by Sally Colby

People are ready to shop for plants, and in some areas, customers will be allowed to do just that at retail garden centers. Despite restrictions, Dr. Bridget Behe, horticulture professor and retail marketing expert at Michigan State University, said it’s still important for retailers to provide a shopping experience from the consumer’s perspective.

“We’re working under some very personally and professionally challenging conditions,” said Behe. “We have to start with doing what is legal and what is ethical. This is where best judgement needs to come into play. What can you do safely? Does that include online sales, curbside pickup, and can you do no-touch payments?” Behe added that businesses know their employees and customers, and now is the time to take positive and helpful steps that will benefit all.

Communication with staff is essential, and Behe recommends an upbeat and positive yet honest outlook so staff are aware of the business’s status. “Having honest, frequent communication with staff is essential right now,” she said. “We need to be visible in the steps we’re taking to keep our customers safe. Planning is important, action is important.”

Behe encourages staff meetings to include safe distancing, discussions about new protocols, COVID symptoms and personal hygiene. Develop guidelines for sanitizing surfaces such as checkout areas, card readers and pin pads. Discuss new payment methods that may be implemented and be sure employees are familiar with any new payment methods. Encourage and make it easy for customers to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer after paying for items. Consider setting aside hours for at-risk customers.

“Share the positive fact that plants impact our health, wellness and the environment,” said Behe. “Our message is ripe for the listening, and we need to, every one of us, every day, spread positive images and messages.” One source of positive messages about plants is the Ellison Chair in International Floriculture, at

“People need to see your product, but not all of it at one time,” said Behe. “Think about what you can feature – a couple of products a day – on Facebook. We need to strategically think about how we’re going to show and share products we want to sell. Featuring a couple a day is a better strategy than trying to get everything out at one time.”

Behe said growers should expect basics to sell quickly because people are in a hunkered down mode. “Talk about victory gardens in a very positive light,” she said, “and how we can increase food security by planting vegetables.”

Although the shopping reality has changed, Behe said it’s important that retailers don’t lose sight of helping customers find success at home. “It isn’t simply about making the sale and moving the product,” she said. “As independent garden retailers, we need to be with the consumer, helping them be successful at home to solidify the relationship in the long term.”

In any retail situation, the entryway is critical, and it’s still an important aspect of attracting customers. “In the first 10 to 20 feet of retail space, we would normally think about creating a landing space,” said Behe. “What we might think about now is restaging for curbside pickup.” Behe added that people may be looking further into the store and not be as visually engaged in products at the entrance.

In addition to making a good first impression, it’s important to keep the premises clean and show customers that carts are clean and safe. Allow sufficient space throughout both inside and outdoor areas, and consider initiating one-way traffic so customers don’t have to pass one another in close quarters.

Behe believes identifying locations of various plant types in the retail store will contribute to better customer flow. “It will also expedite the shopping process,” she said. “Think about showing herbs for pizza, a salad bowl hanging basket – not concentrating so much on what the plants are, but what is behind the banner. How can we integrate plants into more packages, for edibles as well as ornamentals, and how do we draw attention to that?”

Retail garden centers help customers solve problems, and Behe said it’s still important to offer solutions to customers. Features such as deer-resistant and drought-tolerant plants may become less important than food crops this year. “Don’t forget about solution-based marketing,” she said. “People might be coming to us with a single plant in mind, but if we have packages or package solutions, they’ll look at multiple unit sales that will average a higher overall ticket and help move inventory.”

Consider ongoing marketing both inside and outside the store. Botanical classifications such as annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs and foliage help employees, but Behe said that isn’t how customers buy plants. Instead, customers are more likely to search based on specific planting areas such as sunny or shady. “We may need to redefine what sun, shade or partial sun means,” she said, “especially for people to be successful with vegetables.”

Color will continue to drive customer choices, so arranging products by color will help customers sort through their options. Behe said it isn’t necessarily about the individual plant or flower color, but more about integrating plants of certain hues that result in the overall look of a garden.

“We should think about integrating smaller shrubs with annuals and perennials,” said Behe, adding that such a move may contribute to a higher price point. “It’s going to move inventory and create instant solutions for customers. Staging by color is a great way to present plant material, but think about how to integrate plant material.” Behe cautioned that this isn’t a time for discounts or panic sales, or for price gouging.

Because trees may be difficult to sell in the atmosphere of reduced contact, Behe suggested incorporating shrubs into larger, mixed containers. Such packages, when priced appropriately, can create a pleasant backyard where people spend time.

Think about what you can offer to beginning gardeners or children. For ornamentals, consider featuring a color for each day of the week and creating a theme. “That way we can offer mixed containers and move multiple products,” said Behe, “not putting everything out at one time.”

Behe believes that while the future probably won’t look like this year’s scenario, she said online transactions will likely continue. “For the long term, I don’t think we’re going to do 100% of our business this way,” said Behe. “But the more energy you put into this, the more resilient you’re going to be in the long term.”