Chalet, based in Wilmette, Illinois, has been in business for 105 years. Yet they don’t let the company’s age keep their brand trapped in the past.
“Brand is not just a name of the company, rather it’s an experience that continues to be relevant to our customer’s ever-changing needs,” says Lawson Thalmann, e-commerce and technology manager for Chalet. “We strive to present Chalet in one cohesive voice through each customer touch point – website, store merchandise, to virtual customer experience. From a positioning standpoint, we are all about being the source for making your home beautiful inside and outside through our obsession with nature.”
Understand Your Customer Base
Historically, the company has wanted to be seen as aspirational, trustworthy and classic yet fresh.
“We want to be a lifestyle brand, not a traditional ‘garden center’ or ‘landscape’ business,” Thalmann says. “We’re the one-stop shop for everything you need to make your home beautiful through nature.”
He says Chalet wants to be a lifestyle brand because they understand their customer.
“Our customer is a middle-aged woman with kids that has a robust social life and plenty of style,” he says. “Our product expansions are natural adjacencies to that customer’s lifestyle. For example, we’ve always sold ‘home and holiday décor’ for our customers who entertain during the spring, summer or holidays. We have tableware and accents for the home, like candles, lotions, welcome mats, couch pillows and blankets. After some success, we knew our customers looked to us for creating comfort at home, so we offered comfy sweaters and socks along with ‘garden wear.’”
To ensure they better understand how existing customers and prospects perceive the company, Thalmann says they are taking the time to conduct consumer research as well.
One of the ways Chalet engages with the community is through their various events and classes they host throughout the year.
“The events like the kids sitting on Santa’s lap and our pet parade are great for our family atmosphere to establish loyalty,” Thalmann says. “Our classes have evolved over the years, especially as much of it has been virtual since COVID. The classes continue to establish us as the go-to knowledge source for landscape and gardening. That’s one of our key differentiators from other plant sellers in the market.”
He says their events tend to be more successful than the classes, reaching only about 20 to 30 percent, but these customers end up being the most loyal, with the 80/20 rule at work.
Expanding Into E-Commerce
Thalmann says it was his crazy idea that people would enjoy buying plants online that first caused Chalet to branch into the e-commerce space. He says it was enough of a bootstrapped effort that they didn’t have much to lose in testing his hypothesis out. It was during COVID that this offering became an integral part of Chalet.
He says while they don’t have the e-commerce side down to an art yet, they have recognized how important their e-commerce and website are for creating a great first impression of their brand.
“The majority of first interactions with our brands are with our website or one of our social pages,” Thalmann says. “With our marketing team curating content and products online, it’s very important for them to be in sync with our buyers and even our customer-facing staff so that what we are selling online is consistent with what we’re selling ‘in real life.’”
Chalet’s loyal customers are confident about the quality of the plants they deliver, so this is what enables many to buy directly online without seeing the plants in person.
“Attractive but accurate photos and good descriptions are key to that confidence,” Thalmann says. “Many times, customers do come in store and want to see the plants, but it’s a much easier decision since they’ve done their research on our website.”
Thalmann adds the leading source of their landscape clients continues to be their retail store and since adding their e-commerce website, they’ve gained many customers digitally.
“To respond to this increased demand, we’ve created the Customer Contact Center (CCC) that can respond to the customer however they interact with us – phone, email, web forms, text and social media,” he says. “They act as a single point of contact and can assess what the client needs and funnel them to the appropriate area.”
Chalet also offers a ‘Shop with an Expert’ feature where customers can book a 15-minute appointment with an expert who can help them pick the right items they’re looking for. Thalmann says no appointment is needed for the casual shopper, but the appointment system enables them to carve out and provide the necessary time and attention for their customers who really need a higher level of service.
“We actually tried the appointment approach a few years ago, but it didn’t quite stick,” Thalmann says. “During COVID is when it finally did. Our holiday parties are normally packed and during COVID, we had to limit the number of people in store through appointments. Our customers are now accustomed to making an appointment before coming, especially since it means they’re not going to wait in line to be helped when they arrive. It’s a true win-win!”
In the cases where a retail customer isn’t qualified as a true landscape lead, Chalet offers simpler planting service and a more lite-touch design service through their Design Studio.
While the majority of their online sales are plants, Chalet also offers everything from Christmas trees, firewood and pet living supplies as part of their lifestyle branding.
“We offer delivery or pickup,” Thalmann says. “We even set up Christmas trees and stack the firewood. It’s those little conveniences that go a long way towards differentiating us from the box stores.”
He says as a seasonal business, they’re always looking to diversify and supplement the slower times.
“That’s what made the pet living business so compelling,” Thalmann says. “We also feel it fits nicely into the lifestyle of the family, which any loyal dog owner would agree with.”
Thalmann says Chalet’s buyers determine which products they decide to carry. Thalmann says they only want to sell products that they have a healthy inventory of.
“If we only have 1 or 2, it better be a big-ticket item, otherwise it’s not worth the effort to build the product page,” Thalmann says. “We have some rules of thumb for determining that using inventory quantity and price. Naturally, how well products and categories have sold in the past is also a key determinant, although we are continually changing our product offering, which makes that more nuanced than it seems.”
While it does take a lot of thought before moving into adjacent categories, Thalmann encourages other companies not to be afraid to try new things.
“The best opportunities are often ones that don’t require a large cost, so a failure won’t hurt you too bad,” he says. “Trying things allows you to learn from what your customers want. It also doesn’t hurt to just ask them! As a devil’s advocate, you can’t let additional business ventures allow you to lose focus on your core competencies!
This article was published in the Jan/Feb issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Edge magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.