Information Revolution

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Tags offer only so much space to tell a plant’s story. Even the largest tags have limits, as they offer enough space to present the plant’s name, a photo and a couple hundred words of care tips and other relevant information – but no more.

So tags, at least the way they’ve traditionally been designed, force growers and retailers to make tough decisions. Is it, for example, more important for consumers to know the plant requires sun or shade? Or, is it more useful to point out the fact the plant can be grouped with others to create a beautiful combination basket or planter?

As long as space is limited, growers will continue to make tough decisions about which information they present on tags and which information they don’t. But what if, in addition to the plant’s name, photo and cultural information, the tag was a gateway to endless facts and figures about the plants consumers are considering as purchases at the garden center?

Unbelievably, that gateway is now real. Hort Couture explored 2D-tagging technologies like QR (quick-response) codes and Microsoft Tags this spring. The technologies are applicable to consumers with smart phones, who have the ability to scan 2D icons printed on tags with their phones while shopping at the garden center.

Hort Couture is still trialing the technologies at Greenbriar Nurseries, home of the Hort Couture brand Jim and Jennifer Monroe founded four years ago. Jim has already deemed QR codes the better of the two technologies – at least for garden center retailers like him – because, he says, smart phones apparently read a QR code’s dark pattern better than it can a Microsoft Tag’s yellow dots in a garden center environment.

But, by scanning either 2D technology, Hort Couture has the ability to create a gateway to link consumers to additional information about its plants. Hort Couture is planning to present its QR-coded content in three forms: videos via 10-20 Media’s GardenPilot application, text messages sent from Hort Couture and content at HortCouturePlants.com.

“The content is what makes the experience,” says Jim, Hort Couture’s CEO. “Our whole brand essence really connects with the young consumer anyway. So we’re proud of our technology-driven side that puts us ahead of [our competition].”

Content Is King

Steve Cissel, CEO of 10-20 Media and the creator of GardenPilot, agrees the key component of 2D-tagging technology is content. A year from now, Cissel envisions 2D tags becoming the standard for marketing and merchandising at retail. The trick, he says, is connecting consumers to useful content through 2D tags – and connecting consumers to content that’s presented in a usable format for smart phones.

“Sending somebody to a retailer’s website on a mobile phone is a waste of time,” Cissel says. “Today, each of these retailers has got to have multiple [Web] formats. Do they need a mobile site for every [mobile phone] carrier? If the answer is yes, it’s a tall mountain to climb. Our desire is to house the content for them, if they so desire.”

In Hort Couture’s case, Jim Monroe intends to send mobile-phone users to GardenPilot to view short YouTube videos about different plants.

“People may look at Tomaccio, for example,” he says. “We are putting short snippets on YouTube that say, ‘You are looking at Tomaccio.’ We’ll say what its attributes are. We are trying to limit videos to eight to 10 seconds so we can quickly engage consumers.”
If presented properly, mobile content is the gateway to new consumers and, more specifically, the next-generation consumers our industry has mightily struggled to attract. At the moment, at least, the demand mobile content has created globally exposes a weakness in our industry.

“Our industry is extremely fragmented,” Cissel says. “From a plant standpoint, it has a Latin name; it potentially has more than one common name; it’s called one thing in the North and another thing in the South; it’s an annual in the North, a perennial in the South and it doesn’t grow in some places; some breeders have brands whereas others don’t; and sometimes breeders know where their product is sold and sometimes they don’t.

“The loser in all this is the consumer because we can’t share local information with them. We haven’t historically because we ourselves don’t know the answers.”

But give consumers a mobile phone – a device enabled with GPS – and they have a personalized location device for the entire continent.
“Wow, what an opportunity we have to give consumers local content about the plants, products and services of our industry,” Cissel says.

New Opportunities

This new technology is an opportunity for labeling and merchandising companies, as well. It’s testing them to design labels and signs that incorporate 2D technology and come up with programs that consider the needs of the mobile-phone user. MasterTag, for example, partnered with Hort Couture in its endeavor to print QR codes on labels and signs.

“We do a number of market research studies, and we keep coming across consumers – even repeat consumers – who are perplexed by the information presented to them at the garden center,” says Joe Fox, MasterTag’s sales and marketing director. “They have low confidence as gardeners and they want more information.”

