Plant Quality Isn’t Enough [Opinion]

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Richard Jones

Any time I talk with a grower and ask, “What’s different about your greenhouse business?” the answer invariably involves some mention of “our people” and “our quality.” I seldom disagree with those responses in principle. You can’t be a successful business of any kind in 2012 without having a pretty good staff in place. And I think we’ll all agree that the quality of plants growers are bringing to market these days is higher than it’s ever been.

But the part about your quality making you different from everyone else? I’m not so sure about that. One of Greenhouse Grower’s Top 100 growers shared the following thought at OFA Short Course this summer. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s correct:

“We all talk about how good the quality of our product is. And you know, we’re right. Most growers do produce very high quality plants these days. But it’s not enough anymore. Quality is the minimum basic requirement for our products.”

I’m not sure if it was ever as easy as just growing great plants and setting them out to be swallowed up by hordes of rabid gardeners clamoring for your product — but if it was, well, those days are long gone. When all of the product is equal, you differentiate your plants and your business by the value you create in the minds of your customers, both retailers and consumers.

That Means Marketing

Every grower understands the business of greenhouse production these days. Managing costs is the key to profitability. Good growers are worried about fractions of pennies because they add up to thousands of dollars on the bottom line.

But you have to sell those plants to bank those dollars, and marketing is a financial wildcard in the process. At a glance, it may seem to go against that philosophy of managing costs closely. Calculating a return on your marketing investment can be an exercise in uncertainty. So how do you justify the investment to market your crop, not just to your direct customers at retail, but farther downstream, to consumers who may — or more likely — may not have any idea who you or your greenhouse business are?

We talked a lot about this at Greenhouse Grower’s Top 100 Breakfast at OFA Short Course, and you’ll find some of the most interesting takeaways from our panel discussion. In a nutshell, one of your many jobs now is creating value so a retailer chooses your plants over someone else’s, or so a consumer considers buying plants in the first place. Devoting the resources is simply a cost of doing business. As Natalie DiScascio, marketing coordinator for Delray Farms said during the panel discussion, “Participate or find something else to do.”

We don’t need a big industry-funded checkoff program to create demand. (Is anybody still holding their breath waiting for that to happen? Exhale now.) It’s our job — yours and mine. Are you reaching out to your customers and your customers’ customers to help them understand the true value of your plants? If not, it’s time to start.

Richard Jones is the group editor for Meister Media Worldwide’s U.S. Horticulture Group. He was formerly an editor with Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.

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