the back of my book. I don’t mind chatting with them, I just stress that I’m not a know-it-all; just a gardener with a lot of plants, same as them.

    What’s really interesting, though, is to go to a nursery where no one knows me and to either see how I’m treated, or watch how other customers are treated. By and large, service is great, and customers are appreciative.

    The oddest experience I had was when I was giving a talk in one part of the province I didn’t frequent, and my hosts took me to this garden centre/cafe/gift shop. I was busily looking at plants and taking photos and chatting with them when the owner sauntered up. They introduced me to her as the garden columnist, and I walked around with her. Then she said, “So. Do you do any gardening?”

    Ummmm. Well… I kept a straight face, but did allow as how I did do quite a bit of gardening. Inside, I was wondering if she perhaps thought garden writers didn’t garden? Cooking columnists got takeout? Sports writers hated sports? Well, anyway. It was amusing.
    I especially like the nursery where staff wear purple tee shirts with a big ASK ME on the back. Customers can find them easily–it’s a big place–and they know their stuff, too.

    That being said–my gardening hat is ALWAYS off to good garden centre staff, because some of the customers they have to deal with are Just.Plain.Rude. One staff who I just love has had it with people who buy their plants at Wal-Mart and then call her nursery asking for help. She says, very politely, “I’m sorry, I’m busy with a paying customer now, but if you go to Wal-Mart, I’m sure the helpful sales associates will give you their knowledge.” She’s one of my heros.

  11. I have my favorite nurseries–all of them in Southern Vermont–but have almost never run into somebody knowledgable able to answer a question or offer a bit of advice at one of them, let alone shoot the horticultural breeze–what a fantasy!

    The good nurseries often hire nice people–but ability to run a cash register seems to be much more important than a love of plants. I think it’s a shame.

  12. I prefer chatty nurserypeople. Since I am a very young-looking man with pierced ears, I frequently get ignored or put in the ‘no-money hoodlum’ category despite being a ‘spendaholic plant geek’ person. Also, since I visit a nursery multiple times, usually 1x a month, I should be recognized as a customer, not a bad kid.

    The nurseries I enjoy visiting the most are those that have pleasant staff.

  13. As a lawn and garden sales person and an avid gardener and plant ‘geek’ it is interesting to see how my customers treat their customers and their sales people since I am both. I have found that the owner sets the tone or, the phrase, ‘the fish rots from the head’ is apt. I have found that garden centers run by people who love all things connected with gardening usually employ staff with the same interest. Sharing their knowledge is part of the whole. Common courtesy is not all that common anymore. It really surprises me that there can be grumpy people (and there are, both customers and staff) at garden centers. After all most of the customers are there looking for something to beautify their homes and how can one be grumpy when looking for plants for that purpose? I rarely shop at the box stores as they compete directly with the independent garden centers and the products they sell are really not much cheaper than at the garden center. I will go in to check out products and pricing but the whole concept of the big store leaves me a bit cold.

  14. Since you live near me, Amy, I have to say that I agree for the most part with your experience. I have found that most of them will answer questions…IF they have the time and aren’t rushing to help another customer. Nurseries ALWAYS seem to be understaffed during the busy season.

    I don’t like being pestered in ANY type of store but, when I need help, I like someone to be accessible and to be treated with kindness (not just tolerance). I’m not terribly knowledgeable but I know what I like. Sometimes I need to know if I like what I SHOULD like for where I want to put it. When I lived in Nevada I remember being amazed to see a hydrangea in the nursery and questioned the clerk who responded..”HON…if we have it, it GROWS here!”. Hmpf…

    I garden like I cook — it isn’t always a pretty process but the results are generally good.

  15. I agree with M.Sinclair Stevens when he said that the road to the nursery, or garden center, runs both ways. I know because I’ve been a constant visitor and for the past six years I’ve worked at one of the largest and most visited garden centers in Chicago.

    Our customers constant comment is ” I love coming here because the staff is so knowledgeable and helpful. ” Sweeter words were never spoken.

    You can’t just be a sales person at a garden center – you’ve got to love plants and people. I’ve made so many acquaintances with customers who always come back and ask for me by name. I try to make them comfortable because I know that they can be intimidated by latin names, lack of knowledge, etc. and are apt to be shy to ask questions.

    “Finding everything alright ?” is not a question I’d ever ask. After greeting customers my line is : ” See anything you don’t like ? This always breaks the ice. As a customer I don’t want to be pestered by silly questions but do want to know that people are available if I need help.

    One thing that irks me about some customers is that when they need help and I’m occupied with another customer they never hestitate to interrupt and ask if they can ask ” a quick question !” I don’t answer that one – I just raise my hand like a teacher and the message is clear : Wait your turn.

  16. I find just the opposite: in the 4 local nurseries in our beach community, we have to allot extra time for socializing on each stop. I’ll get taken to the back greenhouse to be shown the latest cool plant acquisition or the latest organic product. (Maybe that’s because they know I’m an easy mark for a sale!) Perhaps it is a small-town thing, because in my hometown, Seattle, I never had that experience.

  17. Amy, they are intimidated by you – at least I was when I worked at one of the garden centers you mentioned. You do have that laser-like focus that most customers take on when they do not want to be bothered, and when we see that – we think, gosh, I don’t want to be the a** who disturbs the local garden writer while she is thinking Great Thoughts about plants!

    At the nursery that you mention where I used to work and now often shop, I hear the types of comments all the time that you wish they used – it is just that they are usually used more with people who look a bit out of place or like they might want a helping hand, or even just like they have time to kill.

    For whatever reason you are great at looking as though you are concentrating even when you are procrastinating! You might try wearing a ludicrously oversized garden hat as an ice-breaker. Or you could just try asking those leading questions of the workers there and see if they open up to you! Celebrity can be overwhelming, so it is really up to you to let them know you are happy to be approached.

  18. I love chatty garden center people, too. I go to the private one whenever possible (which is almost all the time). In Buffalo, I used to go to Home Depot, though, because they had SO MUCH stuff. Here, we have Lowe’s, and I never go there, even though they have basically the same stuff. I’ve gone to Walmart a couple of times, but not regularly. I really like the local place, but last year they sold to new owners, so I’ve had to establish myself all over again, and really haven’t done it, because each year I’m here I need less and less stuff.

    Incidentally, Japanese anemones bloom here in August, and they’re so prolific as to be almost invasive. And my campanulas are blooming, even yet in Sept. And — strange, and due to the Easter Freeze this year, my magnolia, badly killed back but recovering, is going to bloom. Am I lucky!

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