Let’s Play A Game

 Let’s Play A Game

by Robert Hendrickson

(The following is a transcribed version of the PowerPoint slides Robert presented at The Fall Event 2019 during his Cheekwood Challenge.) Following The Fall Event 2019 and Robert's Cheekwood Challenge, several Group Owners have shared their experience in working toward a more balanced approach to their marketing efforts. Be sure to see Group Clients Weigh-In at the bottom of this blog post for more. Joey Bokar - Kerby's Nursery, JD Boone - Dothan Nurseries, Cameron Rees - Skinner Garden Store, and Liz Lark-Riley - Rockledge Gardens.

Before The Fall Event 2019, Danny mentioned having an open mic session to address the peaks and valleys garden centers face. I told him I had an idea that might help explain why this happens.

For the last seventeen or more Fall Events, I’ve been sharing how I thought about things. This time I want to hear what you think, so we’re going to play a familiar game with a new twist.

You’re all familiar with the game Pictionary but instead of trying to figure out what the lines you’re going to see look like… we’re changing it to… what do these lines mean.

The numbers and graphs represented on these slides are based on figures Group centers sent Steve Bailey when he asked for monthly sales and monthly marketing expenses. In regular Pictionary, you might say this looks like Mt. Everest. But when you look at this graph, what does it actually mean related to your business?  If we take mid-March to Mid-June, the sweet spot for most centers we see 48.1% of sales happening in just 12 weeks. It then takes the next 6 months to drive 34.1% of business.


In Pictionary, this six-month plateau would look a lot like a pancake.

This slide shows a mountain range of marketing dollars being spent in the Spring with a slight incline during the Christmas season. It looks like a sketch of the Rockies stretching into Kansas with a speedbump toward the end. But what does it mean?

Forty-one percent of marketing dollars are being spent during that 12-week sweet spot, then another 16% which is probably spent over no more than 6 weeks promoting the Christmas season. That represents close to 60% of marketing dollars being spent in just 18 out of 52 weeks.

This slide shows what we get when we place the monthly marketing spend over the peaks and valleys of monthly sales. This got me to thinking about what this might actually mean…

Around the time our sales start to slide, it looks like our marketing also begins to slide. Or could it be that around the time our marketing spend heads downhill in a rush, our sales start to avalanche along with it. Seems like the perfect chicken or the egg. We drop in sales so then immediately drop the advertising. Or is it we reduce our advertising, then immediately drop in sales.

Maybe this is just a coincidence, a case of “post hoc ergo proctor hoc” that translates into “Correlation does not equal causation”. Or in plain English… “After this, therefore because of this.” But maybe it’s really about that chicken and the egg.

As a marketer at heart, I’ve always wondered why companies open year-round tend to advertise like they’re only open the few weeks when business is at its peak. It’s been like that ever since garden centers evolved from roadside produce stands into today’s world of modern retailing.

But maybe there’s another way…

What if marketing was more like a hill instead of a mountain? Garden centers are going to be busiest during that 12-week sweet spot no matter how much is spent on marketing, so why assign so much of the marketing budget to a time of peak customer demand? I never did subscribe to that tired cliché regarding the approach to advertising that says “fish when the fish are biting”.  It’s like people forgot that fish eat every day. Instead of matching the Mt. Everest of sales with a peak in advertising, begin the marketing messages earlier in the year then budget like a landscape painting of rolling Ozark hills. Maybe that long Death Valley of sales the last half of the year could be filled in a bit.

And why the obvious over-spend during the Christmas season? Based on sales figures sent to Steve, any month the last half of the year generates as many dollars as December. Oh… I remember… because there’s a mountain of Christmas inventory that needs to be sold. Sounds like another chicken or the egg example. And maybe a reason to stop going to the Atlanta Gift Show.

While we’re considering different options to what is typically done when it comes to advertising in the garden center industry, what if the marketing graph was a straight line instead of a mountain or even a hill? What if the marketing budget was determined by the months you were open instead of by the sales dollars you expect to generate? What if your marketing plan was modeled after your business plan of how many years you expect to operate instead of just a way to try and reduce current inventory levels?

My belief has always been that the only marketing effort that stands a chance of success is marketing that is repeated. That’s why I love properly designed, weekly enewsletters. We get to tell great stories each week of the year at very little cost. And why I begin marketing budgets with a look at a radio station we can afford to use properly year-round. I want customers to always know we’re open, alive and ready to help instead of having them wonder several times a year if we’re still in business.

Just as the view from a mountain peak is different from a view from the prairie, a change in marketing perspective could play a major role in helping level out those peaks and valleys Danny wanted us to address.

So take a cue from my hometown hero Mark Twain as it relates to how the garden center industry has approached marketing for the last fifty years…

“Whenever you find you are on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

Got questions or need more information about your marketing programs?

Give Robert a call or email!
Robert Hendrickson
Cell: 443-255-8282

Robert Hendrickson is founder and a service provider for The Garden Center Group and our "guru" for how to best tell your story.



