Build a niche and they will come

Zetas Garden Centre beats Sweden’s big box retailers

By Lorraine Flanigan

Sweden’s largest rare plant and bulb specialists, Zetas Garden Centre near Stockholm has been building a market niche for 25 years. Privately owned and operated by the family’s second generation, Zetas has built such a solid reputation with customers both in Sweden and in other parts of Scandinavia that the movement into the marketplace of the big box retailers has had little effect on Zetas’ sales. Their success is based on four critical factors: displays and presentation that inspire and inform; knowledgeable and motivated staff; a product mix of unusual plants and fine merchandise; and marketing techniques that are both simple and effective.

Inspiring presentations
The Zetas philosophy is to show customers how plants look in the garden. Nowhere is this more evident than in the merchandise presentation. Within the 7,000-square-metre terraced garden centre, alpine plants grow in rock crevices, specimen trees shade rows of perennial benches, vines climb the walls and fences, and shrubs accent the landscaped beds skirting the small buildings of the garden centre. Scattered throughout, displays show mixed plantings of flower bulbs and perennials; pots of evergreens blanket a hillside; and garden ornaments accent container-grown shrubs. On benches and tables, potted herbs are displayed in attractive, pebble-lined trays, pots of dahlias and begonias are arranged between ornamental terra cotta pots, and stone troughs are planted with alpines and miniature bulbs.

     Not all plant material is displayed this way. Perennials are organized in traditional, alphabetical order, lined up on rows of low benches, complemented with colourful point-of-purchase plant descriptions and photos. For the most part, plants are sold in large pots, and forced bulbs are sold in full bloom, growing in four-inch pots, ready to give instant colour to garden beds or containers.

Using size to advantage
What makes all of these display ideas work for Zetas is scale. In contrast to the current “bigger is better” trend in store design and merchandising, Zetas is small — small enough to provide inspiration for home garden design. Within the grounds of this largely open-air garden centre, small buildings stocked with garden supplies and sheds sheltering annuals subtly divide the space into even smaller areas, bringing the scale even more in line with home landscapes. Zetas uses its size to advantage, creating displays aimed at inspiring customers — something big box stores find difficult to duplicate.

Zetas is a meeting place
At Zetas, the atmosphere is welcoming. Customers are invited to linger in the onsite café, which serves homemade salads, cakes and pastries. Opened this year, the café has been hugely popular, providing fine food at cozy tables arranged both indoors, as well as on the outdoor patio. Perched on the highest point of the grounds, the café overlooks the garden centre, providing a bird’s eye view of the plants, displays and gardening supplies available to customers. The café makes good sense for this destination store where customers often come from other parts of Sweden and Scandinavia. Shopping at Zetas becomes a day’s outing, complete with a comfortable and attractive place for friends to meet for lunch or coffee.

Informed and knowledgeable staff
Not only is the atmosphere welcoming and the displays enticing, but also the staff members at Zetas are knowledgeable. This is no easy task in a highly competitive market. To attract and retain good employees, the management at Zetas works hard to keep good staff members. Although many have a formal horticultural education, Zetas supplements their skills with ongoing training opportunities and product knowledge sessions. Qualified staff members are also involved in buying decisions, helping the owners select both plant material and hardgoods. For many, it’s the plant assortment that keeps them interested and motivated – they enjoy working with the rare and unusual varieties as much as the customers do.

     One of the most successful employment programs, however, has been Zetas’ salary scheme. Each of the centre’s 16 employees is remunerated for a total of 1,600 hours of work each year, paid in equal weekly amounts year-round. Weekly pay cheques remain constant during peak season when the staff work more than the average weekly hours as well as during three months of winter lay-offs when they do not report to work. As a result of these efforts, turnover is relatively low, with staff returning each season when the garden centre opens in March, working until Zetas closes in early November.

