Listening To Cassandra

I’m writing just after OFA – the Big Kahuna of greenhouse trade shows. There were trends to talk about, but first I want to share my story of Cassandra.

Before horticulture, I majored in archaeology in college. Both fields involved being outside digging holes and ancient history has always held a level of fascination. I really believe that in a large sense what we are today is so often what we were in the past. And if you go back far enough in history you will run into Cassandra, a prophetess of Greek mythology fame who had an amazing curse. Cassandra could see the future, but her curse was no one believed her. Perhaps her most famous moment was in the city of Troy, where she said something like, "Do not let the big wooden horsey into Troy. It’s full of bad guys," or words to that effect.

What does Cassandra have to do with OFA and our little business? This year it struck me that we are only sort of listening to our Cassandras. The trade show floor was abuzz with stories of high fuel prices, rising input costs and various ways to save money. We, as an industry, can talk about buying natural gas futures and all of us have opinions about resin prices. It is good to know that.

But what you did not hear much of was talking about working with retailers. The pundits spoke it in various seminars. It was on the trade show floor, but you did not hear much about getting up the average ticket price so retailers could garner more dollars per transaction. About rethinking what it is we are growing and selling. Cassandra is saying work with retailers, and we just want to open that gate! 

Selling Ideas

It is OK to try to save money. Low overhead is always a good thing. It is critically important to understand all your input costs and to try to reduce costs when you can. But it is also OK to try to offer customers new and more valuable products. There is nothing wrong with a higher return on your bench space (and your retailers). I watched many a grower look at weird and wacky new genetics and I seldom heard the magic words, "How can I package that to get more money?" I heard a lot about cost savings, but not much on value adding.

It was at OFA. I saw it. Dümmen had wonderful new packaging to go with its new items, Proven Winners has moved beyond plant packaging and is even selling hand soap, Wave petunias has a fan club a la Mickey Mouse. All the tag companies have amazing new ideas.

I think the issue is some us of sell plants and some of us sell ideas. I really think we do not sell plants. We sell lifestyle. We sell decorating. We sell concept. But because we are all (myself included) plant nerds, we just see plants. Cool plants, new plants, but still just plants. Our customer is looking for something pink or white to put out front of her house and all we want to do is talk about that new petunia. And with the real issues of energy prices, labor shortages and input costs going up, we tend to revert even harder back to plant nerd ways.

So what can you do? You should consider a two-pronged approach. You must look at higher costs as a major problem for your business. As such, you need to look for lower inputs, for ways to cost average fuel, for ways to reduce labor, etc. But you also must look at ways to increase crop value, to help both your business as well as the business of your retailers to get more dollars per foot of bench space. For all the time you are investing on "cost reduction," how about spending the same amount of time on "value addition?"

Try to keep an open mind to consumer needs. This is very hard to do when faced with real cost increases. You know with certainty that gas and oil will go up. You do not know with certainty that your consumer will pay more for that better pot or nicer package. All the data supports that. All the industry gurus tell you so, but at the end of the day, you have to believe you can add value. If you have a team looking at adding value, it is your job to listen to them!

Here is where Cassandra pops back into the picture. Her curse says you will not understand her message. Look at ways to add value and plants in context with new marketing programs. Look at how she shops for color, look at ways to get dollar per foot up for the retailer, look at ways to increase turns. All hard messages when you must take on some risk to shift product mix.

Business is not easy today. I saw that at OFA, a more somber show than in years past. But if we can open our minds to getting more value to consumers and really listening to our Cassandras, we might make next spring a whole lot more fun.

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