Can Earthworms Teach Us How to Differentiate from Amazon?

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By Dave Bruno - 06/15/2017

My hometown of Encinitas, California, is the last place you might look for a glimpse into the future of retail. If anything, Encinitas – a true hippie’s paradise – is a throwback to simpler times. Birkenstock sandals and tie-dye tees are fashion mainstays. People practice qi gong on the beach and they meditate in the park. Every fourth car is a hybrid, and most have a yoga mat in the back seat.

Standing Out from the Crowd

Food and gardening shops that cater to people like us are everywhere in Encinitas. There’s a farmer’s market every day of the week, and community gardens, organic nurseries and big box stores all compete for their share of our neighbors’ macramé wallets.

Another unique aspect of this tiny niche of the retail industry is the relative absence of significant competition from e-commerce.  Sure, people buy seed packs online, and perhaps some tools, but the people in my hometown want to see each seedling and understand each plant’s origin story.

Needless to say, Saturday mornings in Encinitas are always extremely busy at these shops. The challenge for garden retailers here is less about omnichannel integration and more about assortments and experiences that bring people into their stores.

Spring Rituals Lead to Sumptuous Summer Suppers

As my wife and I were about to begin our tomato patch this year, we discovered a new (to us) gardening destination: Encinitas Hydroponics. Ever anxious for new gardening gold, we immediately drove over to investigate.

What we found was not all that different from any of a dozen other denizens of dirt in Encinitas: potting soils, fertilizers, food…and Joe, a wizened gardener, ready to dispense wisdom and advice to any who would listen.

So we asked Joe for any advice he might have to help us grow tomatoes so close to the beach. As he waxed poetic about abundant bounties past, we eagerly invested in many of his suggestions.

A Special Blend of Tea

But what stood out most was something else that Joe recommended, something that wouldn’t cost us a dime. He told us to come back on Sunday morning to pick up a free gallon of his special brew of worm casting “tea.” Worm castings - an organic form of fertilizer - are great for the garden.

Joe tells us that his tea is far better than bagged worm castings because his brew contains active microbes that are instantly available to the plants, and he insists we come back the next Sunday with an empty jug to see just how well his special blend will perform in our patch.

The Early Bird Gets the Worm (Tea)

With nothing to lose, we went back that Sunday to collect our tea. We arrived before he opened, and there were already three people lined up, each with an empty jug in hand. They all swore by Joe’s special blend, and they all said they come back 3-4 Sundays every month for Joe’s tea.

And you know what else they did while they were there?  They engaged. They told Joe how their gardens were growing, and he gave them each different advice based on their individual results. All three benefited from their trip to the store in multiple ways, and two of the three purchased other items while there.

Moving the Needle

Joe and his team understand that people need a reason to come to their store. When people arrive for their trusty tea, they are greeted by a staff of trusted experts ready with localized, personalized advice and recommendations.

As a result, dozens of people flock to their store. Every. Single. Sunday.

What We Can Learn About the Future of Retail from Earthworms

I thought how easy it would have been for us to simply order another bag of worm castings from Amazon without leaving the house. And how there are four nurseries and three big box stores with cavernous garden centers between our house and Joe’s store.

But we didn’t choose any of those easier options.

Instead, I slipped on my flip flops and made the trek to go see Joe. Because he has made himself – and his store – indispensable to us, our tomato plants, and dozens of our Encinitas neighbors.

And whether you sell gardening supplies or running shoes, the lesson is the same: if we want to enhance our competitive position against Amazon, we have to make our stores indispensable to our customers.

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