Growing Green: Marketing Sustainability

Growing Green: Marketing Sustainability

So, you’re ready to commit to sustainability. You’ve got the products and you’ve got the knowledge. Now what? The sustainability movement has opened up a whole new world of opportunity for independent garden centers, as long as you know how to market it. 

Placement Is Key

Getting customers to notice your earth-friendly offerings is the first step in becoming profitable with green products. Jeremy Brunner, vice president of natural plant food manufacturer and marketer The Espoma Company, says presentation is everything, and placement is critical. Espoma’s switch from paper packaging to plastic packaging created the ability for garden centers to display the product outside, closer to the plant material, which Brunner says has been a great success. “You need to get product outside,” he says. “You need to get product in as many places as possible.”

Susan Lewis, founder and president of organic pesticide company Pharm Solutions, says cross merchandising is key. Placing a bottle of Rose Pharm, for example, next to a rose bush display can increase your bottom line while keeping your customers happy, too. “The consumer is going to take home this beautiful rose in perfect health, and in three weeks it’s going to have black spot and rust,” Lewis says. She points out, though, that if you sell an earth-friendly pesticide like Rose Pharm along with each rose bush, customers will be a lot more likely to have success with the plant. “They’re going to be a much happier customer and come back and buy more roses,” she says.

Lewis also advises against displaying natural and organic products with all the chemicals. “The folks who are really organic and really earth friendly are not going down the pesticide aisle,” she says.

Greenscape Gardens in Manchester, Mo., carries not only a selection of environmentally friendly “natural garden solutions,” but also offers an array of native plants, which are all merchandised together in one area. Jennifer Schamber, Greenscape general manager, says that because native plants aren’t always the most attractive in plastic pots, Greenscape paints all the benching in the native plant area one color. The garden center chose purple because it matches the logo for Missouri’s native plant program, GrowNative! “We’ve seen a much greater interest in natives in the past two years, and we believe this will continue to be an important part of our perennials department,” she adds.

Schamber also says word of mouth is one of the best ways to create buzz around earth-friendly products. “I’ve found that customers can be the best salespeople to other customers, so if someone repeatedly buys an organic product, ask them to jot down a quick note to keep posted with that product, like ‘This one works! Great find!–Joe,'” she says. “People are very interested in sharing their knowledge with others when it comes to this subject. It gives them a sense of satisfaction in knowing that they are doing their part.” 

Sell It Well

Many consumers aren’t 100 percent sure which products they need, so making sure they’re properly educated through effective signage is extremely important, says Brunner. “Certainly when it comes to the natural and environmentally friendly, you want signage and any kind of literature that can be consistent with that message and help promote the category,” he says. In addition to being attractive and grabbing consumers’ attention, product packaging needs to be informative, too. “It needs to be able to communicate the key benefits to people so they can make a decision,” Brunner says. “There’s a lot of evidence out there that shows that the majority of consumers are making these decisions at the point of sale, so packaging becomes critical in those kinds of environments.” He adds many garden centers don’t have the staff available to be everywhere and talk to everybody, so the packaging needs to be able to sell itself.

Employees play a big role in the marketing success of sustainable products, and making sure you and your staff are ahead of the curve is important. Both Brunner and Schamber agree that shopping your local competition and talking with other independents to see what they’re doing right and wrong can help you make the best decisions for your green campaign. Schamber also says it’s important for retailers to listen to customers’ opinions and take their interests into consideration. Also, make sure you’re properly labeling any locally grown plant material so customers are aware they’re supporting the local economy while being easier on the environment. “We proudly grow our perennials in pots with our name and with a large recycling symbol on the back,” says Schamber. “The interest is there, and this is the year to break free from the old routine.”

In his new book, “The Green Gardeners Guide: Simple, Significant Actions to Protect & Preserve Our Planet,” Joe Lamp’l (a.k.a. Joe Gardener), encourages gardeners to become environmental stewards. “I want to educate them on some really viable alternatives,” he says. “They need to (be shown ways to) create a more eco-friendly garden. I write about it in my book extensively, but the garden centers can be the place they go and actually see this stuff.”

So, what does Joe Gardener think garden centers should be doing to help promote sustainability and cater to the eco-friendly gardener?

“I want to hear the retailer provide an eco-friendly option or a natural option first without an apology,” he says. “Not making an apology on why they’re not selling English ivy or some common variety of honeysuckle that’s so invasive and so aggressive that it’s destroying our ecosystems and our biodiversity, and instead, provide another solution.

“I would love to see a way for garden centers to provide more safe, natural compost, because I believe compost is the single best soil amendment you can put in your garden.

“I also want to see more awareness. When consumers go in and buy mulch and soil, I want them to be aware that there’s a certification seal now from the Mulch & Soil Council that lets the consumer know that bag is safe and free from potentially harmful chemicals, such as arsenic from pressure-treated wood.

“I’d like to see them do fair trade products–have more sponsorship of local things–products that are local from sustainable sources, and maybe not so many plastic pots. There are more and more options these days for recyclable pots or pots that break down in the compost. I would like to see them eliminate that problem at the source by encouraging their suppliers to do something about it.

“More classes–more education. Certainly independent garden centers do a great job of hiring people that naturally are eco-friendly gardeners or are very conversant on that topic, but as I’m fond of saying about gardening, I don’t think we can ever know it all. We’re always learning, and we need to walk our talk in the garden center and as gardening communicators and demonstrate with things people can come and see.

“A garden center is a great place to develop that community and that destination site where people can go not only for their product, but for the information from a reliable and trusted source.”

Check your local listings for Joe’s television show, GardenSMART, on PBS, and visit his Web site at www.joegardener.com.

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