Botanical Gardens and Garden Centers
A Garden of Gift-Selling Strategies

Plants and flowers are usually uppermost in patrons’ minds when they visit a botanical garden or garden center. If said destination happens to include a gift shop, these thoughts can color their gift buying decisions – but not always. For this article, four proprietors of gift shops in garden-centric settings identified the merchandise that works for them and offered tips on how they sell more of it.

A view of the Wild Thistle Gift Shop at Lowe’s Greenhouse. The 2,800-square-foot store is divided into sections.

Merchandise selection inside the gift shop at Hidden Lake Gardens in Tipton, Mich., is unique and nature related, according to Gift Shop Manager Cheryl Roe. “We try not to compete with local retailers.” Gifts and merchandise on offer tends to correspond with the immediate surroundings or are made out of natural materials.” Owned and operated by Michigan State University, Hidden Lake Gardens is a 755-acre arboretum and botanical garden located 65 miles southeast of the main campus. Inside the approximately 1,188-square foot shop, jewelry, jigsaw puzzles, playing cards, rocks and books sell very well. Business is seasonal and tends to slow down during the winter months so staff members typically use that time to research and restock new items for spring.

Garden-themed pots at the Wild Thistle Gift Shop at Lowe’s Greenhouse. There is a section devoted to items for gardeners and outdoor décor at the shop.

“We carry a great selection of nature-related items that you don’t find anywhere else in the area. We also have awesome merchandise for children,” said Roe. The latter makes perfect sense since Hidden Lake Gardens is a popular school field trip destination. Roe’s top tip to sell more gifts is to stock merchandise at all price levels. “We want kids to be able to purchase something when they come here on a field trip. We also want families and adults to be able to take something home.” She also recommended moving merchandise around frequently. Staff inside the gift shop like to move whole walls of merchandise a couple of times a year just to keep it fresh. “We’ve noticed that repeat shoppers will purchase things shortly after a big move because they didn’t remember seeing it here before.” In addition, staff will often use live plants and other elements of nature such as tree stumps to accentuate store displays. “Since our gift shop is situated in the middle of a botanical garden, natural just fits,” Roe concluded.

Gifts at the Wild Thistle Gift Shop at Lowe’s Greenhouse. The greenhouse’s owner said the only way gift shops like his can compete with online retailers is to provide an experience to customers.

Wild Thistle Gift Shop at Lowe’s Greenhouse in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, offers an eclectic assortment of gifts. “We try to fill the shop with things that are appropriate for gift giving because I think a huge proportion of the things that are sold from the store are meant to be gifts for others,” said Lowe’s Greenhouse Owner Jeff Griff. Clothing, jewelry, local artisans fare, food products – these are just some of the items that populate Wild Thistle’s 2,800-square-foot footprint. The space is divided into sections – an area for pet merchandise, a toy section for kids, a selection of products for men and of course, given that Lowe’s Greenhouse is a garden center, there is a section devoted to items for gardeners and outdoor décor. Interestingly enough, there is also a kitchenware department which Griff identified as the store’s most popular and growing merchandise category featuring lines like Mud Pie. Proceeds from Wild Thistle comprise about 10% of Lowe’s Greenhouse overall sales.

Hidden Lake Gardens Gift Shop Attendants Chris Bryan, left, and Carol Baker, right, photographed with a puzzle display. In the 1,188-square foot shop, jewelry, jigsaw puzzles, playing cards, rocks and books sell well.

In this day and age when brick and mortar establishments face off against mighty Amazon, Griff believes the only way gift shops like his can compete is to provide an experience. “When you come into the Wild Thistle, it’s a visual experience. It’s the one sustainable advantage we have over anybody else. The experience that you create in your store has to be unique and has to be the driving force.” He had a very clear image and theme in mind when he set out to build the gift shop component of his business. The resulting space is eclectic and somewhat industrial with a metal ceiling and visible duct work offset by antique fixtures. “Those antique fixtures allow us to go vertical and get more layering within the shop. We maintain lines of sight but also manage to provide that departmental feeling of going into one room and then another in an area that is essentially one big space. All in an effort to create a sense of suspense, of surprise and discovery as we try to make customers’ time in the store an experience.”

Lowe’s Greenhouse owner Jeff Griff. The Wild Thistle Gift Shop at this Chagrin Falls store offers an eclectic choice of gifts.

There are four Leaf & Petal garden shop locations including one at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in Birmingham, Ala. Known as Leaf & Petal at the Gardens, the 3,200-square-foot retail space views its gift selection as one that is shaped by customers. “The metaphor I use is that our gift selection is changing. The way that I view retail is there’s a push and a pull. We go and try to offer things to customers. We try to say here’s what we’re offering, here’s what we think you should buy, but the customers keep on shaping us. The customer ends up shaping what we sell and do not sell just as much as we’re shaping what we offer,” said Leaf & Petal Owner Jamie Pursell. Jewelry does very well at Leaf & Petal at the Gardens although it isn’t as strong a category at the retailer’s other three locations. “I think to be able to sell something well, you have to have employees that are passionate about understanding the merchandise and communicating what’s special about the merchandise. The success of an offering is sometimes a reflection of your team,” Pursell explained, although he does concede location can play a role. Birmingham Botanical Gardens are right on the edge of Mountain Brook which is the wealthiest zip code in Alabama.

A display of accessories at the Wild Thistle Gift Shop at Lowe’s Greenhouse. In designing the store, the owner made an effort to create a sense of suspense, with surprise and discovery part of the shopping experience.

In terms of display, Pursell said that amassing large amounts of a single item implicitly conveys confidence in a particular piece of merchandise. He pointed to candles as an example. He might stack 40 boxes of one candle at Leaf & Petal at the Gardens. “If a customer walks up and sees that many of one thing, they’re going to infer – even if it’s subconsciously – wow, this must be a pretty good product for them to have that many of it!” This practice doesn’t lend itself to all items – for instance, a series of the same statue sitting side by side might not feel as special – but Pursell believes commodity items like candles, lotions, soaps, and food products sell very well this way. “There’s an art to it,” he concluded.

Corkcicle drinkware is available at the Wild Thistle Gift Shop at Lowe’s Greenhouse. Proceeds from the shop comprise about 10% of the greenhouse’s overall sales.

Plants remain on shoppers’ minds when they stop by the gift shop at Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, Ill. They are the top-selling item in the roughly 700-square-foot retail space. “I think people are just overwhelmed by the beauty of the conservatory and want to take a plant home with them,” said Manager and Buyer Dustin Maynard. An old-school print of the Conservatory’s fern room is also tremendously popular. “We can’t keep it on the shelf!” Next up in terms of sales are custom-designed T-shirts featuring three Conservatory rooms. The facility is an iconic presence, having first opened in 1908.

Sales in the gift shop at Garfield Park Conservatory are definitely on the upswing. When Maynard took over the gift store in August 2018, it was averaging $10,000 a month. Now that number has surged to approximately $25,000 a month. “A lot of that has to do with visitorship but it also involves gift selection and adding more to the store,” he explained. Snacks had figured prominently before but now the gift shop’s scope has expanded to include many fair-trade items and wares crafted by local artisans including candles, ceramics and sweaters. Maynard said it is imperative to know your audience and select items that relate to and connect with visitors. He endeavors to make displays fun and free of clutter which can be quite a feat given his store’s small footprint. “When things aren’t selling, we’re constantly moving it around, trying to figure out where we can place it to draw attention so it will!”

Hidden Lake Gardens in Tipton, Mich., Gift Shop Attendants Chris Bryan, left, and Carol Baker, right, shown with stone jewelry. The merchandise is unique and nature-related.

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