With the holidays right around the corner, customers are looking for shopping experiences as well as goods to purchase. Here’s how one company gives them both.

Photo by Sally Benson; courtesy of Platt Hill Nursery

Things are looking up. At least that’s what the economists are telling us about holiday sales. Factors ranging from post-election optimism – no matter who takes the White House – to an unusually long shopping season are predicted to contribute to an increase in spending from October through the end of the year. Anthony L. Liuzzo, a professor of business and economics at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Penn., has been releasing holiday sales forecasts for more than 20 years, and this year, he says, a quirk of the calendar will give retailers an extra boost.

“It is important to note that the 2012 holiday shopping season will benefit from a much longer season,” he states in his “Holiday Retail Sales Forecast: 2012” report. “Due to the fact that Christmas falls on a Tuesday and Thanksgiving falls very early (on November 22), there will be a whopping, and highest number possible, 32 days in the 2012 holiday sales season (while there were only 30 days in 2011; 29 days of 2010; 28 days in 2009; and 27 days in 2008). This means that there will be a full five weekends of shopping!” (Access the full report at http://www.wilkes.edu/holidayforecast.)

That means even more opportunity to capture the attention of shoppers and promote your holiday inventory. Other than offering coupons or sales, how do you differentiate your business from the thousands of others competing for holiday dollars? Let’s take a look at what’s going on in Racine, Wis., where a family-owned, destination nursery and garden center makes the most of the season.

Milaeger’s makes it happen

Like many independent garden centers, Milaeger’s began with a small, backyard hobby greenhouse. A little more than 50 years later, the business has grown to include more than 90 greenhouses and two retail locations (Racine and Sturtevant, Wis.), where shoppers can purchase everything from live plants to women’s casual clothing. A Christmas shop offers the basics year round, but it’s in the third quarter that Milaeger’s kicks into high gear with promotions and events that lure eager holiday shoppers from miles around.

This year’s Christmas Open House runs from Thursday, October 25 through Sunday, November 4 at both locations, and features the company’s assortment of “almost real” trees, ornaments and other decorations. “We invite vendors to participate, mostly artisans and craftsmen who can be working on something they can sign” for the customer, says co-owner Kevin Milaeger. This includes “collectibles, and the customer can meet the person who makes it.” Vendors also represent gift and ornament lines normally carried by the shop.

Milaegers’ wildly popular holiday fashion show (see sidebar) is staged on the first Saturday of the open house, bringing in enthusiastic customers from all over the region. And a holiday preview party for “Best Rewards” customers offers special discounts, door prizes, gifts with purchases and refreshments.

“The preview party is quite popular,” Milaeger says. “With food staged during the evening, customers have a tendency to stay a little longer. They’re free to roam throughout the facilities, and registers are open – often with long lines. The difficulty is getting people through the line.

“To encourage that,” he continues, “you must offer some sort of discount that evening. Is it 15 percent? 20 percent? The question is, what can you do to get people to buy, without cutting into your profit?”

Staging a fashion show

We like to say we sell “lifestyle,” rather than just plants. (Not that there’s anything wrong with selling plants!) So why not put some of that “style” into your holiday event planning and stage a fashion show?

At Milaeger’s garden center in Racine, Wis., there are two such events each year. And they really feature fashion. The shop maintains a casual clothing section, so selections are pulled from existing inventory. According to co-owner Kevin Milaeger, the holiday event (scheduled this year for October 27 at the company’s Sturtevant, Wis., facility) usually draws 300 to 400 people, some driving a good 50 miles to attend. “There’s not a lot of people doing things like this,” he says.

Six or seven themed segments comprise each show, with 12 to 15 outfits per segment. There’s music, narration and fun for everyone.

Tickets are available online as well as in the shop, and Milaeger says many attendees “make a day of it; they meet their friends twice a year” for the shows. They shop before the models strut their stuff, have lunch, get a few fashion tips, shop after the show … with an emphasis on shopping. And that’s after spending $30 for a fashion show ticket, or $38 for the show with lunch.

“As other, private clothing shops in the area went out of business,” explains Milaeger, “we got stronger, so there’s not a lot of competition” for women’s dollars. Bringing customers in for a fun day of fashion and food encourages them to stick around with their friends and shop throughout the entire facility.

So you don’t stock a line of women’s clothing; your inventory can come alive with a carefully planned, live show. Take a tip from the National Green Centre and stage your own fashion show – with plants. The NGC’s third “Plant Fashion” event will take place on Sunday, January 6 in St. Louis, but you can create the dazzle of holiday decorating with new poinsettias and Christmas cactus, artfully arranged greens, small themed containers – the sky’s the limit. (Check out how the National Green Centre does it at www.nationalgreencentre.org.)

On the same evening, live glassblowing demonstrations and ornament signings will be staged by an artist from Egyptian Museum Glass, which produces ornaments and perfume bottles. Trunk shows are held throughout the season, giving vendors such as Troll Beads and accessories manufacturer Brighton an opportunity to connect one-on-one with shoppers.

Throughout November, the Milaeger’s team offers a variety of demonstrations and workshops, including a “Decorating the Home” gala event – during which designers will “decorate every aspect of the home, from entryway to the back door” – as well as a demonstration on key elements for holiday trimming and a winter container design event. Demonstrations generally are free, although some special events that have limited seating and include refreshments carry a small fee. Preregistration and a nominal fee are required for workshops to cover the cost of materials.

Milaeger’s grows much of its own inventory on site, and the selection of poinsettias this year ranges through 35 types to a total of more than 17,200 plants. The company’s Holiday Greenhouse Tour, offered on November 17 and 24 at the Racine location, is a one-of-a-kind experience. “The greenhouse tour is quite popular because we grow so many kinds of poinsettias,” Milaeger explains. “If you like photography, like poinsettias or just like Christmas, it’s something that you can’t experience elsewhere within hundreds of miles.”

New this year is a Christmas Fantasy Lunch and visit with Santa, tailored for children three to eight years old. Kids are encouraged to dress in their ultimate fantasy costumes – expect lots of princesses, fairies and superheroes – and activities will keep them busy making gingerbread houses, playing games, dancing and getting their faces painted. The fee includes lunch for one parent and child, but an additional adult’s lunch can be purchased for only $5. While the kids are busy, parents can shop to their hearts’ content.

The folks at Milaeger’s have been hyping the holidays for decades, but they’re always fine-tuning. Social media plays a part in their outreach, but “it’s a lot like advertising,” Milaeger says. “It’s really hard to measure” its effectiveness. Discounts that are tied to a specific event are reevaluated, too: “It’s often hard to get people to spend money,” he adds, and the company weighs the options. “Do you make the discount good for that night only? Or for the next week?”

It’s an ambitious schedule, but holiday promotions are part and parcel of what Milaeger’s does for its customers. And for its bottom line.

“In this day and age, you have to do something special to attract people,” Milaeger says. “There’s so much that they’re used to now, you really have to wow them. It’s a never-ending process; you’ve got to constantly come up with ideas for new events.”

Sally Benson is editorial director for American Nurseryman. She can be reached at sbenson@mooserivermedia.com.