Down to Earth Garden Center

There’s nothing worse than an unsatisfied customer walking up to your register and demanding to know why their plant is failing to thrive. While the situation isn’t always preventable, salvage both the customer’s expectations and your reputation by creating a plant warranty policy — or in the case of greenhouses that already have one, updating your warranty. We rounded up some of the best plant warranty pointers as IGC owners head into the retail rush of spring season.

Prioritize customer success

The most important thing IGC owners should take into consideration when creating a warranty policy is fostering healthy plant growth and nurturing customer relationships. Joseph J. Kiefer, manager of Triple Oaks Nursery & Herb Garden in Franklinville, New Jersey, shares why this is the cornerstone of any good policy. “We want people to succeed with our plants” he says. “That’s the whole principle of it. The policy is there for customer success.”

Bethany Broderick, who manages the East Broad Street location of Strader’s Garden Center in Columbus, Ohio, echoes this viewpoint. “Most customers, yeah, they want to be successful with their plants and they come here so that we can help to educate as far as proper planting and care and maintenance,” he says.

Ben Polzin, vice president of retail operations at Down to Earth Garden Center, located in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, says this should be top priority when it comes to mapping out a warranty strategy. “We changed our plant warranty this spring. We had kind of a more broad spectrum, very lenient program before,” he says. “We still want to stand behind our plants. We also don’t want to be taken advantage of.”

Triple Oaks Nursery & Herb Garden

Tweak according to your brand

Most plant warranties tend to cover big-ticket items, such as trees and shrubs, but IGC owners can tweak these to what fits their needs best. Broderick says that trees and shrubs at Strader’s have a one-year warranty, with the exception of trees or shrubs on 50% markdown. They also offer a warranty for roses sold during planting season, which lasts 90 days (as long those roses are not 50% off).

Strader’s does not offer a warranty for test plants, annuals or perennials. In order to uphold the warranty, customers must first bring in their receipt, along with a sample of the plant (like foliage) or a photo of the dead plant.

“And then we will do a one-time replacement,” Broderick says. “If it’s a plant that they were not successful with because, perhaps it’s a more difficult plant to grow, or they didn’t realize it needed a certain type of care, then we may try and educate them about a better alternative.”

Similar to Broderick, Polzin and Kiefer require proof of plant death for the plant, and both agree that a photo or physical evidence will do.

The Down to Earth's nursery yard

Down to Earth provides a general 30-day warranty, and then customers can opt to buy a one-year extended warranty for trees and shrubs. Roses and perennials are covered for the current growing season, which ends on Oct. 15 of the purchasing year. The IGC requires customers to buy Root & Grow, along with a bag of compost, at the time of purchase as well. “If they’re buying it, they are a lot more likely to use it,” Polzin says. “So, between the watering of the Root & Grow and using the compost when they’re planting, it’s just forcing them a little bit more to care for it, get it planted correctly.”

Triple Oaks offers a six-month “cash and carry” warranty and a two-year “installation” warranty. In Kiefer’s experience, trustworthy people usually don’t make claims, but if they do, they own up to them. “Honest people will say, ‘Oh, well I didn’t water it’ or ‘The soil there is not good,’” he says. Kiefer adds they’ll replace these plants nearly every time, even if the customer is at fault. “Yeah, the thing is, if somebody’s nice and polite and friendly, that goes such a long way,” he continues. Triple Oaks will even replace perennials, which technically aren’t even under warranty. “We pretty much make exceptions for anybody who’s nice.”

Another reason Triple Oaks is so lenient with their policy is because of big box stores who provide blanket coverage for a year. “So you’re kind of in competition with that, where people have a mindless idea that they could take a plant and throw it in a fire and burn it and then take it back for warranty coverage, and that’s the big box store kind of warranty,” he says. “Because they’re not paying, the grower’s paying it.”  Kiefer says Triple Oaks plans to edit its policy on January 1. “You know every time somebody gets the best of you, swindles you out of something, you learn a lesson and put that on paper. Say ‘I’m not going to let that happen again,’” he says. However, this mentality has made the policy too complex, forcing Kiefer to reconsider. The new policy will include a $50 inspection fee and the policy will be more open-ended. That way, Triple Oaks can review claims on a case-by-case basis.

Evregreens at Triple Oaks

Educate customers at the front lines

According to Broderick, enforcing the warranty policy starts at checkout. From the time customers visit the register to the time they walk out of the store, their expectations should align with your IGC’s care instructions and warranty parameters. “The cashiers are trained to pay attention to the computer screen and when someone buys a tree or shrub, they’re supposed to verbally inform the customer of the policy,” she says. Strader’s has their policy down to a science, and the team doesn’t anticipate changing its policy any time soon.

Kiefer says their policy is located on Triple Oaks’ website for easy access to the public, and employees are trained to refer to it upon checkout.

“We’ve taken it all the way out to the sales yard. It is mentioned at checkout if it hasn’t already been talked about,” Polzin says. Aside from perennials, employees are encouraged to upsell the extended warranty.

Protect your reputation

According to Kiefer, it’s easier to bite the bullet and appease angry customers, even if they’re wrong. “These people clearly went and killed a beautiful, perfect plant. But if you sit there and argue with them, that could be the worst thing in the world for your reputation and word of mouth, because people aren’t experts,” Kiefer says. While it is frustrating to honor a baseless warranty claim, in the end the monetary amount is small — he estimates about 1% of people request a plant return. Both Broderick and Polzin estimate the same. It’s a delicate balance, but one that requires customer satisfaction to keep business rolling.

It’s also important to keep your warranty policy simple and streamlined, something both Polzin and Kiefer agree on. “That’s probably my number one thing, because the more complicated it is, the harder it is for the customers to understand it and want to do it, and it also can create delays in the checkout process, which is the last thing you want to do on a busy weekend,” Polzin says. He advises that your policy should be something your team can stand behind and understand.

For those thinking about creating their own warranty policies, Kiefer recommends outlining the different types and molding them to fit your brand. He suggests owners join the Independent Garden Center Forum on Facebook to gather ideas. “Now some people on there have no warranty. Some people have an amazing warranty, some people have something in between. Some people just treat it on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “And there’s merit to all the different ways.”