The Industry’s Take: How We Can Win More Customers

customer-at-als-garden-centerAs a wrap up to the 10% Project’s consumer study on what it takes to gain more plant customers, I reached out to plant breeders and brokers to see what they had to say. I laid out three working theories of opportunities and barriers our industry faces in reaching our goal of more customers.

Here are the three ideas these industry insiders reacted to:

1. Plant retailers (from mass merchants to Mom and Pops) have a divide to overcome. Potential new customers are interested in plants, but that interest is countered by several negative factors. First, we’re at a point where the last generation who gardened regularly are today’s millennials’ great grandparents. A big knowledge gap. This younger group also tend to go into the yard only for chores like mowing and snow removal, giving them a distaste for “yard work.” And although there is a love for the outdoors, the “outdoors,” in their mind, is a hiking path, or the beach, or even their kid’s soccer match, not their own patch of Earth.

The Missing Gardener series explores ways plant retailers can rebuild the gardening consumer base.
The Missing Gardener series explores ways plant retailers can rebuild the gardening consumer base.

2. Food gardening is on the rise, while flower gardening is holding steady. At first glance, that’s a positive. More people growing anything helps create long-term customers. But what we found is that people want their plants to serve many roles, not just one. Food gardening needs almost no promotion to meet that criteria. Ornamental plants, however, need more work. Being decorative works really well indoors, since that usually means plants are providing décor for a dinner party, acting as artwork, and cleaning the air. But if millennials are spending less time in their own yards, then they don’t really care that much that plants are pretty.

3. Adults want kids to garden as a life lesson. A desire for kids to understand where food comes from, to understand how trees and flowers grow is almost universal. Much of the industry, however, is focused on Baby Boomers, since that demographic is still our most important customer. And it has been only a handful of years since garden retailers debated the value of encouraging kids coming to a garden center (many felt they were more bother than they wore worth).

I shared this list of consumer trends making an impact with some industry insiders. Take a look at the response I got below. And if you have the time, you’ll want to check out two previous articles that include responses to my original email, one on how to ensure consumer success, and another from Benary’s Jennifer Calhoun on going the extra mile to capture the public’s imagination.

Tim Duffin, Ball Horticulture

I think your point one has a counterpoint. This is gut-based, not fact-based, but I think once people hit the nesting phase of their lives, they do get interested in gardening, if only for the decorating aspect of it. Demographics only tell a part of the story. Lifestyle phase tells some of it, too, such as buying a home, getting married.

On point 2 I’m in general agreement. People want to know what else flower plants do besides being pretty. Focusing on pollination is one way to demonstrate what else flowers do.

Point 3 may be true, but we need to change this. Rather than slicing and dicing customers we need to focus on the connective thread that appeals to everyone — from boomers to millennials.

Randy Uhl, Green Fuse Botanicals and the Henry F Michell Co.

1. As much as I hate to state this, we may have to go more European with smaller ‘garden ideas’ and fully planted gardens and mixes ready to drop into containers and the garden.

I do feel large retailers have moved to larger containers to make it easier for planting and to fill areas with less units, allowing gardening to be easier.

3. Any retailer should have planting clinics that makes gardening fun. I know some retailers were having fairy gardening parties, inviting parents to have birthday parties around creating fairy gardens similar to Build A Bear locations. Home Depot has kids building times on weekends. They should do the same with gardening.

Jesse Hensen, Eason Horticultural Resources

I’m not a plant breeder, but I am trying to keep my finger on the pulse of the marketplace as much as I can. I think the three ideas that you talk about are extremely important as we look forward to the next few years in our industry. One of the things that has kind of caught me by surprise, and is becoming more clear as I work with retailers, is that many of the new people buying plants today are not buying plants, they are buying decorations! Often times livability and hardiness are secondary, or not a consideration at all.

My specialty is perennials, and I am now seeing more and more perennials being offered by annual producers. Part of me struggles with this, but then again, look at how much more interesting the palette becomes with the different textures, colors, shapes, and sizes. With the newer breeding in the popular genera of perennials creating longer bloom time and more repeat flowering, the annualizing of perennials makes perfect sense. Perhaps those of us in the business can embrace this idea, instead of running from it, and we can make more plants more attractive to the new buyers.

Doug Cole, DS Cole Growers

In regards to your point #1: We believe the consumer is interested in our products. The difference is that in the past, it was about filling both small and large garden beds. The product was typically seed grown bedding plants. The cost per plant was low and the consumer would put in significant time and effort to plant and care for the beds.

Today the consumer will spend much more money per plant, and they will concentrate their efforts on one or more planters of one type or another. They are not afraid to spend good money on specialty plants, if they believe they will get the look they want. We need to think like they do and provide the products they are looking for to make their “statement” on the block.

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