I am delighted to report that there has been a welcome upturn in the conventional garden business. In other words consumers are buying flowers, veggies and lawn food again – hooray for that. There was a moment in July when it looked like the American householder had forgotten that their yard, garden or patio traditionally involved buying, replacing or maintaining some type of plant! Most retailers I know had “horrible” Summer numbers, not just in sales figures but, more worryingly, in transactions or register rings (some people call it “Customer Count”). This was not just a local thing in one area with bad weather, it seemed national in scope with comments like “No one showed up” or “Business dropped off the cliff from mid June”. So to hear that September was up substantially in sales figures, on an admittedly poor 2011, pretty much across the country in all retail channels is nothing but good news.
What would be even better news would be knowing what is driving it.
To some extent there is no choice for many homeowners. After 4 years when spending on the garden and patio was pushed down the priority list in many households, they can see that their biggest asset, their house, is starting to look tired and less attractive to a buyer. So at least that will drive people to a store to buy flowers, a few containers and some lawn food, maybe even some pruners to attack those tryphid-like shrubs. Consumers realize that the least they have to do is to protect and preserve what they already had or owned.
Is the home-grown, fresh veggies boom driving some traffic?
I think so, especially in areas of the country where (if you know how) you can get a late crop of all sorts of fresh greens, winter squash or root veggies and a great start on next spring before Jack Frost arrives. Also, now that many feel competent about growing a juicy tomato, the intrigue of preserving some of that summer bounty might be catching on in younger generations who didn’t learn it from their parents like I did. When I was a kid in England I was cheap labo(u)r for everything from painfully picking gooseberries to cleaning countless jam jars. From June to October the house always seemed to smell of jam or chutney!
Riding the Trend Wave
Some retailers I am glad to say have encouraged this food-preservation trend with tasting events, classes and supplies, others have not. One garden center owner complained that he couldn’t make money on canning supplies but his store just had a shelf or two of jars and lids sitting there for those consumers who knew what to look for (and probably knew their prices as they bought them somewhere every year). There was no promotion, tastings, eye-catching merchandising, cute signage, themes, events, classes, experts on-hand or items bundled into E-Z success-kits like “Make your own Pesto sauce” or “Preserve your luscious tomato flavor all through the winter” and so on.
It takes some imagination and a bit of work, but if we have managed to win the consumers’ trust to grow their own, we can surely be the credible “How-to” center that helps them keep those wax beans, onions or hot peppers on-hand until next summer. Why not use their own tomatoes for those winter pasta or pizza evenings instead of buying a can?
The fact is that consumers have spent on what made them feel good all through the worst recession in recent times. One of those feel-good themes is eating out. (Have you tried to get in to a decent restaurant on a Friday night lately?) Meanwhile the press coverage of better food for kids and the number of cooking programs on TV continue consumer awareness of eating local and better. What could be more local than their own backyard or better than their own basil?
Here comes a softball…
Retailers should be constantly watching the market looking for new opportunities, doors opening. The door labeled “Food Gardening” just offered yet another chance to re-connect with the consumers who are jazzed by their tomato success but are mystified by tales of preservation, canning or even worse “Putting Up.” It is on-trend, not executed well by the supermarkets or boxes, and a natural extension of the core of gardening. In the constant game of looking for one-more-visit-per-household-
photo credit: Lisa Baldwin (from our harvest!)