Perspective: Rick Vulgamott Of The John Henry Company
Plant genetics are as good as ever. Now it's time to best position those genetics with packaging that speaks directly to consumers and tools that educate them.
October 15, 2011
Greenhouse floriculture is largely an unchanging industry, but it's one Rick Vulgamott argues must change. Vulgamott, who spent the bulk of his 25-plus-year career working for the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, has spent the last three years at the John Henry Company as its national director of sales. Greenhouse Grower recently caught up with Vulgamott to capture his thoughts on specific changes the industry must make and how John Henry is helping growers achieve these changes.
GG: What keeps you up at night related to the greenhouse industry?
RV: It could be a half dozen things. One, of course, is the economy. We always have to look at the economy as a factor in every aspect of our business. For years, horticulture was deemed recession proof. If the economy was bad, people stayed at home and worked in their yards. For years, we thought we were bulletproof, but the last few years proved we're as recession prone as any other industry. People now have a lack of discretionary income. And it's not that they're staying home to save money, but more that they're staying home so they don't lose money.
One of our biggest problems is too many times our industry does the same things over and over. I worry we get ourselves in this tight little box. If we don't step outside of it, we gradually lose focus of the future. I really wake up at night wondering how we can somewhat reinvent ourselves based on our spectacular industry. How do we reinvent our beauty? Sometimes we're our own worst enemy.
Even industry leaders sit back too many times. The tagging industry is a perfect example. For years, a tag was just a tag. It was a small piece of real estate that offered some care information, and that was it. When people get used to "a tag is just a tag," that's all they look for in tags. Really, tags should be billboards, and if both the manufacturer and the grower would step outside of that box, I think that's the start of things to come.
So we've got to do something to repackage. It's not like we have to continue to have new varieties every week. Genetics are a key part of what we're doing, of course, but I think we can take what we have, repackage it and add incredible value with the things we currently have. Package sells, and I think we can do something with it without increasing costs dramatically.
GG: How important is it that growers wrap their heads around consumer education? What do you see as some of the ways to best educate consumers?
RV: Consumer education is key. If the consumer is not successful in gardening, they're not going to come back and do it again. Whatever they purchase, we should make sure they're successful through the period of time they need it, be it a holiday or a party. It's our responsibility to make their gardening process a success.
One thing we have to do is not only educate consumers about the plant material they're buying, but also what they can do with it. We feel strongly at the John Henry Company about that and developed a consumer website in Bloom IQ. It's really a bank of images and industry information we gathered over the years through the printing of POP and lawn and garden material. It's a true consumer website that allows consumers to get online or, more importantly, gather information on their phone through the retail establishment. Now consumers can say, "Here's what I can do with that plant" or, "Here's another plant that goes with it."
It's more than just taking care of the one plant we're shipping or the one tag we're producing for particular material. It's more about us taking care of the participants who keep our industry alive. We have a hard enough time keeping the consumer shopping for five or 10 minutes in lawn and garden. They're running in with an idea, and out the door they go. We want to keep them there longer but, more importantly, have them come back more than once.
GG: What specific roles should technology play at retail to help reinvent lawn and garden?
RV: Well, a tag is a tag. It's incredibly important to the plant we're selling to the consumer, but you can only present so much information. What we think we can do is expand the tagging opportunity so it does offer more than "small space" or "full sun."
At John Henry, we took a QR code and Bloom IQ and offered it as a tool for consumer education on tags. Growers have already wrapped their arms around the idea to the tune of hundreds of millions of tags in the last 12 months. Growers and retailers now have the ability on any tag they purchase to add a QR code and link to a website about consumer education. But there's also so much flexibility in where you can direct the consumer. You can take a QR code and direct it to a homepage on a website. If, at some point, the grower wants to change the message they're offering the consumer, they can redirect that code to information on, say, window box gardening, container gardening or gifting ideas.
Now, growers and retailers can really follow through before the sale, during the sale and after the sale to offer a lot more to the consumer. There are no added costs because these are variable codes. Growers don't have to throw tags away and produce a second one to deliver a different message.
GG: The technologies you describe are being used largely by young consumers, a segment our industry has struggled to reach. Should we actively be finding ways to reach these consumers or simply wait for them to come of age and assume they'll embrace live goods?
RV: If we truly think we can sit back and they'll gradually come into our industry, we're extremely short sighted. We need to start educating younger people on the value of plant material. We need to educate them on plants and their role in the environment. Get them involved early so they understand and like what plants are.
It's a difficult task. The easy thing for us to do is get parents involved with gardening for their children. If we also market somewhat to a younger crowd, we're going to get the younger group more excited about planting a tomato or harvesting particular crops. If we get them excited at the age of 12, then they're automatically into it at the age of 25. If we wait until they're 35 or 40, we may not be on the top of their priority list.
We have to start talking their talk and walking their walk. Kids today understand and are using QR codes and smartphones. My kids are 13 and 14, and they understand how to work apps. I watch my kids in stores, and they'll take pictures of QR codes on various items just because they can. If they don't have an app for that particular code they'll spend 30 seconds downloading it right there.
Technology is their thing. If this is what the younger generation does and they're so adept at using this kind of technology, why not embrace it and bring it into our industry?
GG: Growers could be doing more to upsell commodities as gifts or more premium items. Are growers missing a big opportunity related to plants as gifts?
RV: There's so much you can do with packaging but you can't sell the sizzle unless you have the steak. A bad plant with nice packaging is still a bad plant. We've learned over the years that we want to be creative at John Henry. We really feel strongly about creativity and putting together good packaging opportunities for our customer and, ultimately, the consumer. But you've got to have a good foundation before you do that.
Offer a bow, a gift card or some form of pot with it and, all of a sudden, a simple geranium turns into a gifting item for themselves, a party or something else. We have to think about adding value so consumers want to purchase.
Look at Europe: They've made horticulture what agriculture is in the United States. It's critical to their livelihood. Everybody has plants in and around the home. They understand the value it adds to their lives. If we continue to show value, it's going to catapult our industry into a bigger and better place.
It's all about value. If consumers see value, then they have no problem buying more than one. Too many times we give plant material away for nothing. Too many times we price product way too low and, ultimately, it hurts our industry.
GG: Every now and then someone throws out a national marketing campaign idea, which never really gets a whole lot of traction. Should we instead be trying to broadly market through other avenues?
RV: A national advertising campaign is always a tough one. If we had the funds to do it, I'd say jump on it in a second. Whether we like it or not, our industry is somewhat disjointed. It's really hard to justify the costs involved and put the funds toward the appropriate "buckets."
We have to continue to look from a grassroots perspective and allow the consumer to understand what we're all about that way. We have to educate them more. Don't just show them the same plant they just purchased and how to water it; show them what they can do with it so they want to buy four more. We know enough about this industry that we can guide them down a path that truly gives them gardening success.