Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog

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The Rise and Rise of the Under 35s

Right now most owners and managers in the retail garden business are in “can we catch up with budget?” mode after a late, cold spring season and are probably not worrying too much about demographic trends. So mark this as a “should look at this again after Memorial Day” doc and circle back when you can raise your head above the trench.

The Cavalry is Coming

Talking of military analogies the cavalry, in the form of the under 35 year old householder, is coming over the hill to save the garden industry – just in time, as female Boomers continue to disengage.

As an Analyst and Commentator for the 2018 National Gardening Survey (NGS) (www.gardenresearch.com) I have the opportunity to look at the data regarding the American consumer’s participation in and spending on “gardening”.

First let me say that we (i.e. the NGS team) do not fixate on a single year’s data, even though both gardening spend and retail sales hit all-time highs in 2017 – which would be very tempting headlines. But we do look very closely at consumer spending trends over 6 year periods and even more crucially at the participation data. People remember what they did last year more accurately than what they spent last year.

In fact the 77% of all USA households who report doing something in the garden IS the highest ever in 35 years of the NGS. (Which other industries selling non-essentials can claim a 77% participation? But I digress.)

While participation in gardening stayed flat among households of those over 55 years of age, it continued to rise in the households of under 35s. They are not yet spending the same amount of money as their older siblings and parents but they are now seriously engaged in more than just houseplants and veggies. Under 35s have caught up with older groups on participation rates in what were until recently bastions of “settling down” such as DIY Landscaping, Container Gardening (no hole-digging for them) and purchasing tools or equipment. I think we can now say that the under 35s are “all in”.

Load, Read, Fire!

Nestled in the 250+ pages of NGS data, something caught my eye. Twenty years ago, the NGS showed that the biggest consumers of “Gardening Information” were females over 55 years old. The 2018 NGS shows that same data point to be the under 35s and male…. Hmmm. Furthermore, they are buying information online the way people bought magazines 20 years ago. Although we are always cautious about one year’s results, millions of households say they acquired a gardening app last year alone!

Failure is Not an Option

Not only does this fact confirm the switch to digital media, it also suggests that this age group is serious about getting it done right the first time, AND that they are comfortable using silent information at least in the first stage of how-to learning. As if to confirm the confirmation, I also found another little factoid: The under 35s have shown steady growth in using the Do It For Me services of landscapers. It seems that the more affluent under 35s are much more prepared to employ others to do some of the garden chores than the previous generations were at the same stage in life. That’s another – BIG – hmmm…

So, what are you doing to meet, welcome, educate and assure younger householders’ success in their digital space, so they get it right the first time? That would seem the best way to win their loyalty. To them, first-time success is an essential part of the ‘shopping experience’ about which we are now hearing so many clichés.

Please join in the comments, let us know how you are tackling this huge opportunity – when you can raise your head above the parapet!!

Happy selling!

photo credit: Portland Nursery’s Instagram Account

May 21, 2018 2 Comments
2016-02-24 10.58.38 2016-02-24 10.58.38 TreeHouse_Jammin

Laboring with the Future

Notwithstanding the surplus of Nor’Easters on the east coast and a “River of Rain” on the west, the calendar says it’s spring and consumers are absolutely dying to do something in their gardens.

So, what are your exciting anticipation points this spring?

  •   A stronger economy increasing the average spend?
  •  Droves of excited new consumers as Millennials finally get gardening?
  •  The continued surge in sales of houseplants, succulents and other millennial “stuff”?
  •  A shortage of some plants as landscapers vacuum up supplies?
  •  On-line sales and advice challenging your status quo?

Nope. If I ask that question to owners of garden retail stores the immediate response is one, ever-present word or subject – Labor. “How are other companies you know finding people? What are they paying or promising? How are they keeping them?”

This year’s garden retail business story is all about Labor, or the lack of it.

The short term answers for this year include paying more than you think the job is worth, offering several part-time positions for each full time position, end-of-season bonuses, raising prices to cover increased labor, reducing some categories that just soak up labor hours and quite frankly, doing without.

Time to Change the Model

I think this is the kick in the seat the industry needed.  For years the garden business has depended on finding thousands of educated dedicated people to work long and hard for average earnings because they loved the product and the process. The “secret sauce” of the business model was that our work force held the essential information for consumers who loved the end result of gardening, but were fearful of failure.  Householders had to come to our stores if they wanted assurance and success.

Well, no more. Now that consumers can source, research and buy so much on-line, retail employees are no longer the first-providers of crucial how-to information. That powerful position is gone forever (and it was powerful).

The role of retail teams has changed to one of validation or correction of what consumers have already learned. Employees are now in effect the curators (I hate this word, sorry) of all that on-line information, the selectors of all those products and mentors of all those on-line promises. They are now there to advise which particular soil exists in this area, what the best hanging basket plant is in their location, how many pounds of potatoes you realistically can expect from those cute fingerling things.