REMEMBER: Your interaction (by phone and email) with Group Service Providers such as Robert Hendrickson, Steve Bailey, Sid Raisch, and Jean Seawright, and John Kennedy are included in your retainer!

Group Clients Weigh-In

Following The Fall Event 2019 and Robert's Cheekwood Challenge, several Group Owners have shared their experience in working toward a more balanced approach to their marketing efforts. They are presented here:

Joey Bokar - Kerby's Nursery, Seffner, FL

I think this is a critical topic for The Group to keep in the forefront.

When the recession caused our sales to plummet, we did what a lot of folks did: we cut our marketing budget. We bounced between media types: switching radio stations, then we ditched radio, did newspaper for a year, ditched that and as a result of our inconsistency we fell into a deep hole during the recession.

At some point we realized what we’d done. Now, we weren’t consistently reminding a regular audience that we are here and open for business 52 weeks each year.

So we reset. We began with a consistent story-driven newsletter on a weekly basis. Every week, no matter where in the world we are. To that, we added direct mail to our best customers, with 4-5 sent in the Spring and 2 – 3 in the fall/winter. Then a few years ago, we added radio back into the mix. We are now on 2 stations, and although our schedule is not 100% identical every week, we are on 52 weeks per year.
With that audience consistency, we are up from our low point in 2015 by 50% (annual sales, Last year was actually higher at 65%, this year has seen a little draw down because of weather and other internal events.) We realize that this coincides with a great economy, but we also know that we’ve seen a steady increase in customer count and in new customers. We feel well positioned to be the place people turn to when they need great plants, regardless of economy. As Tim Miles said, we aren’t going to participate in a recession.

Our marketplace has a long purchase cycle. People don’t garden every day, every week or every month. For many it is a seasonal thing and for most it is a when-it-needs-to-be-done thing. And when it needs to be done, we want to be the place everyone thinks of first. But if they only hear from us sometimes, we won’t be that place. My biggest takeaway from Robert’s discussion at Cheekwood was that We Created the Pancake. We mixed the batter, poured it on the griddle and now we wish we didn’t have to eat it. Sure people garden more in the Spring than they do in the summer, fall or winter. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to delight their ears and minds throughout the year, so that when they do need plants, they think Kerby’s. As Robert pointed out, we’ll get the bump from Spring Fever with or without extra marketing. But we lose customers when we shout at them for a few months and then are quiet for the next nine.

An example I’ve used with my staff is this: I don’t need an injury lawyer. But I know who to call. In our area (and around the Southeast) Morgan & Morgan advertises like crazy. Radio, TV, Social Media, Streaming, Newspaper, Billboards. Huge advertising dollars. You can't live in Tampa and not know who Morgan & Morgan is. This is for a product that people almost never need. But when they do, they know who to call. Why wouldn’t we want to be like that?

As an off the record note, I am thrilled that you are bringing this topic up. I could sense the frustration in the room when Robert was talking at Cheekwood. People hear what he is saying but don’t want to listen. I’ve definitely been among those who didn’t do what I should have. But I’ve realized that it is silly to ask why transaction counts are going down, when we are slashing marketing budgets. Why would people come to us if they haven’t heard from us? We need to tell our stories every week that we are open. If we did, I’ll bet that pancake would turn into a souffle.

Joey Bokar, Lion in Training
Kerby's Nursery
2311 S. Parsons Ave., Seffner, FL 33584
Tel: 813-685-3265
[email protected]


 J.D. Boone - Dothan Nurseries, Dothan, AL

First, I tell my employees all the time, “I’m going to do what the smarter-than-me-people in the Garden Center Group tell me to do, I don’t pay them all that money to do the opposite of what they recommend.”
So first of all, I have ZERO experience in marketing.  Robert/The Group has a lot more experience.  That’s kind of what he does for a living.  So initially I just trusted him and did what he said.  And the more I’ve done it, the more it makes sense.
This year has been the second year that I have been on radio year round.  2 stations, 2 weeks each, each month.  I’m going to go 52 weeks per year on both stations next year.  It works and makes sense to me.  And I’ve seen results.
I began doing a monthly e-news about 6 years ago.  This year I’ve upped it to a bi-weekly enews and working on weekly by next year.  Email really is the cheapest most effective marketing I do.  I make connections with customers that I really don’t even know.  When they come in the store, they talk to me like they know me, ask me how my kids are doing, etc.
The bottom line to all this is something Robert told me a few years ago, and Joey hit on it as well.
Here is the rough quote: “JD, you don’t put an ad on the radio so somebody hears it and immediately drops what they are doing to come buy what you are advertising.  You advertise in many different forms,  year round, so your potential customer hears your message repeatedly.  So when they are ready to put a new tree in their yard one day or get some new flowers for their mailbox, they’ve heard  your message so many times, your business is the first thing that comes to mind.  And they come shop with you because of the ads they’ve heard for the previous months/years.”
Also, sales have been up 5 to 6% every year since I’ve started using Robert’s recommendations.
Hope this helps,

