Monday, March 17, 2008

How Do You Get "In" With Nurseries?

As a newbie gardener, I'm asking this primarily for inside tips, notice of shipments, and more favorable (if any) discounts on plants. Obviously, I know little how a nursery operates and am not seeking a part time job to help me understand this.

It seems to me there IS a secret society of gardeners and nurseries, that, on the surface, the common shopper isn't aware of. I feel it when I walk in to, for the umpteenth time, my favorite nursery and spend yet more money. I feel like there is, or could or should be, an under the table awards club, a secret knock, a wink and a nod to the back room. I spent significant money last year at two nurseries in particular, and enjoy talking to the staff, but what's the sequence of plays? What's the trick? Wouldn't a post from an insider on this topic be interesting?

Feel free to slap me upside the head if I'm completely wrong and naive and just plain stupid about this and you care to educate me old school. I would do this for someone who came to me and said "poetry is just too hard to get, it's got some hidden meaning I will never figure out" or "do I really have to do research for my essay" or "global warming is merely propaganda" or "tighty whities are better than boxer briefs."


WiseAcre said...

There's no secret society unless you create one. If you can't get to the owner/manager you're probably out of luck.

Talking to the staff is all fine and dandy but they're powerless to give special treatment. You're lucky if they remember your name half the time.

I have a special thing going with one nursery near me. No matter how much I or the owner tell the staff I get a discount they can't remember from one visit to the next. (I buy wholesale quanties)

Only one other local Nursery/Green House gives me any special consideration. The owner runs and manages it himself and is always there.

Of course it helps that I recommend only these two places to my 'clients'. The amount of business they get from me is substantial. They know it because the people always mention my name.

But more than that I believe the real reason is we just click. Our interests are similar and we're passionate about the plants.

That is the case of the Perennial nursery I go to 400 miles away. I don't really get much special treatment except they let me pull my own stock, load it and take my word on the count. Plus I'm welcome even when the nursery is closed to all other 'contractors' and if I need a delivery on short notice - I get it (only in their local area).

Money may talk but the good places usually speak a different language :)

Anonymous said...

My experience is somewhat similar to Wiseacre's: I get a discount only at small nurseries where I know the owner, either through plant-society activities or by having worked there. But then I usually feel guilty, because I know from experience that the folks running these small nurseries make very little profit to begin with. So I try to be a really good customer by 1)shopping there often, 2)not taking up their time, and 3)bringing other plant-obsessed friends to shop there. (The last one, in particular, scores big points with just about any nursery owner!)

Anonymous said...

I'm hearing ya, Benjamin. I've often wondered the same thing and noticed myself paying more for less while others seem to procure these insane bargains.

I think it has to do with the gnomes. They're the 'walls with ears' in nurseries and will offer the secret handshake of love provided you're nice to them.

Big TIP: whisper sweet nothings in their ears next time you're at the fave nursery. You will be amazed at their help.

WiseAcre said...

Sorry Stuart but I have my own opinion about secret Gnome activities.

What Gnomes do as soon as you turn your back to them

Anonymous said...

I worked for a small nursery for 5 years and I left because they got money hungry and forgot customer satisfaction. While I worked at that nursery, I did treat certain people special. I didn't give them a discount but I did pick out the best plants. I did it cause they actually bought from us. I can tell when people are just passing through to get info and then go buy from the big box stores.

Now I work for a company who stocks plants for the big box store. I won't have the chance to give that one on one I once did. I will miss it.

So to answer your question--no, I didn't give extra discounts but I did give extra attention. I knew which plants were healthiest and best bloomers. I enjoyed it very much. They gave back in appreciation and loyalty.

mr_subjunctive said...

There's a customer or two that comes in where I work that I recognize on sight and will volunteer certain information for that I wouldn't give everybody. But why? Hmmm.

