Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog

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National Gardening Survey: A Roadmap to Opportunity

For three years now I have been privileged  to be asked to analyze and comment on the huge amount of data contained in the annual “National Gardening Survey” (available for sale from the National Gardening Association).  Now that the report is published I can share a few “ah-ha” data points to get you thinking (though this barely scratches the surface of the 260 page document!)

In the good news category:

• Household participation (now 85 million households) in gardening is up 2% over 2011;

• Participation in all but one category increased (“Pet & Bird” stayed flat);

• Food Gardening increased for the 6th straight year and is now a lot bigger than “Flower Gardening” in spending power;

• The biggest rise in spending by demographic group was in 18-34 year old males (this might even qualify as GREAT news!)

But here’s the (still) bad news:

Average annual spending per Household is down $4 to a miserly $347 (less than they spend on pizza in a year.)

Overall, the three year trend towards decorating, small-project fixing and food gardening continues with little sign yet of capital-intensive full scale DIY landscaping. So while homeowners are increasingly more willing to get out and garden than they were 3-4 years ago, they are still not spending like we all want them to.  Gardening has an image of hard work, time consuming and risky-at-best to many consumers, although they seem to want to give it a cautious “go”.

“Woe is us! Consumers just don’t get it, they’d rather blow their money on clothing and reality TV, what’s wrong with them?”

Is it the Weather? Not on a national scale: there’s always weather somewhere.

The Economy? Yes, a little (…but remember that pizza number!)

Is it Time and Lifestyle? Yes – a lot:  and there’s the rub.

In the battle for consumer’s time/attention/money, the lawn & garden industry is competing against some of the best marketers on the planet — from movies on demand to electronics — most of whom have invested in making a compelling “Value Proposition” to the consumer to buy their stuff even in the midst of tighter financial times. In the meantime, too many L&G decision makers are still telling themselves, “oh, we’ll be fine when housing comes back and the economy picks up”.

(Will we? Or will we have already lost our customers’ attention to other pastimes?)

In reality L&G has so many emotional benefits to offer our customers: from increasing a home’s value to healthier food or outdoor time as a family. We know it — but we have simply not made a compelling case. Decision makers in all stages of the L&G chain simply MUST put more effort into getting this message across to consumers.

If you’re in the business of selling lawn & garden products to the American consumer, the insights in the National Garden Survey can be invaluable in helping you focus on areas of growth and opportunity (like those 18-34 year old males!) If you don’t have time right this moment to read the 250++ page report, here’s one of the critical core messages to get you started this season:

It’s time to build a compelling value proposition to communicate to your customers:

  • Figure out the cost per week of DIY lawn care vs. services who will ‘do it for you’
  • Tell them the cost-benefit of what a spiffy front yard does to home values … in order to sell them a “5 seasons of containers” program, tree installation, or DIY landscape design service.
  • Price-compare the pricey packets of fresh herbs or lettuces in the grocery store vs. a plant that can be harvested all season.
  • Hook their emotions about the taste of their first home-grown tomato, or the joy of seeing a child entranced by a humming bird.
  • Clearly demonstrate that your products can solve their problems:  a soft and safe lawn for kids to play on or a plant that won’t get eaten by deer (as shown in the clever signage in the header captured at Sickles Market in NJ).

It’s important to remember that customers don’t already know everything that we do about the ways that gardening can improve their life, but they do seem increasingly ready to listen:   It’s time for us to clearly communicate that value … and then GO MAKE THE SALE!


May 28, 2013 8 Comments

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

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
tomatoes3 Ian Lucy and the Veggies

Walkin’ the Talk: How Do You Score?

We all know that the veggie boom is lasting longer than most (including me) thought it would, so as a writer and speaker who has been urging retailers to get serious in providing the “how-to” for their customers, I thought I should show that I do walk the talk. 

…showing some of my ‘credentials’

Bucolic Morn

It was calm and cool today so we walked over to the veggie garden to see what happened during the last few weeks of a busy travel and work schedule. Almost exactly an hour later we had harvested over 50 pounds of onions, 30 pounds of potatoes and a staggering 37 pounds of tomatoes – from just two plants of one variety, a mini-Roma type called “Juliette”! This crop will be preserved to add to the 12 jars already “in the can” as it were.

“The Answer Lies in the Soil”!

