Is Fall For Planting?
Plants establish better in the fall, but do consumers know?
June 24, 2008
Ah yes, that is the question. Naturally, if you've been anywhere remotely connected to the garden center industry, you would know that indeed fall is for planting (with apologies to the Sunbelt markets, where almost anytime is for planting except in the searing heat of the summertime).
Why is fall for planting? It is absolutely proven to be the most effective time of year to plant shrubs and trees, among other things. It certainly is the best time to re-seed a lawn, start a new lawn by seeding or laying down sod. The basic question is what makes it such a good time to plant and the answer is simple.
Plants that are put into the ground anytime from late August through late October in most Northern areas (apologies to the Zone 3, 4, and even 5 folks) are treated to a less stressful environment. Generally, rains are sufficient this time of year to not require irrigation as often as in the heat of the summer. Temperatures are more moderate this time of year, with mild days followed by cool (but mostly not freezing) nights. Soil temperatures are optimal for root growth, but cooler day and night temperatures slowly harden off the top of the plant structures to prepare for the cold days of winter. Roots will continue to grow even after plants drop their foliage (if they're deciduous) well into November and maybe even December before the ground may freeze.
Landscape contractors are the best example of people who are really clued in to this concept. They are typically installing new landscapes right up until the ground freezes to end their installation season. They know they probably will have less losses attributed to lack of acclimation to the cold than they would had they installed a landscape in the spring, where they run a higher risk of losing plants to the heat and dryness of the summer.
So now that we've gone through all the great reasons to put a plant in the ground in the fall, let's look at the retail environment to see how this is capitalized on, or not. From my past experiences, spring sales of shrubs and trees are far higher than in the fall. They are probably eight to 10 times higher in the spring than the fall. The grass seed category also tells a tale of consumers not knowing what's really good for them. The sales are absolutely reversed as to the categories' successful execution. Two-thirds of the sales are done in spring and one-third in the fall. This is really a function of how many consumers shop for their gardening needs in one or two shopping trips in the spring and do all their purchasing for the year. Same goes for shrubs.
Influencing Shopping Habits
How can retailers influence customers' perceptions and shopping habits? How easy is it to even do this? Is it impossible? Not worth the bang for the buck? Can it happen overnight? The answer to these questions, in my opinion, is that it's possible but definitely not easy. This is one of those quests that retailers and the supply side need to be in for the long haul. Most times, retailers look at shipping in fresh products in these categories as high risk, low reward. This is versus spring where it is the opposite — high reward, low risk.
Influencing the consumer takes marketing, advertising, merchandising, selling staff and fresh product. If you even try to pump up the volume on the "fall is for planting" message without some crowd-pleasing new product at exciting values, you'd be making a mistake. Stale, shopworn and tired product that has carried over from the spring and summer should be dealt with in a straightforward manner through the process of intermediate markdowns, successively lower until the consumer takes the product home to plant. Why not give a customer "a bargain" on the old stuff (while pitching them that the stuff is going to be really happy to be planted in fall) and then sell them some great new plants fresh from the farm. We all know they want fresh.
It's really going to take the mass merchants in the industry to continue to get this message out to the consumer. After all, they have more customers going through their stores to receive these messages. If any of the big guys shy away from the category in the fall, then countless consumers are getting the message that fall isn't for planting. Sure, there is always going to be the requisite short list of color items for fall such as mums, pansies, cabbage and kale, asters and so on, but there is so much more market potential out there. The biggest fear is that you are going to bring in more product than your potential sales in the fall, leading to markdowns.
One way to look at it as a buyer is the more you bring in (within budgetary limits), the more you will sell, and resulting markdowns to clear out product will be lower as a percentage of sales. The other way to look at it is to bring in less-than-anticipated demand and hope that your resulting carryover will be less and resulting clearance markdowns lower. This method sounds more fiscally responsible but is somewhat less visionary in capturing market share or simply in driving top-line sales. The bottom line, in my mind, is it's somewhat sinful not to leverage the hefty customer counts that mass merchants tend to generate in an average store. What independent garden center wouldn't sacrifice a limb or two, rhetorically speaking, to get some of those same numbers of customers walking through their retail establishments in October?
Independent garden centers are all over this entire process and create all kinds of exciting environments and retail theater to capture the public's imagination. They utilize fall color — mums, pansies, kale and cabbage, asters — to pull customers in and hook them. Then the fun begins with pumpkins, corn stalks, hay bales, gourds, scarecrows, apple cider and so forth. They are so finely tuned into that Halloween decorating theme for the outdoors. Many garden centers will feature kiddie attractions geared to get in the young ones, along with moms and dads.
This theme or message is undermarketed, in my opinion, to get consumers in to the garden centers and then have them captivated by fully stocked nursery yards and poly houses and front aprons chock full of colorful fall plants. Color should be the driving force to get them in, as it always has been. Once you've got them, offer them more than just that.
Retailers can do gardening how-to clinics on weekends that speak to the benefits to the consumer of planting in the fall. Fall advertising, in print, radio or television, can easily be tweaked to emphasize the benefits of fall planting. There have been all kinds of really fantastic point-of-sale merchandising products through the years that speak to the consumer about the benefits of fall planting. Retailers should more fully take advantage of every fence banner, shelf talker, overhead sign and plant tag as they can. Cashiers and sales associates can reinforce the message with "Fall Is For Planting" buttons and so on.
A "Fall Is For Planting" theme is not for the faint of heart in retail management. The buying public has latent demand that can be stirred up through marketing. Tapping into this demand can really help to drive primary sales of the plants and then will result in tremendous related sales, leading to higher return on investment — if you've got risk tolerance for something that's really not that risky. Just tell customers what they need to be successful and you will be rewarded. Let's try not to keep this one of the best-kept secrets from the buying public.
Vinny Naab is owner of Naab Horticultural Marketing, LLC, a consultant to the horticulture market. Contact him at email@example.com.