A common complaint among shoppers is that the folks working in garden centers these days don’t seem very knowledgeable. This is unfortunately true at the Megamart and other big retailers that have a high employee turnover rate. The nursery and landscape business is so diverse that even a very bright sales person cannot learn it in a few short weeks. The best advice we can offer on this subject would be to steer clear of the Megamarts and seek out your smaller, family owned nurseries. Chances are very good that you can speak with the owners and (at the very least) they can offer sound advice.
Our nursery in Wichita Falls is the smallest in the area, yet we have earned the reputation as being the best when it comes to helping shoppers choose the right plants and products. On any given day we see folks that choose to drive right past their local Megamarts and perhaps as much as 100 miles to visit us. This proves that word of mouth from satisfied customers is still the best form of advertisement. Because we are small, Nila, Martha Davis, or yours truly can usually get around and talk to each and every person.
Our new employees are taught not to give advice. Certainly the new guys are encouraged to be friendly and helpful but until they have been with us long enough to have learned some they are discouraged from selecting plants or products.
This customer/client relationship is very important no matter where you shop. Over time, your local family owned retailers will become familiar with your particular wants and needs which will benefit both you and them. As in any relationship, it takes co-operation from both parties. The following are a few suggestions to help you become a better shopper.
1. Size matters. Know the approximate square footage of the area you wish to plant. One of my all time favorite questions from customers concerns size. Question: “How much area will this bag of fertilizer cover?” Answer: “Bag says 4,000 square feet. How big is your lawn?” Reply: “I don’t really know……” Believe it or not, most people don’t know how big their lawn is.
If you want to know how much compost, mulch, fertilizer, etc. to buy or if you need to know how much sod, ground covers, shrubs, etc. then take the time to measure the length and width of the area. That really helps us help you at the nursery.
2. Pictures help. Bear in mind that pictures do not show dimensions. They can help us gain some perspective but that is all. Also, even though our technology keeps improving, that tiny screen on your digital camera or cell phone doesn’t do justice. Go ahead and print large enough copies so they are easily seen. I have actually designed landscapes from emailed pictures that contain dimensions in text form. With this info I am able to print copies and draw plant suggestions right on the photo. On the other hand, I have never been able to draw anything on a cell phone screen.
3. Drawings are better. Even crude drawings that show dimensions, adjacent structures, and existing plants are much better than photos. Scale drawings are the best. In the landscaping business we are all capable of making intelligent bids from scale drawings without having the luxury of visiting the site.
4. Site visits are best. If you are not comfortable with any of the above then you can hire someone to visit your site. Landscape architects and design companies charge for their services. Please don’t assume that anyone that is really good at this can just drop by “when they are in the neighborhood.” Unless they are a close friend or family member they just don’t have the time, especially during the spring. Set an appointment.
There is a big difference between a “free estimate” and a design. An estimate involves informing a customer what a specific job will cost. The design process involves figuring out what is desired or needed before an estimate can be made. There are some companies that will include a drawing with their “free estimates” or proposal but you can rest assured the cost involved in visiting the site and making a drawing will be included in the final cost.
A scale drawing is well worth the cost even if you don’t follow the plan exactly. At least you will have the dimensions, existing structures, and plants on paper for future reference.
5. Do some research. We have all been victims of believing the claims made by advertising and professional sales people. The plants you see in catalog photos are always perfect specimens meant to show us their best attributes. The wise shopper has learned to do a bit of research before making any purchase. Best to drive around town and make note of just how many “beautiful Japanese Maples” you see. The best place to get ideas is by studying mature landscapes rather than looking at young transplants growing in pots or by reading the limited info on plant tags. Ask questions, seek opinions, and check reference books……..”Google it.”
Those of us in the nursery business are well aware that impulse buyers make up a good portion of our yearly sales. We do our best to bring in new plants and products for our customers to try. Here again is another good reason to patronize local family owned nurseries. Whoever owns that nursery understands the trust you have placed in them. It is not in their interest to misinform you for the sake of making one sale. If they sell you any new product or plant they will let you know if you are taking a risk. They will welcome any feedback you can give (positive or negative). On the other hand, the sales person down at the local Megamart may be working on commission and most certainly is interested in keeping those monthly sales figures up for the stockholders.
Remember that all relationships are a two way street. Do your part by being a proper shopper. Your visits to the nursery will be more productive and enjoyable. The folks that work at the nursery will love to see your car pull into the parking lot. If you are an astute gardener you can probably do alright at the big self help store. Bargains are where you find them. If not, then be wary and be wise enough to shop the locals. Of course, if you are reading this magazine you already know that. Chances are real good that you did not find this free publication at the Megamart. Spread the word.