Of the three bedrock principles of garden retailing (Quality, Selection and Service), Quality is now a given while Selection is now universal. Only Service can be a unique differentiator, but it can’t be hand-holding service any more.

Silent Running

This role still takes education, professionalism and passion too, but much of it can be delivered by “silent selling” on-site with re-thought merchandising and signage and You-Tube type videos. All of which means a very different use of those valuable employees but in the longer term requires less on-site educated year-round help.

This might seem like sacrilege to the traditionalists but consumers are so used to (and some even truly PREFER) self-service on-line from Amazon to car insurance that even a partial hand-holding garden retailer has the competitive advantage. The retailer still holds the cards with credible, knowledgeable employees helping where necessary, still local, still passionate.

So I think we are finally moving to a model where shoppers can browse, read, learn, view and buy “silently” or be helped by a few very credible and helpful people on patrol – a bit like one of my favorite stores, REI.

This eventually means we will have less employees by design… but they will be making more money (and that must be nothing but “a good thing” as someone once said).

But for this year, what are your short-term tactics to get you over the labor challenge? Let us know in the comments: sharing is caring!

Photo Credit: taken by Ian at TreeHouse Store in Austin TX

 

Mar 28, 2018 15 Comments
IB_SucculentMules_Sunnyside

So, How Was It For You?

It’s been a busy summer of travel, conferences and clients making me remiss in the blogosphere, which makes now the perfect time to say: “So how was the garden retail business for you in 2017?”

I was guilty-as-charged in being distinctly bullish about prospects for a banner year this year. The economy is firing better for most (though not all) people than it has done for years. We see a soaring stock market, rising household income and talk of a $1000 cell phone. Landscapers and housing contractors are sold out for months (years in Utah, so I am told), while there is just enough inflation around to encourage some much-needed price raises. It should have been a banner year, just like 2016 should have been too. But neither year reached the expectations of retailers that I know. I see reports that one of the home centers is up 6% in sales across the board, but much of that was contractor-driven. Meanwhile plant and hard goods suppliers I know say it was “just so-so.”

Two steps up, two or more back

Most independent garden retailers saw a modest, 2-5%, rise in sales, but a smaller or flat traffic count with a compensating rise in Average Sale, just like the last 15 years. But rises in sales were largely due to the price rises that I (and others) urged retailers to adopt. Given the ever-rising costs of business some might even say they went backwards despite an increase in the top line sales. Yes it was a poor weather year for many, but there has always been weather – this is something else.

So I am officially declaring that for the first time in my lifetime, the DIY garden business hasn’t surged after a recession – and it’s not going to under the current model. There has been such a fundamental change in the consumer’s lifestyle and demographics since 1983, 1990 or 1999 that history is not a good guide here. What worked for the last 45 years isn’t working.

Let’s analyze before we strategize

But before we “de-construct,” as they say in trendy circles, let’s hear what happened from the trenches: your trenches. I have good data that shows the DIY sales leaders this year were such categories as indoor plants, (green and/or blooming), succulents, edibles, pottery, personal (think purses, jewelry, apparel etc) and self-indulgences (everything from big blousy hydrangeas to YETI). Meanwhile normal-sized “color” was flat and “woodies” were down significantly in DIY business (unless you have lots of new homes locally).

In other words, consumers decorated a lot… but didn’t dig much.

So, how was it for you? What were your category winners and losers? Did you see “decorating” as a major revenue stream and invest in it, or were your buyers still buying like it’s 1997?

I look forward to hearing from you as we “re-construct” the garden retail business together!

Sep 21, 2017 30 Comments
Sickles Outdoor Living

Raising Those Prices: The Follow Up!

If you are reading this, it must be raining or you just need some light relief, time is valuable for companies receiving 50% of the year’s sales in 10 weeks!  When I said the next blog would about quick-fix increases, little did I know that some of our blog readers would weigh in with such great examples. Thank you for sharing from the trenches:

1.       A Little Can Go A Long Way

For starters, think of easy small increases on big volumes. Adding 25 – 50 cents to something that sells thousands of units in a few weeks, like 3.5 inch vegetables or annuals yields significant extra margin dollars, without raising a flag to customers. Even though it requires extra labor hours to adjust the POS, the work is a good investment. Another advantage of this tactic is that most of these increases can be covered by simply changing the price on a shelf or bed-talker rather than individual item pricing. Just remember to keep those few Known Value items competitive!

