Growth Tips for a Gardening Business

(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Dear FSB: We've been in the wholesale business for over a year now, distributing innovative home and garden decor products such as garden solar lights. After running into bumps and taking a few wrong turns, we haven't made the progress we would like. We're trying to build a brand while struggling in sales. Our expenses are building up quickly. What should be our next step to increase sales and keep up with competition? How do we minimize costs yet increase our brand awareness, customer base and sales efforts? - Tony Zhang, Walnut, CalifDear Tony: The outdoor living/decor market is growing like weeds after a good rain. "People are spending more and more time in their yards, creating whole environments out there incorporating elements of style and fashion, really taking design that was once limited to the inside of homes outside," says Steve King, executive vice president of the Lawn and Garden Marketing and Distribution Association.One of the challenges, he says, is that there are a lot more high quality products on the market. "To be attractive to customers, you really need to have something unique, a product that's particularly attractive to the customer," he says. "Focusing on solar products, or anything trading on the whole green movement is smart."For lawn and garden "non-green goods," which are basically anything that doesn't grow, garden centers generally work with a large regional distributor. If you are a small distributor of only one or two lines, "it could be tough to get into the types of businesses you're hoping for as they're probably pretty well served already," says King. "One strategy is to pick up a few related lines, so that when you call on a garden center, you have a variety of products."There are several annual industry trade shows organized specifically for independent garden centers. One of the biggest is the Independent Garden Center Show held in August in Chicago. "It's a three-day show, a great venue to get your products and company recognized by a large number of retailers," says King. Trade shows might seem expensive, "but remember, that's how Bill Gates built his business," says Gary Slack, senior partner at Slack Barshinger, an integrated marketing communications agency that focuses on business-to-business clients with offices in Chicago and San Francisco. "He scraped up every last penny to buy the least expensive booth at the big trade shows, just to get in. But he didn't sit at his booth, he spent the time cornering the big customers, working the crowd like crazy."King suggests advertising in trade magazines such as Nursery Retailer and Lawn and Garden Retailer. Advertising on the publication's website or online buyers' guide can be a more affordable option, says Slack. "More and more Web sites publish enewsletters that are sent to a specific subset of readers," he says. "Advertising in one of those would be a way to further target your audience."On a day-to-day basis, growing your garden products wholesale business might take getting your hands dirty. "Sometimes it's about just getting out there and banging on doors," says King. "Garden centers tend to be small businesses, with folks that work very hard with limited staff. They appreciate the extent that you're willing to work hard to show them you have a product that can not only make them money, but that won't create more work for them to carry. Be easy to do business with."

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