Garden State Growers Mirrors The Starbucks Model

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Garden State Growers Mirrors The Starbucks Model

The question is probably one all growers have asked themselves: How can greenhouse floriculture take a commodity plant, just like Starbucks did years ago with coffee, and turn it into something consumers must have?

Roy den Hollander, an owner of Garden State Growers in Pittstown, N.J., has thought long and hard about that question, and he’s realized there isn’t one silver bullet that can achieve such demand for his product overnight. Den Hollander does, however, believe there’s a starting point to position plants as the next Starbucks coffee, and that’s to admit the approaches growers have historically taken are largely the wrong ones.

“As growers we always thought we were selling to the big box,” says den Hollander, whose operation serves Walmart and Home Depot. “What’s changed is we’re not selling to them. You think Coke says, ‘We’re selling to Walmart?’ No, they’re selling to the end user.”

Adopting A New Mindset

Five years ago, Garden State was no different than many other growers, selecting product and putting it to market without necessarily considering whether consumers would accept or reject it. Now, long before a bedding plant or combo planter lands on a retail bench, Garden State asks: How can we best reach the consumer with this product? (If you think about it, it’s the same question Starbucks’ founders sought to answer when they developed their brand.)

To better connect consumers with live goods, den Hollander has put together a team that’s willing to adopt the consumer-first mindset. Noah Schwartz, once the head grower for Matterhorn Nursery, was hired late last year as senior production coordinator and head grower. Among Schwartz’s responsibilities is taking commodities and fitting them into upgraded programs.

Garden State Growers team
Garden State’s Roy den Hollander, John
O’Donnell, Kristine Lonergan and Noah Schwartz
are on a mission to improve the consumer’s
live goods experience.

John O’Donnell, merchandising manager, is another key team member who’s on the front line with consumers at retail. He’s a believer in changing out store fronts each week to capture the consumer’s attention every time she visits – even if it means doing the extra legwork at dozens of stores.

But perhaps the biggest driver of change at Garden State is Kristine Lonergan, a 12-year veteran of the home furnishings industry who’s spent the last three years reinventing how Garden State markets its product to consumers. Den Hollander welcomes Lonergan’s perspective because he believes growers have been too close to the industry and are not in touch with end users like they should be. Lonergan offers Garden State the fresh outlook it needs to reposition live goods the way Starbucks did coffee.

“Our industry is mostly families growing up in the industry,” den Hollander says. “Families may not be in tune to the marketplace and what consumers are looking for. But the innovative growers are now reaching out to marketing people and looking at how they can really ramp up their game and market their products like any product out there.”

To Lonergan, plants are no different than the home furnishings she’s spent the bulk of her career around. Both products appeal to emotion, she says, through color, texture and scent. So why, Lonergan asks, aren’t growers also marketing and merchandising their products in a way that appeals to the female consumer’s wide range of emotions?

“We’re speaking to the same consumer as other industries, whether it’s fashion, home furnishings or cosmetics,” Lonergan says. “Being a female, if you see something that connects with how you’re feeling, you tell yourself you deserve it. So really we’re just taking a page out of home furnishings and cosmetics in our approach.”

Exploring Other Industries

New ideas are what Garden State’s big box buyers are looking for, so turning the conversation to marketing and merchandising plants like home furnishings or cosmetics certainly grabs their attention. And rather than find inspiration at greenhouse industry shows, Lonergan ventures to other industry shows for ideas. She and den Hollander have attended a number of gift and home design shows throughout her tenure.

Some growers, of course, might think venturing into other industries is a risk. Lonergan, however, doesn’t feel that way.

Garden State Growers
Offering consumers a new “look” by changing
out a front apron weekly is a key to repeat customers.

“I feel like this is the natural thing to do,” she says. “We’re appealing to the same consumer and we have an emotional product. That’s why I have more of a natural tendency to go to these other industries.”

When Lonergan attends other industry shows, she’s most interested in the overall presentation of a product or program. She takes a look at colors, textures and even the fonts on packaging. In one instance this year with calla lilies, Vera Bradley served as the inspiration for incorporating a more Victorian font onto plant tags. Exploring other industries also gave Lonergan the idea to pursue a cause marketing campaign for Garden State’s calla lilies.

“We’re just looking at new and innovative ways to change our everyday product,” den Hollander says. “You can create a whole program behind an idea like this. You’re putting a package together with the support of your customer. That’s what’s expected today, anyway.

“You can’t just show up with a grower pot and a plant in it. Growers are truly partners with retailers now. So we’re constantly going out looking for new designs, new pot manufacturers. We’re taking our everyday products we’ve been growing and looking at them from a different perspective.”

Just like Starbucks took an everyday product and elevated it into an experience consumers crave.

Overcoming The Weather

Garden State is even exploring ways it can make the weather a non-factor in the consumer shopping experience. Starbucks, of course, doesn’t necessarily have a weather problem, but den Hollander says growers can no longer afford to let a few rainy spring weekends be the downfall for their entire year. To overcome the weather, his team came up with the idea to alert consumers by text message when new plants are available at stores.

Lonergan cites an example of a European cookie company that adopted the same text messaging approach for fresh cookies. The text recipients, she says, didn’t know they wanted cookies until they were alerted. The same approach can apply to a Caffè Latte at Starbucks, as well as a fresh rack of calla lilies or the first spring pansies.

“The first thing on the market is pansies,” Lonergan says. “Sometimes, it takes a while to get products into Home Depot, so people are texted when new products are there. Send them a text to get them in there.”

Send the text, indeed, be it raining or shining. Give consumers a reason to visit stores, she says. They may not even be interested in the first spring pansy about which they’ve been alerted, but they may come take a peek and find something else they like.

And who says consumers have to plant the day or weekend they purchase a plant anyway?

“You still buy a beach ball even if it’s raining and you can’t go to the beach today,” den Hollander says.

The Look, Not The Plant

The more den Hollander has spent exploring other industries with Lonergan, the more he’s realized the majority of consumers seek a “look” rather than a single item. Take home furnishings as an example.

“People don’t just buy a couch,” he says. “They buy a whole look now. You see it with pillows and tables as add-ons. If you want this look it’s one cost and if you want an enhanced look it’s another.”

Sephora, a store that offers cosmetics, skin care, makeup and other beauty products, is yet another example of a retailer that particularly appeals to the female consumer’s emotions. Sephora devises different “looks” in which consumers can identify themselves, and both den Hollander and Lonergan cite the beauty retailer as a prime example of a retailer that’s marketing and merchandising more directly to the consumer growers should be pursuing.

“From a marketing standpoint [Sephora] does a very good job with packaging,” Lonergan says. “They inspire the consumer. Their whole shopping experience is just that – an experience. We’ll go there just to get ideas. They draw a lot of consumers, and it’s not like they necessarily need cosmetics. So they’re similar to the live goods industry.”

Another tactic to draw consumers back is to create a new “experience” every time consumers visit.

“We’re working for Mrs. Jones,” says O’Donnell, who directly supervises 54 Home Depot stores. “We are very quick to change our store fronts because we know she loves active colors. We need to be inviting. We need to show her we have something different. I think when you do that enough, she comes down.”

If you show consumers something different and appeal more directly to their emotions through marketing and merchandising, as well as create a Starbucks-like experience consumers can’t pass up, they will come.

“Whether you’re offering coffee, cosmetics or furniture, it’s still that same consumer,” Lonergan says. “But are we giving her that same experience when she shops for flowers? Our feeling at Garden State Growers is that there’s opportunity to create it.”

Kevin Yanik is the former managing editor of Greenhouse Grower.
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