How To Be a Great Plant Shop or Nursery Customer

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There are so many articles listing tips on how to work in customer service jobs, but there really aren’t many covering how to get the best results when you shop for plants.

The customer is sadly not always right. We all know this, and while employees sometimes hear this, it’s become clearer that a minority of customers have taken advantage of this kind of interaction. It bothers me a great deal to see a friend who’s been harassed for no good reason by someone.

To work retail, you really need to have thick skin. It’s bad enough when coworkers take their issues out on you, but it’s even worse when you’re trying to help someone—honestly enjoying finding a solution for them—and they do it to you knowing you have to “take it” since you’re essentially paid to service them.

Happily this is not something that happens a lot, but it can really be upsetting and it doesn’t need to happen. Customers should find help, and employees should feel like they’ve been able to do their jobs to the best of their abilities while working within the limitations of the business model.

The good news is that nearly everyone is great. So long as you do your research and are patient and nice, you can find what you need on your own and maybe even help someone you find along your way who is just standing in an aisle looking confused.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Do you work here? I need help.” I just have that look I guess…

Clematis macropetala ‘Bluebird’. (Sadly this is one of the few plants that’s ever been stolen from my house.)

Since the start of the pandemic, anyone who works in customer service is aware of how much anxiety, fear, and anger has been needlessly directed at them. Since I stopped working the retail area at my job in Canby I’ve only heard about it from coworkers, what I’ve had happen mostly are folks just stopping in the greenhouse to chat with me while I’m working. Lots of folks have been lonely and have felt isolated so I’m sort of a captive audience as I work at my station.

Oh the random stories I could tell lol!

Rhododendron occidentale, or Western azalea.

1. Just be nice.

Selling live plant material means that we have to keep them alive while at the same time providing customer service. So much work goes into keeping things fresh and making displays. It really breaks your spirit to be physically exhausted and then overhear “witty” or snarky comments about how things look.

2. Practice patience.

If you send an email asking about availability to a nursery, please don’t call them in a few hours if you’ve not heard back yet. Try to be understanding that many workers are wearing many hats at once and there is likely a line of customers ahead of you in their mailbox. They’re absolutely doing their best to take care of customers as quickly as is possible.

3. Know which services are provided before you go.

Increasingly, we’re seeing a trend. One stop shopping and saving time is popular. If you want to have an area of your garden designed, some employees can help with this, but it’s not always the case. Not all nurseries have the number of staff to spend that kind of time helping you.

Please don’t get angry with the person assisting you if this is frustrating. Often, this means others have to wait and then they’re upset too. If you want design help, it is best to hire and shop with a designer, personal shopper, or garden coach. This person can help you and give you the direct attention you need. If you don’t know how to find one, look online or call a nursery and ask. I know that in Portland gardening is very popular so many advanced gardeners seek to make a living at it and these kinds of gigs are perfect and can provide a higher wage as well. (For folks like me this is great!)

I think this quote from someone who has worked large garden center retail for many years nails what many friends said to me when I asked about this topic. “They want me to be a top level horticulturist and their personal garden designer and shopper, and also to treat me like an imbecile. That doesn’t work for me.”

This field of work, for so many of us, is a labor of love and there really is just so much that we can do. Sadly, there are a lot of factors that can go into how busy we are at any time. Sometimes we’re more free to help you. Maybe call and ask when a slow time would be so that you could get that kind of special personal help.

Fremontodendron californicum, or flannel bush.

4. Please put tags back into the pots and don’t steal cuttings or plants.

Lots of folks pull tags out of things to read their names and their descriptions. Just try to put them back. I can’t tell you how much time and energy goes into making sure things are labeled and priced. Primping those plants can take so much out of us laborers.

5. “There’s no price tag on this so it’s free, right?

Jokes like this are not funny. If you get a weak laugh, don’t be surprised. Also, please don’t grab stock plants from areas that are roped off and tell us you want them. Don’t ask us to dig things up from display areas either. Those are also our stock plants.

What that means is that it’s how we make more crops. We divide stock plants and the crops begin small so we’re sorry if you don’t like that size, but if no one buys them, we pot them up, so maybe next time you might find a larger one. That’s just how a production nursery works. (Some stock plants are also just there for cuttings. We need to keep them too.)

You’d be surprised, but these are all frequent requests. Sadly, I’ve witnessed individuals arguing with nursery owners and trying to bully them into getting stock plants.

I’ll never forget one man saying, “My wife doesn’t want your tiny hosta plants. She deserves better than them.” He went on and on. It made me so upset, but instant gratification cannot always be satisfied in the garden.

7. Suspicion or discount seeking.

If a plant has a few yellow leaves it means the staff has been too busy to remove them. This is normal and so is the fluffing. Many plants you purchase don’t sit around looking pretty. Many hands have made sure that they look their best so that you’ll take them home.

When there are discounts or sales, you’ll notice signs. Its fine to ask if we have any specials, but there are people who complain a lot to retail employees about the prices and that’s not part of their job to fix, so if it’s a real issue, send an email to someone or do what I do. Go to the internet and chat to your friends about it.

Some nurseries will replace plants that you’ve killed, but most won’t. The only issue is when a plant is diseased or infested with bugs. Most nurseries will work to resolve that with you since it has to do with horticulture.

If you take plants home and deer eat them, the onus is not on the grower. This goes back to the start. Always do your research.

A Ceanothus cultivar, or California lilac.

8. Don’t be an ask-hole.

These moments are time wasters and can be really exhausting. They’re conversations that go nowhere in my opinion. No matter what you respond with, it’s not enough, or not what they want to hear. I think once I may have even said, “I’m so sorry but I appear not to be helping you at all. How can we get that spot planted for you?” It felt so heavy and like I was performing some kind of therapy for them. I think we all respond to this situation differently, but they’re conversations that go on and on and in general, we employees often have other tasks to be doing instead of answering A LOT of questions.

This is one reason that I’m happy we have Question Desks at a few nurseries. If you don’t have one in your area, it’s a great volunteer position for a Master Gardener volunteer in the area and a way they can do their service hours. I think a nursery with one of these set up will attract business too. If the volunteer is aware of the different areas of expertise at the nursery they can also better direct more advanced questions to the right people. I believe an employee usually oversees things so you have a dependable “hive mind” on duty.

Buddleja globosa, or orange ball tree.

9. Have fun and smile!

Folks struggle. We all get tired when we work hard physically all day. Imagine doing it a lot. Some of us do it all year, others are seasonal employees. If an employee seems snobby, just know that they really love plants. Please don’t take it personally. Set up a problem for them to solve, and I believe that they will do their best to help you. Nursery and plant work is a labor of love. It’s difficult to make a living at it, and many nursery workers are just passing through but really want to work at something hard that they love for a while. Choose kindness and you never know, garden love may shine down on you and your garden may grow.

Illicium floridanum, or anise tree.