Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog


It’s Not Over Until the Fat Albert Sings!

Memorial Day and it’s only the 26th of May? We should thank the Calendar Gods for this unusual turn of events, a week of May left after this holiday. AND getting another Saturday (retail’s best day in our best month) is a real bonus. Thank you, thank you.

For those working in warmer climates who have been chasing their tails since February, it is tempting to breathe out slowly, look up to the skies and say “….ahhh, it’s over for this year.” But after a long and brutal winter, much of the garden industry team is hoping to keep the momentum going.

“Help Me Catch Up”!

On my recent coast to coast travels I have seen more consumer excitement this year than for several years, while the “sales numbers” are close to 2007 levels, even if overheads are now at 2014 levels! The season seems 2-3 weeks behind the recent normal, so in the colder climates many homeowners are just now making their first visit to a garden store. We missed the crabgrass control and the seed starting business there. Ah well. Maybe we help them catch up on the very late season by suggesting a 1 gal tomato or even a nice pre-caged 3 gal complete with green fruit rather than that little 4” pot they were considering. Maybe we should tell customers to jump the smaller perennials and packs of annuals for bigger instant-show sizes. It feels like April-May happened in a week and it could be 92 degrees tomorrow.

But in most of the country, Memorial Day kicks off summer entertaining and outdoor living: so consumers should now be decorating for next week, not next month. Those market packs and 4 inch sizes just won’t cut it but shoppers may not know that. Merchandising and one-on-one conversations should help customers with that reality. When temperatures climb in today’s garden world, the best laid plans for the bigger spring projects quickly get put aside in favor of decorating and for that they need volume and an instant show!

The truth is that some colder climate stores may have missed one of the (3-4?) yearly trips a consumer makes to a garden retailer. It might be awkward for the merchant or buyer who still has 5 weeks back-stock of small or earlier material but when consumers are playing catch-up, they need help to make that leap from early spring cheer to full summer in-your-face-decoration. That takes some preparation and training by owners and managers. It also takes some skills in silent selling (i.e. merchandising) and in sales conversations to skip those spring projects to go straight into full-sized, lush, restful summer landscapes, patios and veggies.

Summer Livin’

Meanwhile in the warmer southern areas, garden retail is now well into the summer decoration and outdoor living mode. This means a team focus on entertaining, decorating decks, hiding those ugly areas and having succulent fresh herbs even if there are still lots of unsold April-May material being watered every day. Yard Sale!

In the dry west, it will be harder to raise a cheer from staff who see freeway signs about drought every day and are themselves ready for a few slower weeks. But if consumers can’t get honest, experienced help in successful hot dry gardening, the industry needs to take a long hard look at itself. We should be the go-to resource center for all the concerns that homeowners have. What will the drought do to my mature shrubs and lawn? How do I keep my veggies going just as they are starting to produce crops? What can I replace easily next year or when it rains again?

Just like the farmers faced with less water, homeowners may have to choose between keeping alive short or long term plants. This will need help and support, for instance suggesting investments in long term items like mature trees that by now may be worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Employees should ask the homeowner’s priorities, “must-save” plants, how long they plan to stay in that property and so on. Help to reduce drought losses will build loyalty in the future.

Fat Albert Isn’t Singing Yet

So, it’s not over is it?! Now comes the third season of the year: in fact this year’s early Memorial Day might signal a BIG double season; helping catch-up in must-plant Food Gardening products AND a strong confident start to summer living. So plant that 5 gal tomato and fire up the barbeque!

May 27, 2014 12 Comments

Fall is for … Preserving?

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-per-year, the Lawn and Garden industry just got a nice soft delivery thrown its way.

photo credit: Lisa Baldwin (from our harvest!)

Oct 12, 2012 11 Comments