Plants With Panache

Plants With Panache

When Jim and Jennifer Monroe first came up with the idea for the Hort Couture brand, they thought it might be a good idea — a marketing program for independent retailers with high-fashion design and marketing as well as high-quality plants. Maybe they’d have a rooting station by the year 2010. Those expectations have been blown away, as breeders, growers and retailers have contacted Hort Couture to see what the buzz is about. And that rooting station? Already in place at Plug Connection and Garden Bloomers Takao Nursery, just four months after the debut of the line.

“We thought it was a pretty good idea,” says Jim Monroe. The couple owned Greenbrier Nurseries, an independent garden center in Virginia and West Virginia, when the idea for the line came about. It was created in response to what they saw as the needs of the industry — high-quality plants from leading breeders in combination with sophisticated packaging and marketing. Breeders like Dömmen and Anthony Tesselaar have taken notice, as have the 31 growers who have joined the network, including Zylstra Greenhouses, Riverbend Nursery, Ellison’s Greenhouses and Valleybrook Gardens.

“I am extremely excited and enthusiastic about Hort Couture,” says PJ Ellison-Kalil of network grower Ellison’s Greenhouses. “I believe it is a fabulous positioning vehicle that can revitalize, rejuvenate and take our industry to the next level. The possibilities will just escalate as people of passion and integrity join together in the pursuit of excellence and making a positive difference. I for one think the sky is the limit and can’t wait to make possibilities into realities.” 

Why Couture?

The slant towards fashion came as part of Jim’s and Jennifer’s study of shoppers for not only plants, but other retail areas such as home décor and fashion.

“The existing brands in the marketplace really lacked style or sophistication in their message and packaging,” Jim Monroe says. “The fashion concept was a perfect tie-in that allows use of fashion terms, trends and themes to permeate the brand and directly relate to our target customer.” Hort Couture marketing materials include a boutique backdrop for retail, branded containers with a decor-type color scheme, the Lady Couture silhouette to display plants with, drop-in urns and the Haute Tote, a specially sized and decorative shopping bag.

“We want the consumer to view our plants the way a Louis Vuitton handbag or Prada shoes are,” Monroe says. “This brings added value, improved industry perceptions and unique marketing opportunities to high-end garden retailers.” It is a theory that attracted Brenda Goodfellow, sales manager at Valleybrook Gardens, Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario. She convinced company President John Schroeder to jump on board. 

Jim Monroe’s Top Marketing Tips 

Be prepared for success. “We have been able to build additional cutting stock, work with our tag and pot vendors to expand the program as it has gotten momentum. We have accomplished far more than we ever expected for the first year.

“We were prepared to deal with a program that has grown in four months to where we thought it might be in two to three years.”

Keep it fresh. “What has been available to our retailers has been really pretty boring. Essentially the same tag, the same black, green or white pot and the same signage, if there even was one, and the same look all year long. When we started looking at what we were competing with, it was pretty simple, mundane stuff. Our customers have chosen to come to us and they deserve better! We are trying to push the boundaries of what ads and marketing in our industry look like and feel like. Just think of what Target has done to retail advertising in the last five years. Now a JCPenneys or a Sears TV ad looks a lot like a Target ad!”

Consistency is important in developing a comprehensive plan. “We have lots of great ideas and people have approached us with great ideas, as well. We need to stay focused on what we need to do to make our launch in 2008 successful for all of our growers and retailers. It is easy to get off on a tangent when things are so exciting and happening so fast. Focus, focus, focus.”

“The whole concept of a brand built around high fashion, with elegant packaging, resonated with me,” Schroeder says. “This was especially true when I saw how women reacted to the program–there was more enthusiasm than I expected to see. And hey, whatever the ladies like, that’s what I want to sell them!”

The fleur de lis is used through the brand’s packaging, pots and promotions, an iconic symbol of sophistication. While more colors will be injected into the line in 2009, basic black has been the backdrop for the line, in what Monroe calls truly rich and sophisticated for marketing pieces.

“Out industry is the world’s source for color development,” he says. “We need to take advantage of what flowers and plants offer our industry!” 

High-End Plants

Even the best marketing means nothing if it doesn’t represent a quality product. The Hort Couture line features 500 varieties, and breeders in Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Israel, Mexico and the United States are working on future additions to the line. The goal is to develop the best genetics possible at the retail level.

Many of the current varieties are underused and not necessarily proprietary to the line, Monroe says. Blackeyed Susan ‘Early Bird Gold,’ Pennisetum setaceum ‘Fireworks,’ the coleus Fruit Stand series, dwarf sweet potato vine Ipomoea batatas ‘Chihuahua’ and rare banana, musa ‘Siam Ruby’ are currently in the line.

“We want to work with lots of different companies to develop the very best genetics we can offer at the retail level,” Monroe says. “We’re not trying to be exclusionary of any genetics company, but to bring together a product line that is the best for the consumer.” He says breeders are approaching Hort Couture on a weekly basis with something new and exciting to add to the line.

Success From The Start

“I don’t think the term ‘phenomenon’ is too strong for what has occurred over the last four months,” Monroe says. The brand made its debut at the 2007 OFA Short Course with a huge amount of buzz. From that publicity and press, as well as a plug from retail consultant John Stanley at the CANGC Las Vegas show, most of the demand for the line has come from major market retailers who run destination-type garden centers. Business is booming in southern California, Seattle, Chicago, Long Island and other markets. Monroe says he suspects the success of the line has had something to do with the realignment going on in the industry.

“I think independent retailers are starting to realize they have had no voice in this change and have gotten left out,” he says. “Several major plant brands have aligned themselves with places like Wal-Mart and the Home Depot over the last few years. It is hard for independents to compete on these products. We offer not only change, but a change that is truly different and upscale.”

For the future, Monroe says he hopes Hort Couture will become the leading plant brand for the independent retailer. He says he sees the grower network continuing to expand, as well as the brand’s plant selection. Three major new programs will also be introduced by Hort Couture in 2009. They’ll premiere at OFA Short Course 2008.

“They will create a lot of buzz again, I promise!” Monroe says.

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