Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog

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Reading the Mid-Spring Tea Leaves

For garden retailers in the warmer climate zones, the week after Mother’s Day is slowing down, over the peak, saying “now we have to work harder for it.” In most colder climates, Mother’s Day sales were down (this year at least), in some places seriously so, as May swapped weather with March. But in both climates it’s no time to relax (May everywhere pays wages for weeks ahead). It IS time though to read some mid-spring tea leaves in case you are staring at that still-massive inventory number….

What’s selling?

Succulents, succulents, and oh did I mention succulents? Any shape, color, size and style are flying off the shelf this year, and if you were smart enough to invest in added-value versions in planters and arrangements – even better. Aligned with that, I see all things naturelle with wood, stone and moss in those added-value lines. Small, simple and intense – which may reflect the influence of TV and other media on the under 35’s, with their minimalist homes and no-clutter styles. Surprisingly then is the strong demand for garden art and deco, maybe that’s the Boomers getting their own back. Another significant tea-leaf, off-the-charts demand for “Do It For Me” tree and shrub planting suggests that despite TV news and politicians, a lot of Americans feel good about spending the money on things they no longer want to do.

What’s not?

The DIFM surge might also be causing the fall in tree and shrub sales after a great year last year, but poor weather is also a factor. The earthy stone/wood trend above might also be the cause of reports that finally, after 20 years, sales of high color, high gloss, large ceramic pottery, is flattening out. Garden décor is hot but in a matte-finished, earthy or rusty way it seems.

Unsurprisingly, independents are reporting a drop in “hard goods” or garden supplies especially in controls or “chemicals” (as us old lags still call them). I think householders are using less in total anyway and most independents have lost the battle with the home centers for various reasons, the biggest of which is the (incorrect) perception that every single product on every single shelf must have a 50%+ gross margin. In fact, the home centers have used that victory to now present themselves as the one-stop shop for hard goods AND green goods, but that’s another blog for another day.

Serious tea-leaf analysis needed!

I talked to an owner who was questioning the strategy of his “chemical” category after he pulled a POS report (yes in mid-May!) showing that the 202 items sold in the “Insecticide” sub-class took 68 Stock Keeping Units (SKUs). Think about that: after the busiest weekend of the year, each SKU had only averaged 2.9 sold (out of, presumably, a case of 12). As he said, he was amazed at the sheer volume of SKUs to generate moderate sales. Food for thought and a validation for a comment from Jim Sullivan on my last post.

So, sharing is caring … leave a comment letting us know:  what are your mid-May surprises?

Photo Credit: Upscale, “stone” succulent arrangements made in-house at The Greenery (Taken by Ian)

May 13, 2016 12 Comments
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Helping Customers Succeed – The First Time

I know most people are up to their neck in spring and don’t have time to read my ramblings, let alone hold meetings to implement new ideas. But I wanted to record what I am seeing out there just in case some readers were able to use it to help their customers succeed – the first time. The industry is changing because the customer is changing, as my analysis of this year’s National Garden Survey data shows.

Walk any type of garden store (I’ve seen 12 in the last few days) and watch shoppers, especially the younger novices. You can see confusion bordering on panic on some customers’ faces as they read every bottle or plant label, asking each other “what’s the difference between these two?” They have bought into the concept of outdoor fun with the kids or healthy home-grown food but matching the dream with reality is another matter.  “Fear of failure” is the main drawback to increased garden spending at times like this.

So, keeping it brief for Mother’s Day weekend, here are some questions/queries to use for your training or critiques in the next few days:

  • Do displays/signs assure first-timers (e.g., ‘Easiest succulent we carry!’)
  • Is wording simple and encouraging, or botanical and fear-inducing?
  • Are there simple bundles such as “Perennial Success Kit” or “Fresh Potatoes Without Digging”?
  • Are the top 15-20 selling plants accompanied by their essential tie-in products and how-to info?
  • Are guarantee signs positive and pro-customer, or defensive and pro-company?
  • Is there an information desk? Is it always staffed by happy, competent people?
  • Are customer success stories and reviews shared online or on site?
  • Are online how-to videos promoted at the point of purchase for customers to access as they shop?
  • Is there help line/website reference or at home consultancy available for after purchase questions?

