The Marketing Education Of A Plant Guy

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I attended a terrific retail seminar in Savannah a while ago to hear about the state of the retail industry. Some well known and highly competent speakers were there, including Judy Sharpton, Dr. Bridget Behe, Kip Creel and Marshall Dirks, and I was soon being gently embraced in marketing and promotion.

I heard a rumor that people in marketing were not interested in plants, only lifestyles and other such twaddle, so, with an open mind, I thought I would go hear what the other side was saying about plants. The short answer is “nothing.” The long answer is the same, but a little more educational. Turns out I was in serious denial, so here is what this plant guy learned.

The good news is this thing we call gardening is well known. We have an 85 to 90 percent participation rate of homeowners in the country (the entire other 10 to 15 percent must live in my neighborhood). Those are enviable numbers for any industry. However, it also turns out that few people out there want to work anymore.

I learned that the DIYers (do-it-yourselfers) are a dying breed, quickly being gobbled up by the DIFMers (do-it-for-me-ers). Thus the only people who are making decisions on what plants to put in the McMansions and subdivisions are the landscapers (I once was one, we are in way more trouble than I thought). Yep, the percentage of DIFMers rose from a reasonable 22 percent in 2000 to a whopping 46 percent in 2006. I see why the box stores are making such a big deal by offering landscape services. The market gurus insist the trend will continue, fewer and fewer people will do less and less gardening, and plants will become more marginalized than ever.

From the mouths of the market folks, the plant itself does nothing more than fill a function, be a hedge, fill a container with color, hide the grill or feed the butterflies. It really could be anything, the name was unimportant, and the cultivar…well, that is simply Greek. Is it not ironic that these last five years have seen the greatest increase in new plants and have been the same five years where people care less about them.

I learned as much about acronyms as I did marketing. Turns out that in market speak, a new group has emerged: the DSOIFMers (do-some-of-it-for-me-ers). I think the DIFMers can’t stand all these helpers running around the place. Actually, we all can use some help, so this one makes sense.

One of the most enlightening remarks I heard defined the differences between two words we use almost interchangeably: landscaping and gardening. I learned that according to recent marketing surveys, people now have the perception that “landscaping is sexy, gardening is work.” It used to be the other way around. And do you know the main reason the guy with the shovel and red pick-up truck has become popular? It is because of home improvement TV! Good grief, how low has this country fallen. Do people actually believe that stuff? It’s like watching “Dancing with the Stars” and thinking Jerry Springer is sexy. We are in more trouble than I thought.

Anyway, I keep hearing the gloom and doom all the time now. “Gardening is dead,” “the demand for new crops will slow considerably,” “young people are horticulturally incompetent,” yadda, yadda. I believe some of it, of course, because it’s true. Heck, my lovely, bright, happily married daughters with fine homes and green lawns are both lawnmower-challenged. They don’t even own one. But at that age, I had no interest either, and if I could have found somebody to cut the grass, I would have done so in a heartbeat.

I have heard the same gloom and doom about attendance at movie theatres with the arrival of the DVD, the same moaning about church attendance with malls opening on Sundays, but theatres and churches are doing just fine, thank you.

Every time I am asked to speak to groups around the country, gardeners and industry people still want to hear about plants and gardens. Times are changing, absolutely no doubt, and yes, there is trouble brewing. People are aging, style is more important than substance, “lifestyle” is more important, the Internet is everywhere, and we have to market our products differently than we did 10 years ago. What else is new? So does every other industry.

We can read anything we want on a computer monitor today, but it will never replace the feel and comfort of turning pages in a book. As for me, I am getting older, slower and want fewer plants, but my daughters will be buying more in a few years. And they have five babies between them, so I, for one, expect some wobbling, but am convinced we will all be around for many years.

Allan Armitage (allan@greenhouse grower.com) is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

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