Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog



As some of you may know I have been analyzing and commenting on the National Gardening Survey on behalf of the National Gardening Association for the last two years and it was a helluva time to start; just when American consumers seem to be walking away from what used to be their favorite outdoor pastime (yes, but that was 1997!). A quick glance at some of the key metrics or results from the 2011 and 2012 survey can be a pretty depressing read.

The Bad News

One number that got really got my attention was the spending per household per year on what the NGS calls “Landscaping”. In 2008 it was the biggest garden spending category, eclipsing “Lawn Care” which is the usual #1. “Landscaping” is the NGS term for the buying of trees and shrubs and all it takes to successfully plant them (DIY, not by a landscaper) so it includes purchases of the tools, mulch, stakes, fertilizer, irrigation and so on as well as the actual woody plants. Only 4 years ago this activity accounted for $11.7 billion or 32.5% of all DIY garden spending; by 2011 that number has dropped to $6.2 billion (a drop of 46% in just four years and 21% in just 12 months from 2010).

Wilting Tree & Shrub Numbers

The NGS is a consumer survey carried out by Harris Interactive with a level of accuracy (margin of error +/- 3 points) equal to political and other well respected surveys we take for granted. Even so some industry observers and operators have questioned the validity of the data so it was interesting to hear three clients in completely different parts of the country tell me of their woody plant experience. They had posted declines in Tree and Shrub sales (not including the associated hard goods sales which were not tracked separately for each woody plant sale in the POS) of 46%, 45% and 41% in the same time period – WOW.

High-Impact Woodies? 

In fact they (and other clients) added that in reality, there is little demand for what they call foundation plants and the only purchases of basics such as azalea or spirea are when they are in flower and consumers use them as seasonal decoration – like an annual. Retailers often add that consumers are spending “big” money on high impact woodies such as Hydrangeas or Knock Out Roses purely as a showy decoration for a weekend party or summer color, not caring much if it lasts through the winter.

Oh how things have changed! (Remember how those hobby gardeners would quiz you endlessly about guarantees?! )

The glimmer of hope

This huge drop is not just due to a stalled housing market or flat economy. And it won’t just bounce back when the economy and the housing market recovers. There just is no capital intensive DIY gardening going on right now, in rich or poor neighborhoods. It’s all about maintaining and decorating – just one more sign of a changing market and a changing consumer’s view of their garden. Remember, the glass is half full: if there are consumers willing to spend a few hundred dollars on woody plants they see as disposable, that is one attitude shift we can surely leverage!

Photo credit: Paul Anderson

Aug 31, 2012 8 Comments
tomatoes3 Ian Lucy and the Veggies

Walkin’ the Talk: How Do You Score?

We all know that the veggie boom is lasting longer than most (including me) thought it would, so as a writer and speaker who has been urging retailers to get serious in providing the “how-to” for their customers, I thought I should show that I do walk the talk. 

…showing some of my ‘credentials’

Bucolic Morn

It was calm and cool today so we walked over to the veggie garden to see what happened during the last few weeks of a busy travel and work schedule. Almost exactly an hour later we had harvested over 50 pounds of onions, 30 pounds of potatoes and a staggering 37 pounds of tomatoes – from just two plants of one variety, a mini-Roma type called “Juliette”! This crop will be preserved to add to the 12 jars already “in the can” as it were.

“The Answer Lies in the Soil”!

We’ve had a veggie bed, the height of one 2×12 board, running about 80 feet long by 12 ft wide for around 10 years producing the usual tomatoes, peppers, squash, egg plant and summer beans, plus Swiss chard, herbs, arugula and a hefty crop of spuds. I start the whole thing off with yummy fava beans (aka broad beans in the old country) planted in Feb and harvested in May. We have been very good about composting, tilling in all our Fall leaves and adding green manure, plus up to last year, the wholesome contribution from our donkey Earwig (R.I.P.).  So we now have about 10 inches of beautiful organic soil sitting on the heavy native clay of the California Central Valley.

An Irrigation Situation

Automatic watering is essential in our climate but with me coming from England and Lisa from Michigan we had to figure it out as we went along. After much trial and error, and no help from the local retail garden  industry, we settled on a faucet-based timer feeding on to a “ring-main” of ¾ inch black distribution pipe and “flag” emitters for each plant like a tomato or pepper. For row crops such as beans or spuds we lay a ¼ inch soaker hose running right down the row.

To Know Is To Grow

If this sounds like a bit too much detail, well it is but I am making a point (I hope). We both have Horticultural degrees, a lifetime in the garden business and parents who did this every year. Meanwhile our city-based friends are amazed when they visit and can’t contemplate what it takes to achieve what we take for granted.  New homeowners or offspring on non-gardeners face a pretty steep learning curve just to get a few “wins” let alone grow enough to enjoy months without supermarket veggies. Many consumers are clearly inspired enough to try an –off-the-grid approach to their veggies or at least to buy from Farmers Markets or CSAs and this trend is NOT going away any time soon. Healthier food is “IN.”

Does your “how-to-succeed” offer pass the beginner test ?

The retail garden store (of any shape, size or channel) should surely be the how-to place where a consumer can leave with confidence and excitement. They need assurance that it is do-able. They need short cuts, how-to tips and local-based information. They want to know they are not crazy and that it won’t absorb their entire waking hours. More than anything they need a first-time win at actually doing it (however small.)

