By Erin Porter, Hardscape Materials Inc.
In the early days of COVID-19 and before life changed dramatically, I was treated to a trip to North Carolina for a seminar on water quality and fish health, which included a visit to a koi farm and dedicated retail pond store. It was a great trip and very informational.
However, on the visit to the retail pond store, a myth was told. The retail store was a formula store, meaning that the store was designed, set up and pretty much run the way the main supplier had in mind. During the welcome, the owner talked about the store and installations of water features, stating that the only money to be made is in installations — not in retail.
Unfortunately, I beg to differ. I am the five-year manager of a pond store within a stone yard with upwards of 20 years of experience within the same business. We have a 3,000-square-foot retail space and a 3,000-square-foot fish house from which we sell fish. We are profitable every year, and we do not do installations.
Having been around the pond business since 1993, we have seen it evolve from the Little Giant “Big Guy” and “Little Guy” bucket filters that claimed to filter any-sized pond, to today’s multitude of products and manufacturers. To say the least, we know a lot — so much so that my brother and boss, Brad Porter, was granted patents on some of the biofilters and skimmers still being manufactured today.
We have had more successful years than slow ones in the pond department. That being said, it has taken us years to come up with a tried-and-true recipe for happy employees and customers. Here are a few of the things we have done.
Hire mature employees. We have greater success with employees who are more mature and come from a varied background of the work force. Two of my employees have extensive backgrounds in retail, landscaping and construction. This has made them easier to train, more reliable and punctual.
Cross training is essential. There are generally five of us in our pond department, and for every duty, a minimum of three employees know how to do it. There is not one duty performed by only one employee.
Knowledge is the key. Most pond departments test water, and we are no different. Knowing why we test and how those components work in a pond is crucial. Having handouts is a big help in explaining test results to customers. We were fortunate. About four years ago, a gentleman from the fish hatchery industry in the Northwest U.S. came in looking for a job. His knowledge was invaluable. I realize most pond departments don’t have such expertise to call upon. So, use your manufacturers for knowledge. That is one of their jobs — to educate you.
Know your products. I have it easy, as I have been in the industry long enough to see products evolve as the industry grows. New employees have to learn everything at once, so we take it product by product over an extended period of time for them to be fully trained. We know pretty quickly (within 90 days) if an employee is going to be capable of grasping the science. By no means would I expect someone to know everything within 90 days; I would just expect them to be capable of learning it.
Departmentalize your employees. Find each employee’s strength and cash in on it. For instance, I have one employee who used to work in retail music and construction. I discovered that his attention to detail and display capabilities were exceptional. Therefore, his main duties include stocking, creating displays, keeping inventory rotated and keeping me abreast on what we need to order. Another employee came from retail and landscaping industries, and he is in charge of our maintaining our extensive display garden, keeping sold features rotated out and new features put in. Both employees are great salespeople as well.
Seasonal employees just need to know the basics. Occasionally we bring in seasonal employees. This year, due to COVID-19, we only brought on one additional worker for the summer. While he is full time during the summer, he will go to part time when he returns to school in the fall. While I foresee him being a long-term employee, I made the decision to train him on just the very basics at first. We trained him on maintenance and cashiering, and then brought him up to speed on the particulars of pond keeping as he progressed. He sees a future here and is eager to learn.
We strive to greet each customer upon entering the store, engaging them by asking questions about their pond, keeping a water test sheet on each customer and learning their names. This goes a long way in earning their trust.
We also do not subscribe to the one-supplier-fits-all mentality. We bring in the best from several different suppliers and aren’t afraid to try new products before we recommend them to our customers. This, we find, helps our sales, as we always have experience with the cutting-edge products on display. We want our customers to want what we have — and you should, too!
Our sales have continued to increase every year since we have implemented these concepts. I’ll bet yours could as well!