Greenhouse Layout Can Help Market Plants

2/1/2014 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

EAST EARL, Pa. — Most farmers probably would not want to make their living as interior decorators, but having an attractive, user-friendly retail outlet can encourage customers to spend more time — and perhaps more money — perusing all the products a grower works to produce.

A panel of speakers talked about marketing ideas and opportunities on Jan. 23 at Penn State Extension’s Southeast Greenhouse Growers Day at Shady Maple.

Store layout can greatly influence customers’ buying decisions, said Kathy Kelley, a Penn State professor of horticultural marketing and business.

“We want to use plants to welcome somebody,” she said. Plants are attractive, and they are what the customers have come to buy.

A shopper takes three seconds to decide whether she — and in a garden center, it most often is a woman — wants to shop in a store, Kelley said.

The front 10 to 15 feet of the store are a transition zone where customers adjust to the store environment. They take off their coats, remove their sunglasses, corral their kids — and fail to notice any products the retailer has displayed in that area, she said.

Just beyond the transition zone on the right-hand side, growers should place seasonal or other hot items. Americans have a bias toward the right side and tend to see products on the right hand, she said.

Shopping carts should be placed throughout the store so customers do not have to interrupt their shopping to get one, she said.

Forty percent of the floor space should be used for merchandise, and the rest should be kept open so customers can navigate comfortably, she said.

Customers tend to shop the first third of the sales floor, so retailers should find a way to attract buyers’ attention to the back of the outlet.

Some stores place lower displays at the front of the store and make the shelves progressively higher toward the back. That technique keeps products visible and pulls people deeper into the outlet, she said.

Bright wall colors like red and yellow attract attention, she said.

Color choices can also be influenced by the outlet’s brand colors, the current season and the feelings colors evoke, Kelley said.

Tan is associated with plants and the natural world, and it helps the green plants stand out.

Contrasting colors are important. Kelley mentioned one display she saw of clear glasses displayed on glass shelves. The setup was hard to look at, especially when light hit it.

Purple is a good color for high-priced items. “It kind of softens the blow,” she said.

Fashion-forward customers may be familiar with the Pantone color of the year, which is often used in trendy clothing. Radiant Orchid, a kind of “pinky purple,” is 2014’s color, Kelley said.

The free mobile-device app Video Painter Lite allows users to take a picture of a room and then experiment with Behr paint colors to see what they will look like, she said. It is a good way to try out colors without committing to one the grower fears might clash.

“Painting paneling is very hot” and gives texture to an otherwise tired and boring wall, she said.

Even painting one beam on a shelving unit can make the display pop, she said.

Value-added products also look attractive in displays related to their use. Soaps can be placed in a reclaimed sink. One set of farm store owners opened their outlet in an old house and put the jams and jellies in the kitchen area, she said.

If the farm store walls and shelves get a face-lift, sellers should think about revamping the ceiling too. People notice ceilings, Kelley said.

Fortunately, drop ceilings can often be spruced up by tucking fabric into the grid or swapping some of the ceiling tiles for more interesting ones, she said.

Flooring regulates customers’ pace of travel through the store. When customers’ feet hit a different surface, they subconsciously recognize that they should slow down, she said.

Supermarkets use tiles in their lucrative produce sections because customers hear the “ting-ting-ting” of the cart rolling over the seams and hear when they are going too fast, she said.

Greenhouses by their nature appeal to customers’ senses of smell and sight, but sound is also imperative for farm retailers.

Kelley said her ag marketing students often think country or classical music are the best choices for farm stores. Country is not universally popular, though, and classical music suggests the goods are pricey.

Walking-pace smooth jazz in the style of Benny Goodman is the most effective music, and it has been shown to scare away loitering teens, she said.

Consumers often pick a fountain by its sound, so it is important to have those running, she said.

Female customers are typically targeted because they make such a large percentage of purchases, Kelley said.

Men are taking over more purchasing responsibilities, though. Steve Bogash, a Penn State Extension educator who moderated the session, said farm stores can make their stores too “froo-froo” and risk turning off men.

Some garden stores appeal to high-end female customers, but grills and other stereotypically manly products are options for sellers who have a different customer base, Kelley said.

If the store sells gift baskets or other value-added products, those products can be made in the front window or in the retail area. Customers are attracted to motion and can feel that their gift basket was made especially for them, Kelley said.

“I think it is a form of entertainment,” Bogash said.

While farmers should strive to make their stores inviting, they also should not limit their selling to their physical location.

“The action is nowhere real. It’s in cyberspace,” said John Friel, the Lancaster-based marketing director for Emerald Coast Growers of Pensacola, Fla. “Houses, pets, clothes — everything is sold online. Why not plants?”

Some online plant sellers do not even have a retail outlet that customers can visit.

While Emerald Coast still puts out a 100-plus-page catalog each year and the company’s customer base has grown, print distribution of the catalog has shrunk. The books are even hard to give away at trade shows, he said.

One online tool for guiding customers to extra information about a plant has not lived up to its promise, Friel said.

Once all the rage, MS tags and QR tags, which can be scanned with a smartphone for more information on a plant, are not helping greenhouses.

“Nobody’s using them, at least not in horticulture,” Friel said.

The Millennial generation, roughly people who are now in their 20s and 30s, are naturally suspicious of messages and recognize that QR tags on greenhouse signs are links to advertisements.

Millennials’ attitude is “Just give me WiFi. I can find it myself,” he said.

As a wholesaler, Friel is fine with not providing this extra information. It can just confuse the “civilians,” and he would have to set up and maintain a separate website just to appeal to people who are not his target customers, he said.

New varieties continue to be a way to draw customers, but cutting-edge cultivars do not have long track records. “Do you want new, or do you want proven?” Friel asked.

Novel hybrids can be a lot of fun, but they can also be expensive. If a monorail car derails while carrying 15 trays of schizachyrium, a prairie grass, around the greenhouse complex, “you can dump $2,200 worth of plants on the floor in no time,” he said.

Greenhouse displays should be neat and inviting but not give a “glossy, too-pretty-for-its-own-good” impression, he said.

“This industry is made up of people who get up early and work hard,” said Friel, who started his horticultural career as a truck driver and maintenance man.

Hollywood-style setups are not true to the earthy nature of greenhouse growing, and customers know it. “People don’t trust slick,” he said.

Consumers do like to develop personal relationships, however, and social media can help garden centers build something at least like a relationship, said Angela Treadwell-Palmer, a founder and partner at Plants Nouveau, a Baltimore-based plant marketing company.

People may see her pretty plant pictures on Pinterest or read the occasional Baltimore Ravens-supporting tweet from her corporate account, and either communicate with her or view her products on her site.

“It’s all building trust and getting them to know you,” she said.

Still, interacting with customers is no substitute for selling good plants, said Harvey Lang, a Syngenta technical services representative.

“People know what quality is,” he said.

Lang, the afternoon’s final speaker, offered one closing thought on appealing plant retailing: Have clean bathrooms.

Some ladies he has talked to will never go back to a garden center with dirty amenities, he said.

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