Tags and signs can only display so much information, though. So MasterTag, Fox says, explored new ways to deliver information to consumers. Ultimately, the company determined there are two places to deliver information more effectively: at the point of sale, where there’s opportunity to cross merchandise product or enhance the way information is delivered; and at home, where consumers need more information as assurance they’re growing plants properly.

Smart phones, obviously, give consumers the ability to access information anywhere. But at the point of sale, MasterTag is doing more than empowering those with smart phones. They’re empowering everyone with a mobile phone – smart phone or not – with more information.

“QR codes are great, but only about 19 percent of cell phone carriers have smart phones,” Fox says. “It’s growing fast, but there still aren’t that many. And that’s what pushed us to come up with something that can appeal and be workable to anyone with a phone: a toll-free service.”

The toll-free program, which is applicable to any retailer, involves a phone number consumers can call right at the garden center to get more care information about plants and programs. A toll-free phone trial will be taking place in Meijer stores in Michigan this year with products from Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses.

“The toll-free concept is completely customizable,” Fox says. “It’s applicable to individual garden center retailers. The voice on the phone could be their own garden center experts, someone providing help and information that’s unique and specific to their store. We’ll help with all the scripting and getting the recordings set up.”

Other New Programs

In addition to 2D technology and the toll-free concept, MasterTag is also exploring ways to enhance the tags themselves. Research MasterTag recently conducted found 62 percent of gardeners prefer to use tags as an in-house reference while 66 percent prefer to use tags as garden markers.

If you do the math, it’s clear tags as they’re currently designed can’t serve both functions. But MasterTag has designed a solution in the SnapTag, a two-tags-in-one item that serves as both reference material and a garden marker for consumers.

“The gardener would take the tag, simply snap off the garden marker and keep the remaining piece for future reference,” says Gerry Giorgio, MasterTag’s creative director.

In addition to SnapTags, MasterTag has developed a concept for creating beautiful container gardens called Container Creations. Combination planters were seen at just about every Spring Trials site this year but most of the combos on display were pre-selected for consumers. Container Creations, however, leaves the creativity to consumers.

Special tags have been created for the concept, which identifies plants with upright, mounding and trailing habits. Upright plant tags are yellow, mounding plant tags are blue and trailing plant tags are red.

The tags will help eliminate the guesswork for consumers who aren’t sure which plants work well together. At the garden center, consumers can search for plants based on the different tag colors and have fun creating their own custom combination planters.

John Henry’s Endeavors

John Henry Company, like MasterTag, exhibited at Spring Trials in April and had several compelling ideas and programs to share. Among its exciting developments is a partnership with AllRecipes.com. John Henry is now designing packaging and tags with QR codes that connect consumers with smart phones directly to AllRecipes.com. Then, as John Henry Marketing Manager Brenda Vaughn suggests, consumers can plan their next meals with Dinner Spinner, an AllRecipes.com application on the iPhone.

“We know kids are attached to these phones, and eventually they’re going to be buying plants,” Vaughn says. “Now, we can communicate with that generation.”

Tags are still the bread and butter of John Henry’s business, Vaughn says, and vegetable plant tags were among the company’s top-selling items in 2009. In fact, she says vegetable plant tag sales were up 38 percent over the previous year, and John Henry’s intensified effort for 2010 should result in further increases. Merchandise like John Henry’s wrap-fused pots for blueberries in the Texas market are an attraction.

Another unique program from John Henry is Bee Friendly, a program geared toward plants that pollinate. The program’s yellow packaging is inviting and includes handy applications like carriers that contain two 1-gallon pots.

“We need new ideas for people to buy plants,” says Kristi Huffman, John Henry’s vice president. “Now, they’re helping a cause. It’s critical to keep pollination going.”

Kevin Yanik is the former managing editor of Greenhouse Grower.

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2 comments on “Information Revolution

  1. Anonymous

    We’ve just launched a venture focusing solely on QR code plant labels: in addition to the basic cultivation and horticultural information regarding the plant, our product connects users to thousands of images and enhanced wikipedia content. Additionally, users can carry on threaded discussions about the plant, comparing notes and tips and tricks. Take a look: http://www.hortycodes.com

  2. Anonymous

    We’ve just launched a venture focusing solely on QR code plant labels: in addition to the basic cultivation and horticultural information regarding the plant, our product connects users to thousands of images and enhanced wikipedia content. Additionally, users can carry on threaded discussions about the plant, comparing notes and tips and tricks. Take a look: http://www.hortycodes.com