What Consumers Want

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I was speaking at a fine perennial plant grower’s place recently and opened with a number of issues that people are talking about everywhere. The first was how we can get young people to buy our products. I keep hearing this lamentation and don’t get it. It seems to me that most people provide a classic knee-jerk response. They scratch their head and say, “Yes, it is a dilemma, they have so many other distractions now.”

We hear this more because of the change in demographics. The Boomers are getting older and the marketer claims no one is taking their place. Generation X wants everything online, Gen Y doesn’t want to get dirty, yadda, yadda. I listen, and simply think “Hogwash, all of it.” I am the first to tell you that times are a changing. Markets, lifestyles, what’s important, what is not–all of this is changing. But it always has and always will. Good grief, look back at your last 30 years on this planet. Huge changes have occurred from the necessity of a computer to cell phones. Have you tried to find a public phone booth lately? Disappearing as fast as the ice caps.

How do we get young people into the garden centers? Wait ’til they get older. Period. I am not being facetious or unrealistic. I certainly didn’t shop for plants when I was a young man, nor do I recall any of my friends, nor my daughters’ friends. Such an activity has always occurred when we age a little, get our first house and have some ground into which we can plant those suckers.

What has changed like never before is the lack of time. Couples working two jobs and commuting forever doesn’t leave a great deal of time, especially for an activity involving a shovel. If there is a change afoot with this age group, look for young people to buy fewer of anything and for sure, plants with less maintenance. I have no doubt that more container gardening will occur for all sorts of reasons, the simplest being that containers can be reached by the water hose. I also have no doubt that the sharpest increase in plants will be in the categories of shrubs, native plants and perennials. Other categories will likely decline with young people, at least until that house cries out for more color. 

New Crops At Retail

Another topic concerned the plethora of new crops at retail: What a dilemma! On the one hand, I will never give up my belief that new crops are the lifeblood of the industry. People will always ask “What’s new?” and we always need an answer. The dilemma comes when the customer tries to decide which one to buy. We don’t need any more people like my daughter, Heather, walking out with nothing because, “Dad, there were so many different choices that I couldn’t make up my mind, so I didn’t buy any.”

We must simplify shopping! Heather has too little time in her life to be wondering which purple-leaf heuchera is best for her container. This new crop craziness will not stop; there is no controlling crazy breeders. Therefore, it is the nursery manager who must make some hard decisions. It does not make sense to carry “The Widest Selection of Perennials in the State.” Having that many just confuses most buyers.

Find the best daylily, heuchera, holly or iris in various colors, hopefully based on trials in your region. Use your Extension people, look at trials in person or on the Web in a reasonably similar environment, talk to Master Gardeners, work with good brokers, then rid yourself of look alikes and sell only the best performers in the state. In coneflowers, pick the best purple, the best orange, the best white and let everyone know that you have the best, not the most. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Confusion will never go away, all we can do is contain it. I feel like Andy Rooney at times, but I have a better hat.

Allan Armitage was a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia for 30 years. He recently retired and remains an active consultant, author and lecturer.

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