Take The Guesswork Out Of Plants

Essen Show 2011

Take a stroll through Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma or even ABC Carpet in New York City, and observe what’s around you. What are you looking for? The answer is a story.

It’s that story, told in colors, textures, marketing and promotions material and through customer service, that sells the products in those stores. And, it’s where growers can really take a page from the home furnishings industry. Growers can use stories to convey the message that plants really aren’t as difficult as they seem. They can also learn how to satisfy a picky retail customer and the key to separating quality from price.

Judy George, a longtime home furnishings retailer who now has her own line of products (Judy George International), excelled at changing the way customers viewed purchases of big-ticket items like furniture. In fact, as CEO of home furnishings retailer Domain, she traveled the country to ask women what intimidated them most about buying furniture.

From there she created vignettes that appealed to a variety of different styles. With a short, fun questionnaire, she assisted customers in picking the right home furnishings for them. These tactics accomplished two things: It took the guesswork out of a major purchase and made customers more comfortable with their decisions.

A similar strategy could easily be implemented by garden center retailers and their suppliers. They could work together to create vignettes for all aspects of the garden, such as mailbox gardens, shade or sun or pathways. Or, they could use a questionnaire about color inclinations, sun and shade and size preference to help pick the right types of flowers.

It’s all about providing solutions, says Kristine Lonergan, director of sales and marketing at Garden State Growers. Prior to working at Garden State Growers, Lonergan worked with George at Domain. “It was always about offering a solution to a problem a customer maybe didn’t even know she had. We’d say ‘this is a tough decision for you, we know that.’ We’d put it right out there in the marketing. But we made it clear we were service-oriented, and though it was a big investment, we were going to be holding your hand in the process.”

Growers can help retailers work with their customers by offering “garden in a box” solutions for all aspects of the landscape. These “boxed” solutions could relate to deer-resistance, butterfly or perennials gardens or any other customer need.


The Education Factor

George also is an advocate of suppliers providing retailers the tools they need to sell more product.

“One of the things I feel is missing from most companies is the 10 best tips of how to sell the product,” she says. “Give the customers features, advantages and benefits. If I was a (garden center) retailer, I could show, from a grower’s point of view, once they buy it, how best to use it.”

In other words, growers need to be responsible for more than just growing a great plant. They need to be able to explain its value, in layman’s terms, to the retailer’s customers. And not just through point-of-purchase materials, either.

“There’s nothing better than an educated retailer. I would hold seminars and invite large customers and pay their way to come in and experience the wonderful ways at which growers bring products to the market,” George says. “Get them excited about the product. I’ve had people do that with me, and I was always inspired.”

The idea of hosting seminars also pertains to retailers educating customers, but that doesn’t mean the grower is off the hook. Lonergan says it’s vital that growers provide the resources needed by the retailers to be successful with their plants.

“(At Domain) the vendors played a huge role in doing seminars and giving us resources via training tools like catalogs and floor plans for how to set up your room,” Lonergan explains. “They gave us dollars to do contests, too. Vendors play a huge role in that industry to boost sales and overcome the customer’s intimidations.”

Lonergan also mentions that as an industry, the focus on home accents from cable networks like DIY and HGTV was a huge benefit. Those shows helped to educate customers on matching colors and textures properly. And while there aren’t many gardening shows with the popularity of House Hunters or Design On A Dime, there are still shows that growers can look to and support to help educate consumers.


Watching For Trends

When growing product, it’s easy to forget about current trends. These trends, however, sell product, and keeping up with them can make a huge difference. Still, where can growers look to find what is hip?

For one thing, growers can look to the gift markets and the home furnishings industry for colors, patterns and textures that are hot at the moment. The hierarchy usually goes as follows: fashion world, home furnishings world, rest of the world. According to George, the fashion world is about two to three years ahead of everyone else. So, it takes about that long for trends to trickle down into home furnishings.

And, this is right where growers want to be with quick crops like annuals and specialty plants (Easter and Mother’s Day crops, for example). The trends can really come into play with value-added extras like pottery, decorative picks, pot wraps, ribbons or other accessories.

Lonergan suggests visiting high-end garden centers as well as home furnishings stores like Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel and ABC Carpet. These places allow growers to get a good feel for how products are packaged and merchandised and what the promotional and marketing materials look like.

Growers can also learn from the strategies employed by home furnishings retailers and their vendors to make a more complete product.

“It’s adding a new level to a plant, a different feeling to the item,” Lonergan says. “It gives it an identity.”

In the end, it’s all about taking inspiration from other industries and bringing it home to apply it in the greenhouse. These days, growers don’t just grow the plants – they are responsible for helping the retailer and the end consumer to be successful with the product, as well.

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