Garden Retail Marketing Plans That Connect With Today’s Consumer

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Carol Miller

Greenhouse Grower’s sister publication, Today’s Garden Center, gathered a group of retailers, growers and other retail suppliers in the summer of 2012 to discuss where they would like to see the industry in five years and what we need to do to get there. The key issues the group identified became the focus of the 10% Project, a series of research projects and case studies Today’s Garden Center is commissioning to help the retailers grow their sales by 10 percent.

One of the greatest challenges the group identified is a shrinking consumer base. Our core customers, Baby Boomers, are aging themselves out of the market. So the first 10% Project of 2013 has a modest goal — identify the likeliest potential customers and lure them into garden centers.

Today’s Garden Center Editor Carol Miller recruited Dr. Bridget Behe of Michigan State University and Dr. Susan Hogan of Emory University to conduct the research and to find ways to apply the results of the research to the real world of garden retail. The study is taking place over two years, and the first focus groups were conducted in Atlanta in January 2013.

GG: You recently held some focus groups with people who like plants but aren’t regular garden center customers. What did you learn?

Miller: Our target audience for the focus groups were 20- to 40-somethings who had made only a few gardening purchases in the past year. Most of those who participated owned a home. But none of them saw themselves as gardeners. To them, that was a hobby for older generations who had comfortable incomes and plenty of time. The term “gardening” doesn’t connect with them.

And as an extension, they don’t see independent garden centers as stores that relate to them. In separate focus groups, different people independently mentioned that they wouldn’t want to shop at an independent garden center until they were much more knowledgeable. When they do make plant purchases, most of them shop at mass merchants. They felt safe at those stores with their lack of gardening knowledge because — correct or not — they assumed the staff at mass merchants probably doesn’t know much more than they do.

GG: Was this unexpected, particularly with the younger age groups?

Miller: Independent retailers will certainly be surprised. One of the things they pride themselves on is being the place gardeners can turn to for answers. Their expertise is a selling point. Yet here is a group of people who own homes and make gardening purchases who are scared off by that knowledge.

GG: How can we reach these people? As an industry, are we more likely to find a way to change their perceptions about gardening or to find a way to adapt to these changing consumers?

Miller: When I heard the focus group talking about how uninterested they were in garden centers, I was struck by how difficult it would be to reach them. You can have the best possible garden center, but how do you get people to come in if they have you labeled as intimidating? Facebook won’t work, since people only follow those companies they already like. Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest, on the other hand, could offer some really interesting possibilities.

So I think this the answer is probably twofold. First, we need to find a way to go into the community to meet these consumers where they are, rather than luring them in to us. And once we’ve engaged new gardeners, we need to make sure their experiences with the industry are approachable. These are mainly marketing issues, but a type of marketing we as an industry aren’t that familiar with.

Dr. Hogan is currently working with a couple of Atlanta-based independent garden centers on some guerilla-marketing techniques where a retailers will bring their stores to where 20- to 40-somethings hang out. That might mean pop-up classes on growing hops for beer at the dog park or bringing a careful selection of products to a farmers’ market.

GG: What would you suggest growers – those that serve the independents and those that don’t — can do to help reach these consumers?

Miller: Growers know better than anyone how to grow plants, and this group of new gardeners likes to do a lot of research on the web. I’d suggest creating some basic how-to videos that take nothing for granted, from how to water, to how deep to dig a hole for a plant. This is a group that needs a lot of hand holding. In the short run, you can share the videos with your retail clients and post them on your own site and on YouTube. Longer term it would make sense to promote these videos on every plant tag a consumer might come across.

GG: What are your next steps going forward with what you learned from the focus groups?

Miller: The Atlanta focus groups and even the marketing campaign we are doing with local garden centers are a precursor to a broader program in 2014. We are in the process of applying for grants to help fund multiple focus groups in several cities across the U.S. and to create a marketing success kit for the industry.

We’d also like to work with at least two retailers in each community where we conduct the focus groups. The retailers will be using the research team’s recommendations, and helping us measure the success of the campaigns. We’ll be sharing the results with the industry as we go along. We’ll cover the results of the Atlanta focus groups and interviews in the June issue of Today’s Garden Center, and later in September we’ll share the results of the Atlanta-area retailers’ marketing campaign.

Richard Jones is the group editor for Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.
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    2 comments on “Garden Retail Marketing Plans That Connect With Today’s Consumer

    1. Don Eberly

      This is great information. Our thanks to TGC and Carol for this helpful insight. We also conduct focus groups on this and many other topics. One thing we have learned from our studies is the fact that using the term "gardening" to refer to the act of consumers selecting plants and other items at the retail level (and then using said plants / items at home) is misleading to the marketplace, as this article suggests. Rather, more than 75% of respondents in our study indicated that they think of the terms and phrases, "curb appeal," landscape maintenance," "cleaning up the lawn or yard after winter," and "planting flowers or plants in spring or fall" as being far more applicable and realistic surrounding how and when they purchase / use garden center products. It's too bad more Gen Xers, Yers, and Millennials do not consider themselves "gardeners." But, they often do have the need to purchase and utilize garden center retail products. We just need to speak their language and use the "speak" and phrases and key terms they prefer and understand- which is about keeping exterior spaces looking good and maintained- more so than gardening as a hobby for them. In the consumer magazine and blog articles we write, we are using these new terms and key words, and when they publish online, link-backs to the quoted sources' websites showcase in the high range indicating the use of the "correct" language can help make all the difference. – Just some thoughts on the topic. — Keep up the good work, TGC! Looking forward to reading more about your focus groups and this all-important subject-matter. – Don Eberly, Eberly & Collard Public Relations.

    2. Mark Foertmeyer

      Excellent! This Is very meaningful work helping us to place ourselfs (Horticultural community) favorably in the lives of our consumers/customers. We offer way too much meaning to people's lives for them to be scared of us. As the new president of OFA and the future New Org. I'm very excited and willing to lend our support to demolish these fears. Thanks for the 10% project, Mark Foertmeyer Foertmeyer and Sons Greenhouse