J.D. Boone
Dothan Nurseries
1300 Montgomery Hwy, Dothan, AL 36303
Tel: 334-333-8927
[email protected]

Cameron Rees - Skinner Garden Store

I’m not an expert in everything but I’m smart enough to know when to seek help. That certainly applies to marketing. I’ll reiterate what JD said. I don’t spend good money to hire experts or pay to listen to the best advice and then turn around and do the opposite.
I agree that the problem a lot of us have when it comes to marketing, is we approach it thinking today’s marketing should a result tomorrow. That may be true in the case of a weekend promotion but that’s not what were really talking about here. This is more of a discussion about a marketing campaign and the goal of the campaign is awareness. We want to be the first business that comes to mind with the need for our products or services arises. Kind of like being at the top of a Google search.
The majority of our budget goes into radio. We have not been running a complete year round schedule, and that’s been in effort to run regular schedule for as much of the year as we can. We typically start up in mid-March and run weekly up to Christmas. We’ll typically go to every other week in July and August and again in November.
We do a enewsletter every two weeks and through most the last 10 years or so we have done a lot of direct mail postcards. We added some billboards last year.
So what has all that done for business? That’s always tough to measure, as business has up and down but mostly up, and the down year’s had some serious weather challenges weighing in pretty heavily.
I can tell you that once Robert started helping me by hitting marketing with a long term, planned out strategy, the stress of dealing with marketing went way down. What used to be a very reactionary and impulsive activity became a much more organized and well thought out game plan that that for the first time really gave me a feeling of having some control over things. I was finally playing offense instead of defense. That was huge.
Cameron Rees
Skinner Garden Store, Inc.
4237 NW Lower Silver Lake Road, Topeka, KS 66618
Tel: (785) 233-9657
[email protected]

Liz Lark-Riley - Rockledge Gardens

Any modern marketing plan that doesn’t include year-round social media and a comprehensive plan for Facebook and Instagram is a little dated. Keep in mind we are open year-round here in Florida.

The types of marketing options you select depends on the age groups you are targeting. I’m a Xennial (gen-x/millennial gap generation) so I literally don’t see or hear traditional advertising and when I do I kind of resent the business for breaking in like that. Whereas I have definitely bought things via Instagram when a cool video catches my eye while I’m scrolling through the feed. And here at Rockledge, we are marketing to two areas of business. One is our garden center and the other is our venue for events. Weddings are becoming a large part of our event business.

Here's what we do (or strive to do) for year-round marketing:

Ultimately, I feel that to reach younger consumers, you have to meet them where they are and you have to engage them. Anyone my age (37) or a little older or younger, has been so inundated with marketing messages for so long that we totally ignore traditional, disruptive marketing like radio (we listen to ad-free music apps), TV (we watch Netflix and don't have cable or even TV antenna), or print (we don't get the newspaper and rarely look at magazines). Online banner ads and pre-rolls are annoying and ignored.

I feel that social media, when done in an engaging, non-disruptive way, is the best way to reach our customers. We no longer advertise our events anywhere but social media and our newsletter and website. By engaging and non-disruptive I mean that the content is not about "you" it's about the customer. And all content should fall into one of four categories: 1) Educational, 2) Inspirational, 3) Behind the Scenes, 4) Community Building. This is what we do year-round:

  • Theresa's Weekly Gardening Bug/Friends of the Farm email.
  • Facebook (daily, sometimes more than once daily posts) about new items coming in, gardening how-to videos, behind the scenes, events, Facebook Live (especially as new stuff is coming in). This audience has a broad age range.
  • Instagram, daily posts in the feed as well as actively using the Instagram "story" function for constant, up to the minute stuff about things going on right now (the story disappears after 24 hours). This audience is primarily younger and we focus on houseplants...which tend to get the most engagement.
  • YouTube. I was doing weekly gardening how-to videos for awhile and we'll be getting back to that soon...I just have to train my new staff member to do this...I'm pretty particular about branding and aesthetics. We just reached 100 subscribers, which allows us to have a custom URL...we're working on growing this audience via cards we will hand out directing people to check out videos relevant to their purchases.
  • Direct mail...we haven't done this in awhile but we're going to be experimenting with targeting some specific new developments with mailers that we'll design in house...again, I'm pretty particular about aesthetics...we design everything in house.
  • Blog. We have a wedding blog and we're just starting our gardening blog.
We have two accounts for each Facebook and Instagram @rockledgegardens and @rockledgegardensweddings where we post distinctly different content for different audiences.

All that said...we are navigating a transition from me doing everything to my new marketing coordinator running things on the Rockledge Gardens side and my event staff managing the Rockledge Wedding stuff and so we've not been as consistent lately. We're getting into a better rhythm so stay tuned!


Liz Lark-Riley, Managing Director
Rockledge Gardens
321-636-7662 ext 109
[email protected]


What Does Your Center Need?

Every Center has a unique set of challenges and opportunities but developing your best marketing strategies can make a big difference in your success. Join this conversation in The Group eLists and contact Robert Hendrickson for ideas for making your marketing budget work best for you and for your success!

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