A lot of it, I guess, is that I know that they know more than the average customer already. One guy in particular gets excited when we have new, weird stuff in (especially the jungle-type cacti, Epiphyllum and Disocactus and stuff), which is endearing because I, too, am a total plant geek, even if our interests don't overlap a lot. But when we started putting together our list for the next shipment of tropicals, I did ask him if there was anything we should try to get for him. This is somewhat self-interested, since it's always easier on me to bring stuff in that I know I have a guaranteed sale for, and that I won't have to take care of for months before it sells.

There's also a lady who comes in with her son, or some kid I'm assuming is her son, and she, also, is interested in unusual stuff: in her case, unusual varieties of usual plants. It's plant geekiness, but of a different kind, and more my style than the other guy's brand of geeky.

I suppose, now that I've laid all that out: the way to get in good with the staff is to find the person or persons who are responsible for and interested in the particular things that you find interesting, and then talk 1) to them 2) about those things 3) a lot. In the fall and winter, mainly -- if you try to have long conversations with them now, they'll be blurry and talking too fast to understand (we're very busy right now).

It also helps me, at least, if I see your face often. We don't have to converse, necessarily, but if I see you a lot, then I know you're going to be in in the future, which means that I can take you into account, maybe, when placing future plant orders.

Your mileage may vary, of course. Every organization is different, the personalities will be different, and things that butter me up will not necessarily work on anybody else. Or may actually be regarded as annoying. But that's how you'd get in good with me: come in a lot, talk to me about the stuff I like talking about anyway, show that you know something about what you're talking about, express an interest in unusual or hard-to-find plants.

Unknown said...

What an interesting discussion you've started, Benjamin! Because I write about gardening and recommend nurseries, even putting someof them on my blog and going to the owners/staff for information for articles just so I can slide their names into the publication, I do get discounts from several different places around the province. Most of them have given this voluntarily, or do things like set aside new plants they KNOW I'll be interested in, (and say, 'take this home and cold test it for us') But I did negotiate a discount from one large nursery that I'm not sure I'm going to support any more. It's different for me, though. Apparently, people read what I write in my columns and the nursery operators are appreciative of the traffic the columns send their way. But they deserve it, because they're up against the bigbox bullies so of COURSE I'm going to support them and encourage others to do so. And I'm not going to support a place that has crappy plants and crappier customer service.

On the flip side of things, I also know what drives nursery operators crazy. The 'customer' that calls up in the middle of a busy day, and says, "I have this plant I bought that's dying/being invaded by aliens/turning orange...what should I do?" And then they didn't even buy the frickin' plant from that nursery, but rather from Wallyworld or Stupidstore. Or they'll come to a particular nursery, take up the staff's time for ages on end, then either buy nothing or only one paltry little geranium, while other customers are waiting.

If you get to know someone in management at a nursery--or the owner, who in smaller nurseries is the chief staff, grunt, accountant and gofer--you'll find they're more than happy to order in special plants, or let you know what's coming or when a fresh order is due, or when something's going on sale, things like that.

Nursery staff/owners like people who genuinely love plants and gardening, and you sound like you're a good customer, so it may be just a matter of time and cultivating a relationship at specific nurseries. I'll be fascinated to see what others also have to say about this.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Nan--That's another issues I'm always aware of, the sort of charity mentality (that's not the right word, but you get it, right?). But, it's also still a business, and I'm still a consumer--maybe if we didn't have capitalism... yes, that's it....
Stuart--no Gnomes. They frighten me FAR too much. Especially when I DO still see them in people's yards.
Wiseacre--I will now wash my eyes out ith acid for 2 hours after following your link! But, I must say, I've never see Rosie looking so svelte.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anna--What does your job entail with those big mean box stores? Tell me it isn't so....
Mr. S--Thank you for that viewpoint. It makes perfect sense, I think, everything you said. I promise not to talk to nursery employees too much until late summer or fall. I vow this upon every sacred text there is. I'm gladdened and saddened to find my own plant geekiness--an general geekiness--gaining steam now that I'm out of my 20s. It really is quite a switch, or at least, I'm more outward about it than I ever was. Is it bad I like to smell my fingers too?
Jodi--Well, I do like to start things. I only go to the big box stores to see what I can get for cheap, but don't often buy much at all there. I NEVER call nurseries to say my plants aren't working out because I know it's my fault, or, simply, that plant just wasn't meant to be (like some people shouldn't be, but best not to get in to that now).