Keeping on top of trends
Frequent buying trips to European trade shows keeps Zetas’ assortment of hardgoods and plant material current. In response to the trend in Sweden to “decorate” the garden, the selection includes many fine garden ornaments, lighting and water features. These are displayed throughout the nursery, grouped with shrubs or clustered around pots of flower bulbs and perennials. Zetas also uses the private branding concept, embossing its trademark “Z” on a line of terra cotta pots: simple, attractive and exclusive. In addition to garden ornaments, Zetas carries the basics of bagged topsoil and mulch, as well as a range of gardening tools and equipment, making the hardgoods assortment a balanced inventory of bread-and-butter items along with the newest in decorative merchandise.

Rare and unusual plants
Although hardgoods is an essential category of the Zetas assortment, the plant material is the strength of Zetas and the reason customers keep coming back for more. Of all of the categories of plant material, perennials represent the largest volume of sales, followed by annuals, shrubs and trees. Along with staples like geraniums (the best selling annual), the assortment comprises many unusual and choice plants. The wide selection of clematis not only includes popular varieties like ‘Nelly Moser’ and the jackmanii types, but a full range of alpina, heracleifolia, macropetela, recta, texensis and viticella species. Of the extensive collection of roses, many are Old Garden Roses such as Rosa ‘Mundi,’ Bourbons and Damasks in addition to a dozen varieties of Austin English roses ­— even one or two of the Explorer series. The selection of Japanese maples totals 67 varieties, from Bloodgood to ‘Trompenburg’ and ‘Inaba shidare’. The bulb and perennial collection boasts 24 varieties of alliums, 12 species of Arisaema, 34 varieties of Geranium, and 58 varieties and species of Paeonia. The breadth of the assortment is as im­pressive as the rare and unusual varieties available: Paeonia mlokosewitshcii, Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropurpureum’, Gillenia trifoliata, Jeffersonia dubia and Kirengeshoma koreana palmate, to name only a few.

     Although it publishes a catalogue of plant materials, Zetas accepts no mail orders, selling only from the garden centre. The average number of sales on a busy Saturday during peak season is 1,000, dropping to 300 or 400 during the week, with value of the average sale between 500 and 700 kroner ($75 to $105 CAD) in May and between 300 and 400 kroner ($45 to $60 CAD) in August.

Simple yet effective marketing strategies
Attracting customers from as far away as Denmark and Finland, Zetas’ marketing plan is simple yet effective. During the season, the garden centre organizes a series of weekend events, each one high­lighting a category of plants. One week lilacs will be featured, the next dogwoods or rhododendrons. Each of the weekend events often features a guest speaker, who is a recognized expert in the field. Although most customers are knowledgeable gardeners, more novice gardeners are starting to shop at Zetas. To meet their needs, local plant and horticultural societies are invited to provide customer education seminars and workshops.

     While most of the advertising budget is devoted to newspapers, the big payoff comes from frequent appearances on television. Co-owner Victoria Mattsson is a popular guest on Swedish lifestyle programs. As well as television appearances, Zetas is in demand by gardening magazines, supplying new items and plants for feature articles. In addition to these strategies, to keep local journalists informed about new plants and trends (and where to buy them), Zetas also hosts a press reception in August, a catered affair with food prepared by a local celebrity chef.

Success based on good business sense
The strategies for success that work for Zetas are not revolutionary — for the most part, they’re based on good business sense, not gimmicks. Nor is Zetas an overnight success. The garden centre has developed over 25 years and two generations of management. But neither is it resting on its laurels. The current owners continue to look for ways to improve their operation, to stay on top of the trends, and to remain as Sweden’s most sought-after garden centre.

     Will what works in Sweden work in the Canadian marketplace? The issues Zetas faces are very similar to those we face here: big box competition, staff retention and training, developing a balanced assortment, and planning a cost-effective marketing program that pays off in sales and customer loyalty. If it works in Sweden, it’ll work here.

Lorraine Flanigan is garden writer and Master Gardener in Training living and gardening in Toronto. Her column appears in the Town Crier newspaper as well as on the Internet at