Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog


Connecting the Consumers’ Gardening Dots

I have been analyzing and commenting on the National Gardening Survey for the last two years and in 2012 I also dug deep into their tri-annual “What Gardeners Think” (WGT) study too. Whereas the annual National Gardening Survey asks consumers WHAT they do and spend in the garden, WGT seeks out the “WHY”. In this excellent survey we can see consumers’ attitudes, likes and dislikes about the activity and the industry that supplies it.

Since this survey came out, several questions and their answers have stuck in my mind as I travel around to visit garden retailers, so I thought I would write a short blog on several of these topics over the next few weeks. It might be worth you walking your stores with these consumer likes and dislikes at your “Top of Mind.”

A question that continues to resonate with me simply asks consumers for their biggest garden challenges, here are the top few answers in priority:

  • 1. Weeds
  • 2. Soil conditions
  • 3. Insects
  • 4 Too little water or rainfall
  • 5. Animal pests

The National Gardening Association told me that the top three challenges above have not changed since the survey began. So if the consumer still feels the same challenges, yet garden spending continues to decline, does that mean the L&G industry has not “made the sale” to America? I think it does.

Despite numerous pretty and strong emotional “end-result” ads on TV (e.g for Scotts lawn food), we see pallets of weed killer and lawn food, mountains of soil amendments and gallons of insecticide sold purely on price at retail. Pile it high and watch it fly –  to those who know what to do, how to do it and what price to expect.

To the other millions of poor souls who are intimidated by or ignorant of our products – good luck! (It’s like me plucking up the courage to go into an electronics store for a new cell phone).

There is rarely a word in garden retail about the emotional outcome, such as the status or pride of a perfect lawn, the joy of pretty flowers in great soil or the taste of a worm-free tomato.  After a hundred years of selling lawn food why has no one come up with a retail sales line like “The Perfect Lawn for only “x” cents a square foot per month”?

Why are insect and other controls stacked together on the retail “Wall of Death” instead of being bundled into projects for the weekend or solutions that talk directly to the consumers’ fears or challenges?  Got kids and pets – try all these remedies over here. Stressed for time but want fresh veggies? – invest in this bundle and all you have to do is pick, wash and eat!

The American consumer has shown in this recession that they will continue to spend selectively on items or experiences that have connected with their emotions (purses, jewelry, cruises) by saving money on items or tasks that show little obvious emotional value. So they search for savings on A to self-indulge on B.

On which side of the perceived-value fence do you want to be?

Feb 20, 2013 7 Comments


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