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Knowledgable Advice and Customer Trust are the Key to Sustained Sales: David Shortall MGLDA

In a recent article commissioned by the Irish Hardware Journal, GLDA Chairman, David Shortall provides some insight into the successful sale and use of Irish garden products.

Every time I meet a new client or customer, whether difficult or not, whether I like them or not, even if they are window shopping or getting quotes from a dozen others, I find myself eager to win their business. It doesn’t matter if I am too busy or the job is really small. The buzz of gaining someone’s trust and the satisfaction of pleasing a customer is part of the reward. 

In the past few years with less business available and even less money around, I find myself even more driven to make the sale. Sometimes the customer is dipping their toe in the water. Other times it is clear that they have ended up on my website by accident and decided to call just to pass the time. However, if there is even a vague chance of a sale, or a potential future sale, then I feel compelled to gain their confidence. During the boom times I never got quite so excited by work. It was easier to get work. The customer seemed less interested too. A lot of the time my work was less appreciated and sometimes went unnoticed. For all of you in hardware retail sales it was probably a lot easier to make a sale too. All you needed was to stock the shelves and the customer did the rest. You worked long hours and worked hard to keep up with orders. The formula worked.

Back in Jack Charleton’s era with the Irish football team the formula of kicking the long ball up into the box worked extremely well. We scored goals and even got to the final eight in the World Cup. Then the goal posts shifted but the ball kept being kicked up the field. We were in denial.

Similarly for hardware retailing, when the recession hit the old formula stopped working too. Most small businesses tried to follow the goal posts each time they shifted but the gap between the posts got smaller all the time. Now the size of the sale is smaller.

The confidence of the customer is dashed, the margin on the goods is tighter, and the expectation is bigger. Nonetheless, some industry sectors still offer significant sales potential, outdoor living being one of them. With people moving house less frequently, the emphasis is on retrofit and upgrading, and the garden is a key focal point in this trend.

Designing and building gardens over the last couple of years I have found a number of differences from the boom times. No longer does a person rip it all out, throw it in a skip and start again. An old tree may now be kept as a focal point in a garden. A timber deck may be modified, or its timber re-used elsewhere.

An old lawn will be rejuvenated with weed killer and feed rather than be ripped up and discarded. Plants bought may be smaller and allowed to grow. A patio may be modified in shape rather than ripped out and more people are also growing their own.

Re-using, recycling, up-cycling and repurposing materials has become very popular with regard to outdoor living but this too generates significant sales. The customer likes the idea but needs help in getting there. This is where we come in. In re-vamping a garden recently where some features were kept and worked with I still purchased pressuretreated timber, nails, screws, latches, hinges, paint, electric cable, plumbing and light fittings. After that the customer bought new garden furniture, feature pots, a BBQ, plants, and a whole range of plant feeds, treatments and now they needed garden tools.

So what is in fashion and what is out? I have not built a timber deck from scratch for years. The reasons are many-fold – they have a bad reputation because of poor planning; being positioned in the wrong place; the Irish climate and how it impacts on a deck; lack of education as to its maintenance, etc. In the right place a deck can be an asset to a garden. However, I believe its poor reputation is irreversible in the short-term. That said, some people are considering composite decking. This gives the same raised platform with the colonial, BBQ or nautical feeling without the maintenance, and it will not rot and get slippy.


Soft foreign stone and slabs such as Indian sandstone, Chinese granite and terracotta have fallen out of favour. The warm and colourful tones seen when displayed new are short-lived in the damp Irish climate. Their reputation has been tarnished again through impulsive Celtic Tiger uninformed installation in shaded, damp side passages, or northfacing pavements.

Soft stone such as this needs a position which receives a lot of sun and drying wind. Not very likely in Ireland. Stone which absorbs moisture can also be badly damaged by frost. Harder or more dense stone such as limestone, quartz and slate are more suited to our climate. Everything open to the elements gets dirty and fades over time. However, if a stone is hard then the dirt and moisture stays on the surface, allowing easier cleaning and maintenance.