Kathy said...

Some people get a license to buy wholesale:
You'll have to ask the Idaho Gardener more about it.

When I went to the GWA symposium last year, I got free plants, and I got more plants shipped to me. But I didn't get to pick which plants (they are promoting certain plants, and that's what they give you), and they didn't exactly ship them at the best time for me to plant them. (Like, mid to late October. Can you say, after several hard frosts?)

And they're really only free if you forget about GWA membership, airfare, hotel room, and admission fees. Now that I think about it, they're probably the most expensive plants I have.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Kathy--Hmmm, a license. I have a poetic license, but that one I made by myself. Thanks for the link! As for your other plan, it sounds like a lot of other things in life--what, spend mony to make, er, plants? It's like when I spend $500 to read a paper at a conference just to put one line on my cv--which I'm done doing. $500 can buy a lot of plants, and it seems, some very mild ingratiation at least.

Unknown said...

I have worked at two different nurseries/garden centers now. At the first one, I was at liberty to give up to X% discount to "large orders" or for another similar "good reason." And I think that I gave it out three times: 1 time to someone who was ordering a whole truckload of things, and the other 2 times to people who were buying a relatively small amount of things but who were younger people just starting to garden. I simply wanted to help out.

At my new place, I'm not at liberty to give that kind of discount, but I am expected to put plants on clearance when they are past their prime, etc. I have absolutely no problem with directing someone toward the clearance aisle to buy a clearance-priced, quart-sized version of the pricey but fast-growing perennial in their cart, if they're nice enough to engage me in conversation after I smile and say hello. (And if the plants are being clearanced for a reason that would keep me from planting them in my own garden, I simply throw them out.)

Frankly, I figure that it's a win-win situation. They're happy, they'll remember that we treated them right, and they'll likely come back later... and the bigger pot will probably be purchased somewhere along the way as well, by another customer.

I also will regularly tell people when they should just go buy a pack of seeds (seriously, it irks me that every garden center around here sells peas and beans in 4" containers!) instead of spending their money on plants, and while I'm the biggest rule-bender (or so it feels) in the garden in terms of what gets planted where, I also will warn people when they are taking a chance with a certain plant in a certain spot. And I do tell people who are putting together large gardens when they can do things like buy one full hosta pot and split it into 3 plants instead of spending money on the 2nd and 3rd plants. (And frankly, they usually then just end up buying an extra of something else with the money they "saved!")

We do regularly take requests and look for specific items/varieties tho... and I have no problem telling anyone who asked when we normally get in "new stuff." I would hope that most nurseries are smart enough to do that.

(And I've gone on so much now that I can't remember who mentioned above that garden center people hate when you call up to ask us for advice on what kind of grass to plant in your shady side yard and then say, "Thanks," and hang up. Yes, we know you're going to a big box store! And we also know when you call us up to diagnose Plant X's problems that we haven't carried Plant X for a couple of years because it's prone to your problems, but that a certain big box store still might have it...)

Unknown said...

Sorry, all of the above was meant to say that maybe you should think of the garden center employees and their knowledge as a value-added kind of thing, instead of some impenetrable club that is withholding discounts from you?

