Nursery Growers Face Rebranding Challenge

8/10/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — Every year the Penn Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (PANTS) acts as a showcase for nurseries, garden centers and their suppliers.

One main group of lawn and garden sellers with a considerable market share were conspicuously absent, however, from the July 31-Aug. 1 gathering at the Pennsylvania Convention Center: national retailers like Lowe’s, Home Depot, Kmart and Walmart, who are in many cases out-competing locally-owned outlets.

Garden centers can take back some of the ground lost to the big chains, Bridget Behe, a professor of horticulture marketing at Michigan State University, told trade show attendees in a seminar.

Age and income are the most important demographic factors that affect garden spending, she said.

Baby Boomers are the “prime age demographic” for garden centers and represent a full quarter of the nation’s population, she said. Boomers have been a boon to landscaping businesses, but as they retire and move out of single-family homes into managed communities, their garden buying habits may change dramatically.

Younger generations have been a tougher sell for garden retailers. Generation X, people born from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, are less numerous than the Boomers, and “they work, they work a lot,” Behe said.

Despite being well-educated and experience-oriented consumers, Gen X has been a miss for the garden industry. The age cohort is known for having “more screens than plants,” she said.

That statement may be even truer for Generation Y, the children of the Boomers. Another quarter of the population, people born from the late 1970s through early 1990s are culturally diverse, busy and wealthy for their age, she said.

Behe has been conducting research with Carol Miller, the editor of Today’s Garden Center magazine, to determine why garden centers are losing business to big-box retailers.

The group conducted focus groups in Atlanta earlier this year and hopes to run more sessions around the country next year. The participants were in their twenties, thirties and forties.

Behe and Miller were trying to find out how to increase the number of customers and the amount of money each customer spends at a garden center.

Household participation in lawn and garden activities peaked at 80 percent in 2001, and the 2010 level, around 70 percent, mirrors 1990s participation.

The share of customers buying annuals has fallen from 35 to 29 percent since 1999. Herb sales have tripled since the 1990s, Behe said.

Average spending per customer has also fallen since 2006 from $401 to $335. The difference is even more drastic when the 2006 total is adjusted for inflation, to $447.

Vegetable customers halved their spending between 1998 and 2011, from $113 to $56.

There is a simple, if not easy, solution to weakening consumer spending, however: have affluent customers.

Most spending disparities disappear when customer income tops $75,000, Behe said. Even twenty-somethings, who tend to spend little on plants, will patronize garden centers when they have the disposable income available to beautify their homes.

“Income was really the great leveler,” Behe said.

Perhaps the most difficult hurdles for garden centers to overcome are perceptual.

“’Gardening’ had a very negative connotation” to the focus group participants, Behe said. “This is not a word that they like.”

Gardening evokes images of “an old woman with white hair and a floppy hat,” and younger people want nothing to do with that imagery, she said.

Generation Y respondents overwhelmingly told the researchers that gardening is old-fashioned, though older consumers disagreed.

“Landscaping” produced more positive responses. Participants saw it as more masculine, vogue and project-oriented.

A simple vocabulary change could go a long way toward helping garden centers shed their stodgy image, she said.

Time Is Money

Younger people also told Behe and Miller they did not have time for gardening.

The national retailers have already solved this issue, Behe said. They create kits and compartmentalize tasks to make lawn beautification seem more manageable.

Instead of offering a comprehensive landscaping program, they pre-package individual landscaping units, like a flower bed or water element, that can be accomplished in a set amount of time.

The ability to say “If you have three hours, you can do this” is critical because customers are afraid to start projects that could take over their lives, Behe said.

Independent stores should come up with projects of different lengths, such as whole weekend projects or afternoon jobs.

Garden centers can figure out ways to downscale projects, making ponds or beds smaller.

Ian Baldwin, a nursery consultant attending the session, noted that about 90 percent of food gardening purchases are tools, fertilizers and other items.

In other words, most of the spending for growing food at home is attachment sales, not plant sales, he said.

Younger consumers also see a big difference between the front yard and the backyard. People think the front yard should impress the neighbors, while the backyard is for fun. Experimenting is seen as “safer” in the backyard, she said.

Consumers also want the backyard to be like a park. It should be a place to relax and entertain, a peaceful and natural oasis.

People also want their backyards to reflect their personality, she said.

Garden centers should hang pictures and have Internet links to give first-time gardeners ideas for sprucing up their lawns.

Those pictures can help start the conversation with the customer. “Here’s that park-like setting, and we can help you do that,” she said.

Behe said that “the biggest epiphany for me” was that younger people did not recognize food as something they could grow at home. Local-food enthusiasts could see buying a pepper from a farmers market but did not realize they could grow peppers in their own backyard.

Parents with young children were an exception to this rule, she said, because they liked activities they could do with their children.