So, how does your marketing, image, website, You-Tube how-to-succeed library, product selection, POP, employee training, visual merchandising and seminar offering help the first timer, or the dubious second-timer? Do you even carry all that is needed (don’t forget the timer)? What about preservation of produce? What about bed preparation and crop rotation for next year? Do you show how to scale all this down to a few pots on a patio (“Basil on your balcony in 3 easy steps”)? Will your next year’s veggies shopper score an easy, first time win to encourage a repeat performance, or will they head for the Farmer’s Market shaking their heads at what might have been?!

Aug 20, 2012 11 Comments
LondonBridge britishflag_2crop

Rule Britannia!

Sorry, this might be badly typed (badlee tiped?), because it is hard to see the keyboard with so much Olympic GOLD reflecting in my eyes! I am not sure whether we put something in every other country’s tea or what, but to give Great Britain’s medal haul some context: we got one gold in Atlanta in ’96 and when I was younger I recall 5 or 6 gold was the norm. This time with home field we have more gold than Russia and total medals way above all but China, US and Russia – a fact which is pretty hard to believe. It just goes to show what can be done with a bit of leadership and focused vision.

Sitting Down Sports

After Atlanta in 1996 I suspect that someone important in government (Tony Blair was elected in 1997) called a crisis meeting and rallied for serious public/private sector investment in sport (knowing they was going to bid for the 2012 games I suspect even then). Knowing what they could NOT dominate (e.g., track & field) they looked at sports that went with the weather, were already done in Britain (if badly), and would generate private business opportunity too.

So GB at the moment seems to own cycling (the Brits who starred in the Tour de France, Wiggins and Cavendish started on the sprint programs) and are pretty good in rowing, equestrian and sailing. As I heard it described on the BBC the other day, GB excels at the “sitting down sports!”

What I found interesting is that on the back of their best-ever performance in Beijing, they are now winning medals in things they would never have thought possible: diving, gymnastics and even the long jump (first win since the 60’s I think). So, they are now much stronger in the core activities having built athlete and public confidence on the opportunistic events first.

The  Garden Center Lesson

Yes, it’s my blog so I can go on a bit with country pride – but there is a story here for GCs:  In the same time-frame (since 1996), many owners in the garden center retail business in North America left their core activities to the box stores and hardware stores, developing strong offers in other opportunistic products (personal items, home décor)  attracting a wide range of consumers and markets. Perhaps it is time to use that image and customer confidence to strengthen the offer in core products and return to garden success again…? (Okay, I know it’s a stretch for an Olympic tie in!)

I will watch the closing ceremonies with pride for both my homeland and my adopted USA – both have had a spectacular and inspiring showing in the Games this summer.

Aug 12, 2012 Comments Off on Rule Britannia!

What’s Happening Out There?!?

I am getting frequent emails from retailers asking the same question, using phrases like “it dropped off the cliff in June” and “Where IS everybody?” The launch of this new blog seems a perfect place for me to share my opinion with you – I look forward to using this as a forum to share insights and observations and hope that you’ll find it valuable to you – please join in, add to the discussion in the comments.

So where are we now?

I think we are in the middle (i.e., it started at least 6 years ago but with the silly housing boom no one noticed) of a transition in consumer attitude and behavior towards “Gardening”. We’ve heard for a while now that almost all hobbies are in decline. People are hunting less, fishing less, crafting less and so on. Hobbyists live the hobby. If your hobby is fly fishing, half the fun is in researching and tying the fly, not just catching the fish. The process is as rewarding as the end result and you don’t mind if it takes months or years or you get wet/cold. The gardening industry was fueled by consumers (and employees) who thought the same way about gardening. They loved to spend their whole year reading, researching and networking to improve their garden or landscapes. The media weighed in with several year round gardening magazines, now it is tough to find any — and HGTV seems more like HTV whenever I catch it.

We are becoming suppliers to a public that increasingly sees gardening only as a seasonal “must do”, hence the “off-the-cliff” situation when they feel they’re done for the season (or it gets hot/wet). Next season they may come back unless something else gets their attention but in between spring, fall, Christmas we are not seen as essential or “must-make-time-for” places.

Ugh. Where’s the good news?

But the good news is that even in a recession, householders are still doing small, around the house projects such as painting a bedroom, replacing a screen door or screening-out a nosey neighbor. And the USA has 116 million households! This is a wonderful opportunity for the L&G business if we re-present or package the project as a quick, fun, even family weekend activity. Instead of painting a room why not plant fresh late-summer veggies in pots of your deck (“Sugar Peas by Labor Day”) Basil on your balcony? We can show you how to do that. Hiding that nosy neighbor? We have all you need.

We are seeing a change in commitment. The L&G industry has to adapt to a consumer which thinks of us as a place to get them started in spring with flowers veg or lawn care or as a place to get solutions and products for their quick weekend projects.

We can do this, but it will take some work.

We have the products, the answers and talent to become much bigger than it ever was when depending on hobbyists; but only if we re-invent ourselves in the consumer’s mind.

(photo credit: taylorschlades)

Aug 6, 2012 5 Comments