A Marketing Consultant to the Industry Looks at Water Garden Merchandising

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As PONDKEEPER magazine’s readers travel the U.S., for business and pleasure, they can seek out true examples of smart merchandising.

Specifically, they can see just how well water garden goods can be presented—by specialty retailers of such items.

Fortunately, the traveler can find standout operations near to major cities often visited by PONDKEEPER readers. We mean destinations like Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, South Florida and the Dayton—Cincinnati—Columbus area.

In the heart of Atlanta, one should not miss Atlanta Water Gardens. Just inside its entrance Bill Parker and their team show off a glorious collection of tasteful outdoor decoratives. The presentation shows just how deluxe these classy items can be shown. In a large adjacent space, patrons can wander along pathways that high spot various approaches to showing fish and mostly outdoor living accents. Proceed through this complex and one is outdoors among an impressive array of aquatic plants. That is followed by settings where fountains and waterfalls do their thing.

Close to New Orleans’ French Quarter, on little more than an acre of city space, American Water Gardens will give the traveler a lift. Owners Rich Sacher and Bill Dailey demonstrate just how tastefully every category of goods for the water garden can be positioned on the property—both outdoors and inside. The latter area is dominated by an array of gifts.

Just outside of Houston, in Katy, Texas, Rolf and Anita Nelson have set high standards for others to follow in their sprawling outdoor groupings of everything from disappearing fountains to uncommon plants that do well and look great in a pondscape. Their broad selection of pottery is a major draw.

Families congregate around the display ponds at Green Vista, just as they might if they had a pond in their own backyard.
Families congregate around the display ponds at Green Vista, just as they might if they had a pond in their own backyard.

Pottery is spread out on the lawns of a mansion just south of the Fort Lauderdale airport, in Dania Beach, Florida. Tom Naylor, long a grower of water lilies, bought this property lock, stock and mansion—about five years ago. On highly traveled US-1, it now pulls in clientele from Key West to the south and Palm Beach to the north. A visit to Dania Beach Water Gardens will be a revelation to retailers willing to take a look at unorthodox properties that can be successful for retailing.

Green Vista Water Gardens is dramatic proof that a water garden specialist doesn’t have to be situated in a big-time population center. It’s in Springfield, Ohio, which explains why it has become a destination for families from Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton.

Owner Steve Blessing converted farmland into a water garden specialty operation that was acclaimed by the 2006 Pondapalooza event in Pittsburgh. His feature presentation focused on the assortment of merchandising techniques that have set his operation apart. His visuals of Green Vista’s promotions and events highlighted Steve’s shared insights on what works and why. The Pondapalooza crowd of attendees were understandably responsive and appreciative. Chances are that specialty retailers across the country have borrowed some of his ideas and are wiser and richer for doing so.

This simple sign-and-bin approach communicates to shoppers the Green Vista Help Yourself system for selecting and packaging hardy lilies.
This simple sign-and-bin approach communicates to shoppers the Green Vista Help Yourself system for selecting and packaging hardy lilies.

What’s going on now at Green Vista? Steve and his wife/business partner, Heather, are renowned for not standing pat. They are forever seeking new ways to make good things happen. Also, this duo is dedicated to refining and upgrading each of the merchandising projects that are carried over from one season to the next. They strive to fine-tune, update, upgrade—in order to perpetuate freshness and to avoid the same old/same old.

Here, then is a sampling of what visitors would be exposed to during the 2007 season:

• First of all, let’s make the point that the Blessing’s approaches to merchandising are quite diverse. If need be they will design and build a display fixture. Why would they do a thing like that? In the case of aquatic plants they felt a need for them to stand out, to be more noticeable.

When they are presented in ways that are “low and flat,” they are less visible and showy than they could be. That was the reasoning of the Green Vista team. They asked themselves, “how can we get some elevation…some wording…and maybe even a bit of pizzazz into the presentation”?

The team came up with what is a winner on four counts (as the accompanying photo shows):

1. It has height—to make it stand out. Contributing to that objective is the dark coloring of the structure. It commands attention, rather than blending into its surroundings.

Comment: How uncommon is it for a retailer to initiate a display concept? Quite unusual. However, about 10 years ago we witnessed a development at the Bordine Nursery four-store operation in the Detroit, Michigan area. For somewhat similar reasons plus a space crunch, they came up with a double deck configuration that worked well for them. Naturally there was enough space between the two decks to provide the required amount of air and light.

2. The plants could be examined by looking straight at some of them and by looking down at others.

3. There were more surfaces for signage and for information. Wording was large enough so that shoppers could see the plant names adjacent to color photos of the plants growing in a pond.

4. The fixture was tall enough and sturdy enough so that an essential header could be mounted at the top.

• The Blessings feel that if you have a systematic approach to how shoppers are to select and handle a product, like hardy lilies, that you tell them what that system is.

“Simple, straightforward signage is the answer. That’s what we’ve found”, states Heather Blessing, referring to the photo that shows how they do it out where the lilies are.

She adds, “this is not the time or place to be fancy or deluxe. Just tell it like it is”. Mounted on a pole is this sign:

Help Yourself

Feel free to grab a cart and net to choose and bag your own plants.

Questions? We’re happy to help!

Immediately below that sign is an even simpler one:

Hardy Lilies

Just below that is a bin filled with green plastic bags.

And, of course, the accompanying sign tells it like it is:

Bags For Hardy Lilies

To best show off plants, Green Vista designed this three-tier display fixture.
To best show off plants, Green Vista designed this three-tier display fixture.

“Never underestimate the importance of real, live, working display ponds,” Steve Blessing says, emphatically. “I say that for two very basic reasons: The consumer educational value as well as for the merchandising or promotional value”.

“Another way to look at the educational aspect is to think of each display pond as an idea center. Once the consumer has a good appreciation of pond size and has a feel for how many fish can go into a given space, where various aquatic plants are best placed, then with that knowledge, he is ready to contemplate where to position a waterfall, how to add a stream, where a wooden bridge belongs—suddenly his knowledge, picked up on the spot, is leading him and his family members to buying decisions. A display pond is no place for a merchant to be bashful”, notes Steve. “Let your visitors see how outdoor decoratives will enhance the pondscape. Show them what you recommend for pondside plantings. Mix education with merchandising and your cash register will ring. Just don’t forget signage, handouts and notices that tell the dates of the next seminars.

As the pondside photo shows, the viewing of display ponds can become a family affair. Get those folks leaning over your display ponds and their imaginations will take hold.

Beyond what the Blessings undertake in the selling areas, they work hard each year in putting together a program of four seminars. They open the season with subjects like “Opening Your Pond For The Season” and close with information related to closing the pool for the winter.

During the season the team stages four events that are awaited each year by regular customers. Those are top class affairs that include food and beverages. How they put these together and how their success is measured will be covered in a subsequent feature by this writer.

Sidenote-Beyond Conventional Merchandising—A Presence on The Web

The Blessings were exposed to state-of-the-art techniques of how to merchandise water garden products on the Internet—during Pondapalooza 06. John Olson, president of Graystone Creations in Sunrise, Florida, presented his findings on what works and why on websites that offer pond related goods.

Steve Blessing bought Olson’s book, “The Pond Pro’s Guide To Internet Marketing” and states: “Its hands-on, no-nonsense guidelines are responsible for our success on the web”.

The book is available online at Amazon Books.

About the Author

Bob LaRue is a Marketing Consultant and can be reached at parcels01@aol.com.

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