Sunday, September 28, 2008

Invasive Species: Selling on the Front Lines

Sunday, I took to the sales floor of the garden center to help with sales. Within five minutes of getting there, invasive species opportunities arose in force. As I was helping a customer select a few native plants for her shade garden, I saw and heard a gentleman running after the nursery’s IPM consultant shouting, “Wait! I need to get information on an invasive plant for the shade. Wait!”

Of course the consultant moved on and my wife directed the anxious customer in my direction, pointing out with the approval of the consultant that I was the invasive guy. “I need an invasive plant for my shade garden,” the customer said.

Customer service dictates that rule number one should come into play. Rule number one in retail: The customer is always right. Rule number two: If the customer is wrong, see rule number one.

I now had the delicate job of explaining that he had just approached the National Invasive Species Council Advisory Committee's acting vice chair, and that perhaps there was some information that I could share before we went too far in the actual selection of an invasive species for his garden. I pointed out that on the continuum of bad choices, we could offer to sell him natural area (Maryland) public enemy number one, English ivy, or perhaps just slightly less problematic, periwinkle, and if I had talked him out of those two, Japanese spurge might seal the deal and my doom. Fortunately, he had decided for personal reasons of style and taste that pachysandra was out, and that he had enough vines already.

With further conversation, I was able to introduce him to Christmas fern, and then frantically began to look for Asarum canadensis, only to find that we did not have any in stock. The entire dialogue left me thinking how much work there is to be done at the retail level. We need to provide information in a fashion that allows our customers to make informed choices. Trying to be positive about a negative when someone is trying to give you his money is a touchy, dicey proposition.

Having recovered from this first engagement on the sales floor, I moved to our euphemistically named “chemical” room. I have tried without success to get our staff to call this something else, anything else for years, but after 80 years in business I am stuck with a name appropriate to the 1950’s. A continuous stream of radio traffic from staff includes the phrase :chemical” room while drecting customers to our organic choice area. The irony is apparent only to me So, I thought I would go see what our customers were doing.

Of course, when a customer sees a bug, those who choose the “chemical” room want the maximum toxicity. They usually are not in quibbling mode, so working this part of the business takes a certain deftness on one’s feet not to enrage a home-owner with natural solutions or a live and let live theory of the problem. I was expecting to hear, “Sell me an easy to use, weapon of mass destruction, not to oexpensive solution to my pest challenge.”

What I heard instead, inspired this posting. “I just took some stems and seeds from my buddleia plant to my vacation house and threw them in the woods. They are growing just fine. Can I take some stems this fall after the leaves drop and stick them in the area around the back of my property; will they root?” I was to say the least astonished. I said, “Can I perhaps have discussion with you,” after my sales person told the ladies that I was the wrong person to have overheard the conversation; that I was the resident invasive species…guy, but I did not hear the guy part.

This customer was trying, it turns out, to combat awful weeds along the property line, honey suckle, multiflora roses, et al, by planting or encouraging butterfly friendly plants. Hence the butterfly bush program. After giving the by now standard, this is who I try to be speech, by now refined a little, I pointed out that while she was indeed attracting butterflies, she was missing the point by not planting host plants for the eggs and caterpillars that would eventually become the creatures of beauty she was trying to encourage. I noted that she was bringing one problem to combat another problem and iin the end just encouraging the final destruction of the butterfly habitat she was trying to encourage.

These two chance encounters within the same hour, sent me to the keyboard, to write about invasive species, mostly to those who already know about the problem. Trying to reach my own customers, who walked past my three foot by five foot warning signs and my staff who thinks I have lost my mind, brings to mind Seneca, I think, per aspera ad astra.

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