Imagine a woman in search of great plants at a garden center. Maybe she simply needs plants to fill out her garden. Maybe she’s in search of great-looking blooming potted plants for the back porch. Whatever the woman seeks, she’s on the prowl.
She locates the plants she wants from a distance after only a few minutes in the garden center. There are a bunch of them seated on a rack. Having found the plants she originally sought, the woman feels relieved.
But then she sees a problem: Up close, the plants barely resemble themselves. Because the plants are wedged tightly between the rack’s shelves, there’s little room for them to breatheâ€“let alone bloom. The plants are withering, stricken from lack of sunlight and parched from days without water.
What she thought was a true find is more like a dud. So, disappointed, she turns away, wondering why she made the trip in the first place.
This is the kind of horror story you’ve probably heard about selling plants right off the cart or rack. It’s a worst-case scenario, really. But carts and racks still have high potential at retail, and they continue to be most effective as transporters for both large and small growers.
There probably is, however, a need for growers and retailers to compromise on general costs, in addition to fine tuning a few practices, to make both the carts and racks systems even more efficient.
“The good news for suppliers is a lot of growers are realizing the savings using carts and racks,” says Jeff Salmanson, an owner of E-Z Shipper Racks who manages the company’s sales and marketing. “I think there’s going to be a big push, even by some major chains that have not used carts in the past, to start moving toward them.”
Growers Working Together
One area where growers and retailers differ on carts and racks is size. Growers want to maximize freight by loading carts and racks with plants that brush the tops of trucks, whereas retailers generally prefer more shoppable models that easily roll through a store’s aisles and make unloading hassle free.
Many retailers have been getting their way lately, as growers typically bear the burden of freight. But despite the burden, carts and racks are still the most ideal items for loading and unloading.
“Carts and racks are what they are, but they’re a very necessary expense that we all have to face,” says Bobby Barnitz, whose family owns Bob’s Market & Greenhouses in Mason, W.Va.
Bob’s uses carts from Wellmaster Carts primarily for plug shipping, but it unloads plugs for the majority of its customersâ€“smaller growersâ€“by hand. Bell Nursery in Maryland and Lucas Greenhouses in New Jersey are two of Bob’s biggest plug customers, and Bob’s unloads carts for those growers with a forklift. Bob’s also shares carts with those growers, as do Bell Nursery and Lucas Greenhouses, to cut down on freight for everybody and make deliveries more efficient.
“Say, for example, we delivered pansy plugs to Lucas Greenhouses back in December,” Barnitz says. “Lucas won’t get more spring annual plugs until Week 8 or 9. We ship those pansy plugs on their carts and brought some of theirs back so we would have carts to use later in winter or first thing in the spring.”
Another tactic that works well for Bob’s and the growers it serves is color coding carts with paint. Red carts belong to Bob’s, purple belong to Bell, green belong to Lucas and yellow belong to Stacy’s Greenhouse in South Carolina. The system lessens cart loss and keeps everybody involved on the same page.
As big a concern as cart loss is, a few growers are stumbling onto ordering issues. Doug White, president of Wellmaster, says he’s met with a few growers who’ve placed orders with another supplier only to have that supplier declare bankruptcy a couple of weeks later.
“I would advise growers to check their customers on credit references and check their suppliers,” White says.
He also notes that growers aren’t looking at large carts and racks purchases this year. Instead, growers are looking to fill gaps for, say, 100 carts, or to acquire parts for repairs to carts and racks already owned.
At retail, carts and racks probably aren’t the best way to showcase plants. They are becoming a more popular option among the box stores, though. The Home Depot and Lowe’s are particularly interested in a racking system, E-Z’s Salmanson says, because plants are less likely to get damaged and there’s no wait time for them to “unfluff” and look good again.
Then, there’s the matter of unloading the truck: “It could take you 15 minutes to unload half a truck with a forklift, but if you use hand labor, it could take three or four hoursâ€“even with a group of four or five people. I think it’s only a matter of time before everyone is looking at the overall efficiency of the retail store and realizing that hand stacking may seem cheaperâ€“but in the end, they’re paying more for the labor.”
How about dressing up carts and racks with signage? Is that efficient for growers? Some growers, like Todd Johnson of Dallas Johnson Greenhouses in Iowa, say no.
“I don’t think the retailers really want to embrace marketing the material on the racks,” he says. “I think they see it as too much of a liability. Plus, there’s the fact that what stays on the rack doesn’t get cared for most of the time.”
Most retailers simply want carts and racks unloaded, Johnson says. They want inventory to roll in and out of stores within 48 to 72 hours. And if plants are left on carts and racks to be soldâ€“with or without signageâ€“he believes they won’t be shopped as well. There’s also the matter of having enough carts and racks. Some growers are hesitant to use them as retail merchandise displays for too long because they won’t have them for simple shipping needs later in spring.
Still, some growers are embracing signage for carts and racks. Costa Farms, for example, recently made sky blue signage for racks available to retailers in celebration of its O2 for You program. It evidently sees some value to carts and racks displays.
Gerry Giorgio, creative director of MasterTag, also sees the value. He reports similar interest in carts and racks signage between 2008 and 2009.
“By and large, most growers use the carts as transportation and offload it to the retailer,” he says. “The retailers want shoppable carts and racks, but the growers are in a tight spot. They see value in turning the cart into an effective display. But they have to find the right balance between their shipping costs and the benefit to the retailers.”
It’s also increasingly important to display signage from a rack’s front. In many cases, large banners are designed more for the sides of carts and racks, but customers tend to approach them from the front.
One trend Giorgio has noticed is in signage that promotes a sustainable message. Some growers are promoting programs on disposable wooden racks, he says. “They’ll put their product on the rack, wrap signage around it and they have a really nice display.”