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What Successful Landscape Nurseries Do Right
| Anne-Marie Hardie
>> Published Date: 7/30/2014
Landscape contractors want to work with growers. In fact, growers have become the number one resource for landscapers to learn about new varieties. Sixty percent of landscape contractors believe that their sales will continue to increase over the next three years. Both an increase in home ownership and a stable economy have led to a rise in demand for landscape contractors. In order to meet their clients’ needs, these contractors need growers that they can depend on—and despite the landscape contractors’ interest in working with growers—this relationship doesn’t always occur naturally.

Successful landscape nurseries have identified this need and responded accordingly. So what are the successful landscape nurseries doing right? Their secret of success isn’t that mysterious. Put simply, take the time to know your market.

Get to know your market
“The landscape industry does everything from a truck and a wheelbarrow landscaper to the very high-end residential and commercial,” said Matthew Frederickson, nursery manager at Midwest Groundcovers’ Virgil, Illinois, location. “So there are different types of landscapers, each with their own needs and expectations.”

Landscape contractors are often trying to balance their customer requests with what’s available. Simply being accessible will help ease these concerns. To make a landscaper’s life even easier, take the time to understand what their customer is looking for. One interesting aspect of landscapers is that they’ll change their product if the new plant will serve their needs more efficiently. However, there are always limitations to product changes, usually dictated by the needs of the customer. Landscapers are looking for growers that can offer them solutions, respond quickly and help their job run smoother, explained Matthew.    

“The smaller guy generally tends to be more flexible, with the ability to make changes quickly,” he said. “Where some of the larger operations have [company-authorized landscape] plans and may not have as much room for product alterations.”

At bare minimum, learn what the landscapers’ expectations are and match them: whether it’s on-site drop-off or quick turn-around time. So what are some of the landscapers’ expectations for growers? Their primary expectations are quite simple: Are the plants they want available? And how fast can they be delivered?

“Timeliness is key to working with landscapers,” said Francis Gallo, assistant manager for Bradford Greenhouses Garden Gallery. “Being there to speak with the landscapers and find them the product not only meets their customer’s needs, but can also be delivered quickly.” 

The right product
Quality products are absolutely essential for a landscape contractor. “Understand that landscapers are exactly like garden center customers in the fact that the product must be retail ready,” said Rob Swanekamp of Kube Pak in Allentown, New Jersey. 

Landscapers need a product that will both show and sustain well, so strong established root systems are necessary. These plants need to be of the highest standard while also able to cope with some stress. To ensure that their customer is satisfied, landscape contractors are looking for products that provide a beautiful display while being lower maintenance. According to the 2012 Ball Landscape survey, the No. 1 inquiry of landscaper contractor clients is about perennials at 37.5%, up from 3.5% in 2010. Although annuals will continue to be a request, more and more landscapers are making the shift to incorporate perennials in their customers’ garden beds. Landscapers are looking for products that are sustainable—seeking perennials, native plants and products that are drought

Successful landscape nurseries take the time to recommend products that address these concerns. Ninety-one percent of growers surveyed shared that new annuals and perennials are important to their landscape contractors. Whether it’s sharing a new annual variety or tips on integrating perennials into the garden, landscape
growers can strengthen their relationship
by sharing this information with the

Landscape contractors will return to those growers who take the time to find the products that best address the landscaper’s needs. The ideal relationship is one where the grower not only works to anticipate what the landscaper wants, but also responds to them.

Going above and beyond
Flexibility is key when working with landscapers, shares Matthew, whether it’s responding to a rush job or putting a job on hold due to weather. As part of their landscape contractor service, Midwest Groundcovers offers a full delivery service, including on-site delivery.

Weather is one of the biggest challenges, delaying jobs for days and, at times, weeks. Midwest Groundcovers will hold the landscape contractor order until the weather improves, ensuring that the plant is in optimal condition when it’s scheduled to be planted. Working with weather fluctuations not only means that order may be put on hold, but when the weather improves, there needs to be a system in place for rush deliveries. The landscaper needs to be able to plant the product when the customer is ready for it and a successful landscape nursery ensures that this is exactly the type of service that they provide.

Be accessible
“We’re always inviting guests in. That’s probably one of our best-selling tools—to bring customers out to the nursery to let them actually see the product right up front and let them see where it’s growing,” said Matthew. 

Tours are a wonderful way to foster a relationship with a landscaper. Landscape contractors value in-person interactions and tend to choose growers who take the time to develop a relationship. In addition, tours let the landscaper see the product—not only the new items, but also the quality and size of what’s available. Matthew said that tours are a great tool to get both new orders and build on existing ones.

In addition to tours, Midwest Groundcovers provides their customer base with a weekly e-newsletter through Constant Contact. This newsletter is used to promote products (red, white and blue for Independence Day, for example), provide recommended product combinations, offer educational tidbits and simply connect the customer to the grower. 

At Kube Pak, Rob regularly attends trade shows to connect with their present customers and build new relationships.  

“Ten years ago, we used to do zero trade shows. We’re easily up to 15 now, attending a combination of shows that cater to landscapers and greenhouse customers,” said Rob. “Trade shows are also a great way to get started. Just go visit some trade shows that cater to landscapers and get a feel for what’s going on there. Once you’re comfortable with that, think about putting a booth in.”

Evolving with the customer
Successful landscape nurseries provide options in all areas, from delivery to how the plants are ordered. There will always be landscapers who prefer to either order in person or send in a faxed request. However, more and more landscape contractors are using technology to connect with their growers, whether it’s sending a quick text or scrolling through an online catalog.

“We’ve just updated our website and part of the upgrade includes online availability,” said Matthew. “In the short time it’s been up we can see that it’s getting a lot of traffic.”
In 2012, 50% of growers were using computer tablets at work and 71.4% were using smartphones. Technology offers an additional opportunity to develop a relationship with a landscape contractor, whether it’s used to order product or to ask a question.

Take the time to forecast
One of the challenges, whether it’s working with garden centers or landscape contractors, is forecasting.   

“The big X-factor is weather. If there’s one thing we’re seeing now is that the season is getting pushed later and later,” said Rob. “We used to be ready to go on April 15 with product, but now it’s almost Mother’s Day before the business really starts to pick up.”

One of the advantages of working with landscape contractors is that their work isn’t as impacted by the weather fluctuations. Garden center demands will change based on weather trends, but landscapers still need to plant their product. 

Establishing contracts with regular landscapers is one way to help reduce the strain of forecasting. It’s also extremely important to stay connected to the needs of your customer base. One of the mistakes, Matthew shares, is growing products that growers think that landscapers should be buying, but aren’t necessarily what the market is asking for.

“We try to listen as best we can to our customers,” said Matthew. “Trying to look at current buying trends, past buying trends and predicting what we think will be good for the future.”

Landscape contractors will continue to look to growers to help address their customers’ needs. Responding to these requests will make the difference between a landscape nursery that thrives and one that struggles to survive. GT

Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer/speaker from Barrie, Ontario, and part of the third generation of the family-owned garden center/wholesale business Bradford Greenhouses in Barrie/Bradford, Ontario.

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