Taking Time To Educate Consumers Pays Off

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Echinacea 'Big Kahuna'How many springs have we been hearing customers lament over failed echinaceas? “Fancy” echinaceas (peach, salmon, mango, yellow, doubles, shaggy, hideous) are not our native purple coneflowers — not even close. They have been infused with blood from at least four other species, none of which are as vigorous or tough as the purple coneflower. The result is that gardeners plant these unusual beauties with great enthusiasm, only to find they do not return the next year.

I’m not sure how many people actually read this column, but I bet many of you are nodding your heads in agreement. From Akron to Atlanta, the complaint is the same: the new echinaceas are not long-lasting. How many times must we shoot ourselves in the foot? Soon we will need prosthetics.

Little research has been done, and I am aware of no scientific papers published on this phenomenon. So what do we tell buyers to bring back some credibility? You may not like it, but this is what I tell Master Gardeners, retailers, landscapers and garden club ladies:

Echinacea 'PowWow Wild Berry'For most gardeners, buying purple or white echinacea any time of the year is not a problem. These are likely mainly E. purpurea, and assuming they are planted with sufficient time to become established, overwintering should not be an issue. However, “fancy” echinaceas should never, ever be bought in the fall, only in the spring. They simply need more time with the grower and more time to establish roots in the ground.

I have seen stage IV plantlets arrive on the greenhouse bench in late winter, which are then planted up and turned around and sold in late summer and fall (even in spring). This is not nearly enough time to establish a robust plant.

Selling in the fall does a disservice to the plant, which won’t overwinter, and the customer, who won’t come back. In fact, not only do I suggest plants be bought in the spring only, I also suggest they ask if the plants have gone through a winter in the container. They should.
I know I am not the only one who has seen this problem. We cannot continue to disappoint people, and ignorance is not an excuse. The “fancy” echinaceas are wonderful plants, kudos to the breeders. Many people have made money with them, and many landscapers and consumers have been pleased. However, remember that they are not your grandmother’s coneflower; they are a different animal and must be treated as such. Please!

Teach Consumers About Annual And Perennial Coreopsis
At the same time, I see another train wreck just around the bend. Too many consumers, professionals included, do not know that both annual and perennial coreopsis exist in the marketplace. The annual coreopsis, of which there are dozens, are often not marked plainly enough as annuals. They are generally in flower early and colorful — absolute magnets for impulse buyers.

Coreopsis 'Bengal TigerWhen I ask at garden centers for coreopsis, I’m shown annual and perennial forms on the same bench. Truly knowledgeable salespeople take the time to tell me the difference, but these folks are few and far between. My daughters, my friends, your neighbors — they don’t even know to ask, they simply buy coreopsis as if they are all perennial. Labeling and product placement must be improved. These coreopsis are examples of great breeding but lousy sales information. Another toe shot off! We cannot run when we are limping so badly.

Too Many Choices Result In No Sales
I should not write again about the dilemma of too many choices, as some of my readers will give me grief, but I will anyway. Once again, I saw 20 beautiful heuchera varieties displayed at an excellent garden center, and once again, I knew many first-time buyers would be unable to make a decision and would probably walk away with none.

I have been saying this for some time, and it turns out there is an entire psychological theory based on too much choice, leading to no sales. It is called the Jam Theory, the result of research by Dr. Sheena Iyengar of the Columbia Business School. In her studies she writes, “If faced with too many choices, consumers often choose nothing.”

In her bestselling book, The Choice Theory, she writes, “In order to choose, we must exercise control, and we must perceive that control is possible.” I have suggested for years that less is more, especially for garden centers and other consumer-dependent outlets. Nice to know that at least one person agrees with me!

Allan Armitage (allan@greenhouse grower.com) is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

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