How much money from the customer’s “Fear of Failure” is being left on your table for another year?

Let us all know how this questionnaire played out!

Photo by Ian, taken at Family Tree (KS)

May 5, 2016 5 Comments
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Let’s Sell Emotional Values!

The phrase “The Value Proposition” is marketing-speak for “In return for your money (or effort or time etc.), you get this” and is worth more than an academic glance. Just look how the “Mad Men” in advertising have used that simple premise to help us all to part with our money for decades:

–          Concerned about that daunting list of side effects in a medication ad? (Sure, but just the idea of not sneezing every five minutes in spring makes it that a deal you can accept.)

–          Excited to turn over all your home TV and internet to one giant cable company? (No but you DO like the idea of watching whatever you want, when you want.)

These types of ads carefully craft a message of emotional benefits (the outcomes of the purchase), while the garden industry mostly still features the technical details. From propagator/manufacturer to retailer we see garden product ads, signs, labels or training manuals that are heavy on product functions (“Spreader-sticker” anyone?).

We see “Takes partial shade” instead of “Fill that bare spot under a tree” or “soaker hose” rather than “Waters gently like Mother Nature”. Maybe THAT’S why Americans spend more per household on Pizza than on gardening!

Marketers realized years ago that consumers spend more easily on emotional benefits than on functional ones. That’s why people drive miles to save gas money, so they can spend it at their favorite restaurant!

With competition from the smartest marketers on the planet, the lawn & garden business should spice-up the (sometimes necessary) technical language with words that suggest the product benefit (outcomes!) in simple emotional terms. We have highly marketable products with infinite emotions from excitement and joy, through pride and accomplishment, to solace and peace. We have things that taste great, clean the air, increase property values, reduce utility bills, create privacy, enrich lives and save the planet. But we still talk or merchandise to the public in technical or hobbyists terms. Just look at what “Mad Men” do with soap, drugs or insurance and think of what you could do with gardening!

So instead of “quick grower, 6ft by 5ft, $99” how about “Hide the neighbors for under $100”? Or for “3 months continuous feeding” substitute “Feed and forget” (with a 90 day reminder to buy more).

Train to Think Like the Customer

Team training should focus on the end result, not the process, as employees make the emotional value proposition: emphasizing the cool style of succulents or the fun of a child measuring a sunflower.

In training meetings I have found employees so anxious to tell the customer every single fact, they miss the essential motivator – the emotions of the end result. Stressing “things they need to know” means that emotional values like the fragrance of lilac or tasting that first tomato are missed. I even heard one experienced manager telling a customer “I think you’ll find it worth the effort” when she balked at digging a big hole for a shrub!

So let’s see more emotional values from the entire supply chain:

  • Let’s read about “A green lawn for 90% less than a lawn-care service” (money-saving is a MAJOR emotional benefit!)
  • Let’s see plant labels spelling out nostalgia like “Grandma’s Lilac” or the fragrance of Old Roses
  • Let’s suggest the environmental satisfaction of creating a Monarch haven
  • Let’s see POP with “Basil on your balcony” for apartment dwellers and “Hops made easy” for home-brewers.
  • Let’s hear employees talking of “Relaxing sounds of wind chimes” or a fountain that “Hides the sound of the dog next door”!
  • Let’s see displays that call out “Best herb for grilling steak” in the myriad of herb choices.
  • Let’s focus on those emotions that entice consumers to save on gas and spend it in this industry!

… and finally, let me know what you come up with: happy propositioning!

Photo by Ian, on the road somewhere

Apr 27, 2016 6 Comments
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Simplicity – A Twelve Point Test

 

In most of the USA and Europe, garden retail makes money for three months, breaks even for three and loses it for six! So it’s understandable that retailers want to expose their customers to as many products as possible. They even have a phrase for it; “Peak the Peaks!”

Add to that pressure, the constant supply of new or re-packaged products (don’t even get me started on the yearly deluge of new plant varieties) and the businesses are bursting at the seams. Aisles become narrow canyons deterring shoppers while inventory obscures signs meant to help. Everything is so jammed in, nothing stands out.

