Planting good ideas

Creative marketing at Pike Nurseries keeps customers engaged and encourages them to try the company’s landscape services.

June 22, 2011
Kristen Hampshire
Industry News

There’s more to a smart slogan than words that just sound good together. A company tagline guides the branding and can set the tone for customer experience. Just ask Mike Kunce, CEO of Pike Nurseries, which has 16 locations in Atlanta and a Charlotte, N.C., store. Before deciding on this year’s “Gardening Without the Guesswork” slogan, Pike Nurseries worked with a New York research firm.

“From that research, along with another project we did about four years ago with another firm, we found what’s most overwhelming for customers is the selection in a garden center – they think, ‘I don’t want to kill it. I want to make the right decision,’” Kunce says.

The tagline speaks to customers’ key concern: choosing the wrong plant and then watching it wilt in the wrong place in their back yards.

“You establish a brand, and that brand will fall flat if everyone [working at your company] isn’t on the same page,” Kunce says.

At Pike Nurseries, this means comprehensive and rigorous training for sales associates, along with incentives for selling the nursery’s additional services: landscape design/build (the firm has seven crews) and the pick-a-plant service, where a Pike gardener will visit the client’s home, take measurements, create a design and expedite a crew to install plantings. “We can do small jobs – or we can do patios and retaining walls,” Kunce says.

Another aspect of delivering on the company’s main brand promise to Play in the Dirt at Pike is that gardening and choosing plants is exciting – and social. A calendar year of events planned for customers, including wine tastings and local food events, invites regular customers and interested prospects to experience Pike Nurseries in a casual, relaxed setting.

The key to marketing the core nursery retail business and getting the word out about its tempting side dishes – design/build and pick-a-plant – is delivering marketing in surprising packages. So, Pike Nurseries focuses on coming up with creative ways to interact with customers, and the company uses its 3-percent marketing budget across the spectrum of media (TV, radio, billboards, newspaper, garden shows) to layer the message that Pike is a place to play, get information and feel comfortable with one’s investment in plants and gardenware.

“We are one of the top 10 retail names in the city of Atlanta,” Kunce says. “And we have so much traffic going through our garden centers that it’s natural to gain leads from those customers for our landscape services. Being able to advertise our landscape design/build services under our marketing umbrella gives us a competitive advantage.”

The main event

Event marketing at Pike Nurseries paid off from the start. “The first event we had two years ago, we were caught short on food and wine,” Kunce says. The cool, rainy weather didn’t deter clients from stopping in after work to sip and shop. In fact, the four Pike locations that hosted the event on that night sold a total of a half-million dollars in merchandise, Kunce says. “It exceeded our wildest expectations."

Kunce first considered the idea after learning about another garden retailer that was having success with food events. He saw how the destination store packed in customers during these evening mixers, which gave people an opportunity to browse and socialize with no strings attached.

He thought about his hospitable southern client base and figured they might take to the concept. He was right. As the nursery continued to plan events and add to its social calendar, Kunce networked with local wineries and food providers, some of which offer to participate in upcoming events by donating food and drink for the exposure they earn.

During these parties, Pike Nurseries sometimes offers guests a discount on purchases while they peruse plants and nosh on light fare. Occasionally, the nursery will partner with a local charity to hold an event. The marketing advantage to this is gaining another email list to advertise the event. “It’s wise to pick a local charity with a large mailing list and partner with them so they can bring their supporters in to an event,” Kunce says, adding that morning events have failed in the past. “Evening events are still the best – you get a much better turnout.”

The key to promoting events like a wine-and-cheese night is not to advertise too soon. Otherwise, customers might decide not to make purchases until that night, when they can earn a discount. The sweet spot seems to be a couple of days prior to the event. “We send out the emails to our 90,000 Play in the Dirt Club members – our reward customers – and about 70 percent of the people who turn out are members,” Kunce says.

Usually, Pike holds the same event at several stores on the same night, same time. Now, customers look forward to the events Pike holds, and the nursery decided to begin its season with a grand kickoff event, complete with stations throughout the nursery featuring plant introductions and gardening ideas. “Our patio tables are full of people and everyone is socializing,” Kunce describes of the warm atmosphere. “We have upbeat music and we actually have people dancing at these events.”

Kunce says people want to shop locally, and organizing events where they have an excuse to build a relationship with a community vendor helps build a rapport.

Targeting the campaign

Events are just one piece of the marketing pie at Pike Nurseries, but Kunce knows that it’s worth the time and effort to plan socials for customers because of the rave response. He knows which customers want to receive email promotions for orchids, perennials or landscape design/build services. That’s because Pike Nurseries relies on point-of-sale technology to tailor every marketing touch to customers’ buying preferences.

Every time customers make a purchase, they give their phone number or name so the Pike associate can look up their Play In the Dirt rewards profile. If the customer isn’t part of the rewards program, the associates asks for their email address and contact information and enters it into the computer system before ringing up the sale.

“We capture the data for every purchase customers make,” Kunce says. So if a customer purchases an orchid, the system knows this and an email is automatically sent to that person three months later featuring a coupon for a new orchid, since, by then, the orchid will be out of bloom. “This is all done automatically,” says Kunce, noting that the company sets up templates for such buying scenarios. From bulbs to roses to mulch – no matter what a customer buys, there is an email offer that will be sent to them down the road.

“We are constantly marketing to our customers based on their interests and needs,” Kunce sums up, noting that Pike Nurseries was a data-test site for this point-of-sale system (Epicor Software Corp., formerly Activant), which was created specifically for the lawn and garden industry.

As for using that system to sell services like design/build, Pike Nurseries might offer a gift card that can be used to purchase landscape design and installation services at a discount. Typically, the nursery will roll out this offer in late winter so it can fulfill demand. “If we offered it in the spring, we would have been overwhelmed and we wouldn’t have been able to plant some of the landscapes for two months,” Kunce says, emphasizing the importance of proper timing.

Running these promotions to encourage nursery customers to give design/build services a try is a win for Pike Nurseries because Kunce says about 75 percent of their landscape service customers shop at the nursery.

And because associates are trained to take the guesswork out of gardening, as the slogan goes, they mention design/build and pick-a-plant services at the time of checkout. Marketing is mainly a matter of educating customers and giving them solutions to make life easier. “We are selling plants,” Kunce says. “But we are also selling information.”

This story is one of three that appeared in Lawn & Landscape’s Business Builder e-newsletter. To continue reading about Pike Nurseries:

Rewarding regulars: Pike Nurseries Play in the Dirt Club builds brand loyalty for the company.

Marketing the extras: How to sell your company’s less popular services.