2.       Affordable Luxury

Now, think of substantial increases on high ticket lines, which move slower but impact sales when they do. Identify specialty lines such as finished custom-planters, large individual specimen plants, “hot” or unique lines in your area. The things that consumers buy infrequently, such as patio furniture (hot after a recession lull), high-end-grills, upscale yard-art, statues (also hot this year), fountains (ditto), plus high-end or larger pottery: things that often have a value perception based on pride, ego, status or self-indulgence.

Larger increases of $25 to $100 on these less-frequent purchases in the $250 to $2500 range would certainly cover the cost of changing the price. Think of your “outdoor living” décor items that people have gone without for the last few years such as arbors, trellises, shade structures, lighting and benching. Specimen plants have higher value perception. Things like Japanese maples, multi-stemmed birch, flowering dogwoods, trellised fruit or larger trees for shade and privacy also fall into this category. Look at larger plant sizes in the more basic lines that tell a story such as “Hide the neighbors for $300” and sell the emotional benefit.

3.       Convenience Has a Value

A 3-gallon heirloom tomato showing fruit turning color is worth $40+ to many consumers. A pot of fresh, still-growing herbs is worth double those wilting bundles from who-knows-where in a grocery store. Pre-planted pots to “Grow Your Own Salsa” have a higher value-perception as do roses in gorgeous fragrant flower or ready-to-eat snap-peas on a mini-trellis – never mind what the landed price was!

Finally: D.I.N. – Do It Now

Although it might seem too late to change this year, read Ron Vanderhoff’s comment on my last blog (March 28th 2017). Do not wait until the next receiving cycle to enact these new strategies – that could be a whole year away and business costs are rising daily. As product is received, inventoried and put into retail, ask yourself, “what could I get for this item?” Then ask yourself if the total extra cost of changing the price is more than made up by the extra dollars gained. If the answer is “Yes,” Do It Now!

In closing, if you click through the link up there, you’ll see that the interaction “in the comments section” is as valuable and thought-provoking as the original post! So we’d love to hear from you:  what is one item or category you have changed the price on this season, or one surprise you found as you started to investigate pricing?

Ka-ching!

photo credit: by Ian, taken at Sickles Market

Apr 17, 2017 8 Comments
Heirloom_PriceOppty

Aim High This Spring!

Recently I stayed at a (moderate!) hotel for three nights each of which was priced separately at $129, $161 and, wait for it, $234! When I asked the front desk why, they immediately reduced the third night back to $161. They just dropped it over 30% without protest. Clearly they were pricing to make some money off those who were unaware or just didn’t care.

That’s not my suggested strategy for garden retail this spring! But the incident once again underscores just how much “padding” other consumer product pricing has built into it: does yours?

Since my last blog post, I have met over 30 independent retail owners and walked many stores to continue the discussion about price raises this year. Most answers were too timid and non-strategic. Yet at the same time, I hear every job-applicant asking for a higher starting wage than last year.

A client told me that unless he raises sales by $200,000 (on a total of $3 million) he will be “going backwards” this year, due to his state’s rise in minimum wage.

One owner circulated my last blog to his team but his managers and buyers came up with NO suggested products to raise prices on, even though they had asked for wage increases. Employees can find it hard to connect those dots, often judging retail pricing in the context of their own household income. Unfortunately many retail employees don’t think they can afford to shop where they work! Pricing is strategic and has to be driven down from the top, sorry.

This is the year to (finally) make some money!

The 2017 reality is that household credit card debt is approaching 2008 levels, car sales are at record highs while planes, restaurants and cruise ships are full again. It may not be equal in all demographics or regions but many American households, especially those who shop at independent retail garden and hardware stores, are spending again.

In many independents, 70% of sales revenue is spent on Inventory and Labor.  Conservative price raises on these major costs are 3-5% on cost-of-goods and 4-8% on labor rates in the first half of this year. So if your sales don’t increase by 5-6% you are indeed, going backwards. The choice is clear: raise your prices 5-8% or sell a lot more units.

But most supplier prices are set in summer, so today’s prices were set last year. Rumors in the green goods side of the industry suggest 10-15% increases for 2017-18, so retailers had better make some money this year!

Be aspirational, not apologetic!

Twenty years ago garden retailers became used to sales increases of 10% per year – aaaaah, those were the days. Today, we have let ourselves become over-cautious, influenced by the last few years of recession and we need to snap out of it, now!

Pricing increases should be big enough to be aspirational for the team, something managers can get behind as a rallying cry for the year’s business.  “Shoot for 15% and settle for 12%” as an associate of mine with years of senior leadership in manufacturing and retailing behind him would say. You won’t hear corporate America politely asking for 3-5%. I’d like to bet that numbers of 10-12% are being baked into binding, job-preserving goals all across the country. What are yours?

Next topic, coming soon:  quick-fix sales increase ideas before it’s too late this spring!

 

Photo credit: taken by Ian

Mar 27, 2017 16 Comments