Want To Sell More Plants? Just Tell Your Customers Why They Need Them

lawn-careAfter four years of helping Dr. Bridget Behe (Michigan State University) and Dr. Susan Hogan (formerly of Emory University) research consumers’ thoughts about plants and gardening, I’ve come to an unexpected conclusion:

They’re not that hard to figure out.

How many times have you sat in on talks promising to pull back the veil on an unknowable generation? Those talks go into lifestyle habits and how growers and plant retailers need to cater to Millennials.

And while there is some truth there, the gap is not as big as it seems. There are just a few things you need to keep in mind when brainstorming your product mix and advertising campaigns:

1. When It Comes To Plants, We’re Facing A Big Knowledge Gap

Today’s consumers aren’t stupid, but they know nearly nothing about gardening.

One of the key findings from our research is that Millennials feel ignorant about plants, and that is a feeling they can do without.

When we asked our focus group participants about how their last plant purchase worked for them, we heard a version of one of these two answers:

“Ugh, I don’t know why I bought it. I kill everything. Poor thing didn’t stand a chance with my black thumb.” Or “Surprisingly, it’s doing really well. I usually kill everything, so that plant got lucky this time!”

Notice there’s no sense of control on what happens in either outcome. It’s as if we gave them the ingredients for pie, but no recipe, and hoped for the best.

So practical advice is a must. But so is respect. Talk to them about how to know if a hanging basket needs watering and let them feel the difference between a dry and watered basket for themselves. And add signs to baskets about the usual lifespan (and blooming life) of an annual basket.

2. Millennials Want Plants To Be More Than Pretty

Don’t worry. Despite reports that Millennials only want edibles and succulents, we learned they still want attractive, flowering plants.

But they want all their plants to do more than just be a plant.

If they live in an apartment, they’ll like ideas of how plants can give them privacy from neighbors. Or they may want ideas for how to have an outdoor vertical garden that’s not expensive and labor intensive. And what about using pots of succulents to hold solar lights?

Food plants, of course, are inherently multipurpose. They give oxygen and fruit. If you can figure out a way to make them ornamental, as well, you’ll snag customers’ attention.

3. To Today’s Customer, Spending Time In Nature Means A Public Park Or Sporting Venue, Not Their Yard

A common complaint among us plant lovers is how few “G” programs there are on HGTV. But I’ve got a theory about why that is.

Sure, the results of a home makeover are instant and easy to photograph. But our research shows that consumers aren’t spending time in their yards. That’s a profound barrier to gaining the interest of potential customers.

Think about it. Where do guests gather for a dinner party? The kitchen island. Where do people relax after work? Either in front of the TV, or going out to do something like running in a park or meeting friends for a drink on a restaurant patio.

Our focus group participants echoed these trends. Even the nature lovers among them say they go to the beach or hit hiking trails when they want to be outside. The only time spent in their yard is doing chores like mowing and shoveling snow.

If you spend a lot of time indoors, you start looking at the wall colors critically, or begin day dreaming about a bigger pantry. So when no one spends time outside, that empty patch in the garden goes unnoticed, and that shady spot in the back corner doesn’t call out for a table and chairs.

It’s much harder selling plants to someone who thinks they only spell out hard work without giving much in return. Lifestyles are different today, but people are the same as they’ve always been. They want to feel in control, and they’ll pay attention only to what matters to them.

I urge you to take another look at what you are telling customers through your signage and tags, and through your advertisements. Millennials are not an alien mystery that’s hard to understand. They’re just like you, but living in a world where plants are no longer a given.

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