Knowledge Is Power

Younger people also steered clear of garden centers because they felt insecure about their lack of botanical knowledge.

Garden centers have a sometimes deserved reputation for catering to “experts,” Behe said. Practices like organizing plants by alphabetized Latin name contribute to this consumer perception.

Customers like the big chains because their salespeople have the attitude that “there are no dumb questions,” she said.

Independent garden stores should adopt this mentality by greeting customers when they arrive, giving them good eye contact and offering to help them pick flowers that will fit their needs, she said.

Owners need to get workers to face the aisle. Employees are good at making the plants pretty, but they need to learn to help customers, she said.

“’Ask me.’ Put it on the back of the shirt,” Behe suggested.

Independents can also differentiate themselves from the big players by offering coaching and after-sales support.

Generations X and Y customers in the focus groups expressed a strong emotional connection with their plants’ wellbeing, Behe said. They were afraid of the plant dying and felt like a failure if it did.

“When plants die, where do they place the blame?” On themselves, even when other factors may have contributed, she said.

Just like electronics stores offer tech support, garden centers can advise customers when they need to know how to handle a problem.

The big stores will probably always have the edge with price-driven shoppers, so garden centers need to play up the added quality and benefits local stores can offer, she said.

Miller, the magazine editor, said that despite decades of building advertisements around weekly specials and cheap prices, “we still have a reputation for being more expensive” than national chains.

Deals and discounts are “not a message that works for us,” she said.

Just as she encouraged creating projects for different time budgets, Behe suggested creating grades of plants at different prices. For example, a retailer could offer hanging baskets of increasing quality for $19.99, $29.99 and $39.99.

Growers will not have to make as many of the highest-end baskets because they will not sell as many, but having a top option will entice more customers to buy something nicer than the bargain baskets.

“People will buy better’ if there’s a best’ option,” she said.

Garden centers can also improve their visibility and accessibility in the community by getting into the social scene.

Stores can have off-site events like classes or demonstrations at places where young potential customers congregate. Coffee houses and farmers markets are prime locations for these programs, she said.

Other Attractions

Other workshops at PANTS dealt with similarly daunting challenges for the nursery industry.

Andy Ernst, the vice-president of Ernst Seeds in Meadville, Pa., was interested in the seminars about social media marketing and immigration.

Ernst described the social media presentation as “very good, very informative.”

“So many people don’t understand it,” but operations that can learn to use online tools to grow their business, as Ernst Seeds is doing, will be much more successful over the next five years, he said.

Finding U.S. citizen laborers has been difficult for Ernst, as it has been for many others in the industry. His company got eight applications for a farm laborer position and 110 applications for a secretary job.

Craig Regelbrugge, who led the immigration talk, said immigration is “probably the most important issue our industry is dealing with at the national level.”

Immigration accounts for most of the country’s population growth, and as many as 70 percent of immigrant laborers’ children are U.S.-born, which makes the children citizens even if the parents are not, he said.

The 20-year veteran Washington lobbyist for the American Nursery and Landscape Association criticized both Republicans and Democrats for frustrating the industry’s labor needs.

The Obama administration “has driven (the farm worker visa program) into the ground,” while the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has been hesitant to touch the incendiary issue, he said.

As the session presenters wrestled with big issues, the 270-plus exhibitors were busy showing off their plants, mulches, seasonal decorations, tools, masonry and other products.

While many of the exhibitors were from Pennsylvania or New Jersey, some came from farther away. Palm trees from Florida-based JWD Trees, Inc. towered over the convention center floor. Coast of Maine offered lobster compost.

David’s Nursery LLC of Exmore, Va. has been coming to PANTS for more than 30 years.

David Tankard Jr. said the event gives him the chance to “keep touching base with existing customers and pick up a few new customers.”

The wholesale grower is known for its large container plants and serves garden centers, re-wholesalers and landscapers from Richmond, Va. to Boston. Philadelphia’s more or less central location in the company’s sales region makes PANTS convenient for him.

Justin Lambert of Sturgill Tree Farms in West Jefferson, N.C. said the long trip hauling Christmas trees to Philadelphia has been worth it for his company, which was exhibiting at PANTS for the third year.

Lambert said the trade show is an opportunity to “expand our client base.” He “got quite a few new leads” during the show.

Sturgill mostly sells to wholesale tree lots, who then resell the trees to retailers.

Lambert enjoyed talking with people at the convention center.

“It’s been a great experience,” Lambert said. “You just feel at home.”<\c> 6

Photo by Philip Gruber

Michigan State University professor Bridget Behe discusses ways garden centers can attract new customers.


Photo by Philip Gruber

Craig Regelbrugge, a lobbyist with the American Nursery and Landscape Association, speaks about immigration policy. -- ( Photo)


Conference attendees visit displays at the Penn Atlantic Nursery Trade Show. -- ( Photo)

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