I wouldn't consider myself an "expert," by any means, but I know a decent amount. And some of the people we have working in various departments have degrees in horticulture--they are much more knowledgeable than I am. And chances are, some of them have at least been tempted to take home that plant you've been eyeing, too, and may be able to tell you what happened when they planted it in X location in their yard last year.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Kim--I think you're right, about employess and value-added knowledge. Maybe I have an inferiority complex--very likely--and that's why I feel the way I do. It's nice to hear about what you did at a previous nursery where you worked, nonetheless, but I suppose in the end, with all these wonderful responses, it is first and foremost a business predicated on passion for plants; and so those who frequent said business already are "in" to some degree, especially if you smile back or say hello while thumbing through plants. I feel like I'm a judge on Project Runway. Are you in, or are you out? Well. Out. No. In. Wait, shoot... just want an iris, that's all, but do like your nursery and what a snappy shirt that is with, what, some sort of pollen and compost on it?

garden girl said...

I work at a mom & pop greenhouse/nursery with an established, solid customer base in an older, established suburban neighborhood.

Customers are able to participate each year in our discount program. Customers save receipts in envelopes we provide and get different discount levels based on the amount they spend. They can accumlate receipts for the entire season, and use their earned discount level until we close in December. Next year, they start from scratch. All customers, old and new are welcome to participate.

Where I work, they are able to keep their employees for years. We get to know the 'regulars' very well. There's lots of friendly interaction between customers and staff even when we're busy.

Owners and staff where I work take good care of all our customers, old and new. They do no advertising - their advertising is all word-of-mouth. New customers don't recommend us to their friends if they notice others (the 'regulars,') getting better service than they get.

We make sure all our customers get personal service. Every person who walks into our garden center gets a personal greeting and an offer to provide any help they may need.

I have to admit though, we are pretty unusual. And that's probably why we have customers who drive for an hour after they move away just to shop here, and why we have customers who come back here on vacations after moving out-of-state, sometimes to shop, sometimes to visit. And that's probably why even though I only make peanuts, I love my job!

Benjamin Vogt said...

GG--That does sound like a rare, dream nursery. I wish one of my local nurseries had that receipt system, since I spent so much with them this last year; that soeems like a very good system to have. There's a nursery in Minnesota I really like--Ambergate--and they just have plants laying all over in a clearing on a large suburban acreage, and the cash register is under a tent (you have to have a good back to shop there). They have terrific plants and are fun to talk to (the owners, I mean, as that's all I've ever seen working there). Hopefully, I'll visit them this summer when I see the folks.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to answer your question on my blog. I didn't want to hijack your post and take in in another direction and I have something to say that would do that. This is a good conversation and I've enjoyed reading the responses.

Frances, said...

I agree with Anna, this is a good conversation. Reading what others have to say about your question, were you asking how to get discounts or how to find out about when the newer, better, more unusual plants are coming in, or when something might be marked down? We live in a very small town, two pretty good nurseries that I frequent and they know me by name and help me find what I might be looking for and the one big box store where I buy many things because they are the only place with regular shipments of new plants. The employees at the big box are my friends and some are very knowledgable and helpful, especially about letting me know when the mark downs are happening. Just being friendly, asking how they are doing, their kids or grandkids, etc. how they are and really listening to their answers, rather than the 'my plant I bought died' routine works wonders. Just being nice is a path seldom regretted. ;->
Frances at Faire Garden

Benjamin Vogt said...

Oh, all of the above Frances! I've received some very good responses on this post, and I think it does all boil down to being a civil, nice person--something I struggle with a lot. Boy, th eolder I get, the mor eI Want to live in a small town, or at least a large spread some distance from a bigger city.

tina said...

also, get to know your local extension agent. she lets me know all the goings on because some strategically placed master gardeners (read nursery managers) let her know about the markdowns. we also all call each other when there is something new. like most have already said. secret society? no, but it takes time to get into the know. been there, done that.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Thanks Tina for adding your thoughts here, too--such a nice colection I have! :) I was just looking at my extension office website today, and was thinking of becoming a member at the wonderfully discounted student rate (as I AM a student for one more year).