Greenhouse Grower’s sister publication, Today’s Garden Center, gathered a group of retailers, growers and other retail suppliers in the summer of 2012 to discuss where they would like to see the industry in five years and what we need to do to get there. The key issues the group identified became the focus of the 10% Project, a series of research projects and case studies Today’s Garden Center is commissioning to help the retailers grow their sales by 10 percent.
One of the greatest challenges the group identified is a shrinking consumer base. Our core customers, Baby Boomers, are aging themselves out of the market. So the first 10% Project of 2013 has a modest goal — identify the likeliest potential customers and lure them into garden centers.
Today’s Garden Center Editor Carol Miller recruited Dr. Bridget Behe of Michigan State University and Dr. Susan Hogan of Emory University to conduct the research and to find ways to apply the results of the research to the real world of garden retail. The study is taking place over two years, and the first focus groups were conducted in Atlanta in January 2013.
GG: You recently held some focus groups with people who like plants but aren’t regular garden center customers. What did you learn?
Miller: Our target audience for the focus groups were 20- to 40-somethings who had made only a few gardening purchases in the past year. Most of those who participated owned a home. But none of them saw themselves as gardeners. To them, that was a hobby for older generations who had comfortable incomes and plenty of time. The term “gardening” doesn’t connect with them.
And as an extension, they don’t see independent garden centers as stores that relate to them. In separate focus groups, different people independently mentioned that they wouldn’t want to shop at an independent garden center until they were much more knowledgeable. When they do make plant purchases, most of them shop at mass merchants. They felt safe at those stores with their lack of gardening knowledge because — correct or not — they assumed the staff at mass merchants probably doesn’t know much more than they do.
GG: Was this unexpected, particularly with the younger age groups?
Miller: Independent retailers will certainly be surprised. One of the things they pride themselves on is being the place gardeners can turn to for answers. Their expertise is a selling point. Yet here is a group of people who own homes and make gardening purchases who are scared off by that knowledge.
GG: How can we reach these people? As an industry, are we more likely to find a way to change their perceptions about gardening or to find a way to adapt to these changing consumers?
Miller: When I heard the focus group talking about how uninterested they were in garden centers, I was struck by how difficult it would be to reach them. You can have the best possible garden center, but how do you get people to come in if they have you labeled as intimidating? Facebook won’t work, since people only follow those companies they already like. Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest, on the other hand, could offer some really interesting possibilities.
So I think this the answer is probably twofold. First, we need to find a way to go into the community to meet these consumers where they are, rather than luring them in to us. And once we’ve engaged new gardeners, we need to make sure their experiences with the industry are approachable. These are mainly marketing issues, but a type of marketing we as an industry aren’t that familiar with.
Dr. Hogan is currently working with a couple of Atlanta-based independent garden centers on some guerilla-marketing techniques where a retailers will bring their stores to where 20- to 40-somethings hang out. That might mean pop-up classes on growing hops for beer at the dog park or bringing a careful selection of products to a farmers’ market.
GG: What would you suggest growers – those that serve the independents and those that don’t — can do to help reach these consumers?
Miller: Growers know better than anyone how to grow plants, and this group of new gardeners likes to do a lot of research on the web. I’d suggest creating some basic how-to videos that take nothing for granted, from how to water, to how deep to dig a hole for a plant. This is a group that needs a lot of hand holding. In the short run, you can share the videos with your retail clients and post them on your own site and on YouTube. Longer term it would make sense to promote these videos on every plant tag a consumer might come across.
GG: What are your next steps going forward with what you learned from the focus groups?
Miller: The Atlanta focus groups and even the marketing campaign we are doing with local garden centers are a precursor to a broader program in 2014. We are in the process of applying for grants to help fund multiple focus groups in several cities across the U.S. and to create a marketing success kit for the industry.
We’d also like to work with at least two retailers in each community where we conduct the focus groups. The retailers will be using the research team’s recommendations, and helping us measure the success of the campaigns. We’ll be sharing the results with the industry as we go along. We’ll cover the results of the Atlanta focus groups and interviews in the June issue of Today’s Garden Center, and later in September we’ll share the results of the Atlanta-area retailers’ marketing campaign.