Time Crunched

Now see it like today’s customer. There are now fewer hobbyists who love discovery shopping and more time-crunched project shoppers. You can see them every spring, like deer in the headlights with 25 minutes (“tops”) to get what they need and get out of there. Faced with shelves of similar packets or benches of seemingly identical plants they are forced to read labels or bags (then go on-line to see if it’s true!) Sure they could wait for an equally stressed employee, who already has five others hovering around her and hasn’t had a break for 5 hours…

Customers don’t know what they don’t know so de-mystifying 5,000 to 20,000+ SKUs in 25 minutes is not the fun experience they expected. Choice can kill impulse and current garden retailing is SKU-ing customers to death (or at least into under-spending!)

The retailer must become the first “filter” of what shoppers need to complete their project. That is the real goal of a retail buyer; providing the sales team with a range of products already narrowed down for quick, easy-to-follow sales or merchandising. Are your buyers focused on that?

I know it is too late to thin out the shelves or cancel orders for this spring (maybe that’s a summer project before the 2017 buying season!) but use these questions to walk around each department. Consider your inventory through the eyes of today’s intrigued but hesitant consumer:

1.       Is pricing readily understood by all (or do customers have to ask someone)?

2.       Are customers led from impulse to wow to inspiration (or do they just wander around)?

3.       Is layout conducive to grab-and-go shopping?

4.       Are signs simple, fresh and understandable? (“4 in perennials” anyone…?)

5.       Is there a “Fun ideas for a weekend project” area to give ideas?

6.       Does the POP simplify shopping by narrowing down the choice to a few solutions?

7.       Is sales language simple and confident reflecting expertise and local knowledge?

8.       Do displays attract, inform and inspire in just a few seconds?

9.       Does merchandising say “look no further, this is what you need”?

10.   Are projects, such as planting an herb garden, sold as a one-stop kit of plants and hard goods?

11.   Is there a full-size mannequin, mature display bed or photo-banner to show the project’s end result?

12.   Overall, do the products and displays simplify customers’ options or just create more questions?

 

Let me know how it goes and stay tuned for next week’s blog post on making the emotional connection.

Photo credit: taken by Ian, showing the brilliant idea by the team at Weston Nurseries, MA

Apr 19, 2016 14 Comments
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Three Steps To Help Customers Spend

 

Another spring arrives with national brand TV ads reminding America to get out in the garden, but also brings thousands of new items on the shelf or bench. We are not making it easier for customers to spend!

Consumers are eager yet hesitant to start gardening. Excited to feel the sun, share little discoveries with their loved ones and drool over their first homegrown tomato. But hesitant about the shopping process and memories of last year’s failure to launch.

Many customers this month may not have been garden shopping since last Memorial Day! Meanwhile, they’ve found even more ways to use their “spare” time. Gardening is now up against binge-watching the latest Netflix release. Shoppers are faced with “ConSKUsion,” more products to consider in less time. The world has changed since 2006: has the retail journey in your store (or on your website)?

So as 85 million households invade garden retail stores and/or websites, put yourself in their muckboots and walk through their expectations in your store.

They may be looking for a few “destination” items (tomatoes or weed killer) but are prepared to buy a lot more (and stay longer) if the experience is fun, easy and time-effective. In the next 10 weeks your customers want:

1.       Simplicity when they shop

2.       Emotional Value as they buy

3.       Success when they use it at home

How simple is it to find those destination items and understand all the verbiage? “Fear of Failure” is constantly cited as a reason for low spending, even in high-earning households.

How much emotional value is there in the sales message? Does the team or the merchandising connect the dots during the shopping process? If customers imagine their dog on a safe, weed-free lawn or the “cool” comments they’d get about their succulent planter, they are much more likely to justify the value and make the purchase.

What are the chances of success with the product – be honest!? People in the industry tend to forget how hard it can be to keep living things alive (I hear the same disbelief from a “techy” when I have a problem with my smartphone….)  But failure this year means even less spent next year by those customers.

So, use these three basic concepts: simplicity, value and success to critique your store this spring and tell me how you scored.

Tune back in for the next subject coming up in the spring blog series: “Simplicity is the Word.”

Happy spring!

Photo Credit:  Ian Baldwin, taken at a should-not-be-named retailer

Apr 8, 2016 10 Comments