Whatever the stone, there is potential to stock patio cleaners, sealers, and pointing/jointing/re-pointing compounds. Applying the correct cleaner takes the slow tedious work out of power hosing a patio. A good sealer applied to a properly-laid patio will protect it from water absorption and therefore make the cleaning of moss, dirt and algae easier.

Garden lighting

Garden lighting gets a mixed reaction for a few reasons. A lot of people hated the cold light of the LED bulb. The old incandescent or halogen bulbs tend not to last as long outside as inside; maybe this is down to the extremes of temperature outside. There is nothing which will put you off garden lighting more than the wrong light, or half the bulbs blown. People tend to long-finger the repair or replacement of fittings or bulbs through lack of knowledge.

There is a fear of the cost of repair or electrocution. A well-lit garden makes a garden more valuable by extending the amount of time you can enjoy it. Even when the weather doesn’t permit venturing into the garden, it becomes a picture to look at from the kitchen or living room.

New LED bulbs and low wattage bulbs to suit outdoor fittings now give a much warmer and reliable light. If a customer already has a supply or fittings in their garden then the hard work is done. There is potential to advise on upgrade and repair with new fittings and low voltage bulbs. I have also recently removed older PAR 38 fittings and replaced them with lower wattage bulbs in new fittings on the basis that it will save electricity too.

Growing your own

Everything to do with growing your own has a real feel-good factor for the customer. Practically all design work in recent years includes kitchen gardens, raised beds, fruit trees or bushes in the wish list. Cost of food is not the driving factor obviously … it is more to do with the fun and feel-good factor of growing and picking your own. Parents are also anxious to show their children where food comes from.

There is huge potential for impulse buying of vegetables and fruit plants, propagation or grow-your-own packs, flat-pack raised beds, organic composts, potato grow-your-own sacks, etc. This is an area where people don’t feel guilty spending money as there is a pay-back for the buyer, even if the produce has cost more than shop-bought items. The psychological feeling of well-being in eating “homegrown” produce is a very strong driver of sales.

Composting is an increasingly-popular idea. However, people get disheartened very quickly if they buy the wrong product or the information provided is inadequate or incorrect. Plastic compost bins provided by the local councils don’t really work for the uneducated. There is not enough ventilation and they quickly become a smelly mess if the compost is not turned.

The customer is faced with the sticky job of getting rid of the smelly fermenting mess and they are put off for life! Supply of good quality more expensive compost bins, activators, fact sheets and a member of staff with some education in composting will ensure the customer is armed with the knowledge to succeed. This hopefully leads to further sales or business.

Cheap garden furniture and pots are often available in every shop, from newsagents to “catch all”, “special offer”, supermarkets. The quality is generally really bad and what is sometimes labelled as hardwood is about as long-lasting as chocolate in a greenhouse. Good quality hardwood or rattan furniture, frost-proof pots and a knoweledgable staff member means you compete on quality, not price. The result will be greater and more sustained sales.

Water in the garden

The sound of lapping water in the garden is calming and appealing to most. However, the traditional garden pond is long out of date. Making a stream or a pond look natural in an urban garden or a country plot is very difficult and generally fails abysmally. Water features and fountains can very easily look tacky.

Working out your customers taste in this regard is the key to success. Simple-shaped modern fountains or units with natural stone always fit in better than plastic or imitation statuesque fountains. A covered reservoir is appealing to customers from a safety point of view. However, they have the disadvantage of being less exposed to light and the water is likely to become smelly and stagnant. A number of followon products are available for the care and maintenance of same, such as sterilising agents, algae detergents, UV lights, replacement pumps, etc.

High-level customer care
In conclusion, I feel very strongly that a high level of customer care is vital, articularly in the outdoor, DIY and garden sector. In all cases the average customer knows very little and needs good direction and advice. Customers want, and need, to trust in you, and this is the key to good business.

In my experience, a customer who trusts you comes back often and recommends you to lots of friends. The trust is passed on too, and so it is easier to make the sale. Occasionally, you even receive a thank you card or bottle of wine. This is advertising you cannot buy and it separates us from the supermarkets.

Source: GLDA - Knowledgable Advice and Customer Trust are the Key to Sustained Sales: David Shortall MGLDA