We’ve had a veggie bed, the height of one 2×12 board, running about 80 feet long by 12 ft wide for around 10 years producing the usual tomatoes, peppers, squash, egg plant and summer beans, plus Swiss chard, herbs, arugula and a hefty crop of spuds. I start the whole thing off with yummy fava beans (aka broad beans in the old country) planted in Feb and harvested in May. We have been very good about composting, tilling in all our Fall leaves and adding green manure, plus up to last year, the wholesome contribution from our donkey Earwig (R.I.P.).  So we now have about 10 inches of beautiful organic soil sitting on the heavy native clay of the California Central Valley.

An Irrigation Situation

Automatic watering is essential in our climate but with me coming from England and Lisa from Michigan we had to figure it out as we went along. After much trial and error, and no help from the local retail garden  industry, we settled on a faucet-based timer feeding on to a “ring-main” of ¾ inch black distribution pipe and “flag” emitters for each plant like a tomato or pepper. For row crops such as beans or spuds we lay a ¼ inch soaker hose running right down the row.

To Know Is To Grow

If this sounds like a bit too much detail, well it is but I am making a point (I hope). We both have Horticultural degrees, a lifetime in the garden business and parents who did this every year. Meanwhile our city-based friends are amazed when they visit and can’t contemplate what it takes to achieve what we take for granted.  New homeowners or offspring on non-gardeners face a pretty steep learning curve just to get a few “wins” let alone grow enough to enjoy months without supermarket veggies. Many consumers are clearly inspired enough to try an –off-the-grid approach to their veggies or at least to buy from Farmers Markets or CSAs and this trend is NOT going away any time soon. Healthier food is “IN.”

Does your “how-to-succeed” offer pass the beginner test ?

The retail garden store (of any shape, size or channel) should surely be the how-to place where a consumer can leave with confidence and excitement. They need assurance that it is do-able. They need short cuts, how-to tips and local-based information. They want to know they are not crazy and that it won’t absorb their entire waking hours. More than anything they need a first-time win at actually doing it (however small.)

So, how does your marketing, image, website, You-Tube how-to-succeed library, product selection, POP, employee training, visual merchandising and seminar offering help the first timer, or the dubious second-timer? Do you even carry all that is needed (don’t forget the timer)? What about preservation of produce? What about bed preparation and crop rotation for next year? Do you show how to scale all this down to a few pots on a patio (“Basil on your balcony in 3 easy steps”)? Will your next year’s veggies shopper score an easy, first time win to encourage a repeat performance, or will they head for the Farmer’s Market shaking their heads at what might have been?!

Aug 20, 2012 11 Comments

What’s Happening Out There?!?

I am getting frequent emails from retailers asking the same question, using phrases like “it dropped off the cliff in June” and “Where IS everybody?” The launch of this new blog seems a perfect place for me to share my opinion with you – I look forward to using this as a forum to share insights and observations and hope that you’ll find it valuable to you – please join in, add to the discussion in the comments.

So where are we now?

I think we are in the middle (i.e., it started at least 6 years ago but with the silly housing boom no one noticed) of a transition in consumer attitude and behavior towards “Gardening”. We’ve heard for a while now that almost all hobbies are in decline. People are hunting less, fishing less, crafting less and so on. Hobbyists live the hobby. If your hobby is fly fishing, half the fun is in researching and tying the fly, not just catching the fish. The process is as rewarding as the end result and you don’t mind if it takes months or years or you get wet/cold. The gardening industry was fueled by consumers (and employees) who thought the same way about gardening. They loved to spend their whole year reading, researching and networking to improve their garden or landscapes. The media weighed in with several year round gardening magazines, now it is tough to find any — and HGTV seems more like HTV whenever I catch it.

We are becoming suppliers to a public that increasingly sees gardening only as a seasonal “must do”, hence the “off-the-cliff” situation when they feel they’re done for the season (or it gets hot/wet). Next season they may come back unless something else gets their attention but in between spring, fall, Christmas we are not seen as essential or “must-make-time-for” places.

Ugh. Where’s the good news?

But the good news is that even in a recession, householders are still doing small, around the house projects such as painting a bedroom, replacing a screen door or screening-out a nosey neighbor. And the USA has 116 million households! This is a wonderful opportunity for the L&G business if we re-present or package the project as a quick, fun, even family weekend activity. Instead of painting a room why not plant fresh late-summer veggies in pots of your deck (“Sugar Peas by Labor Day”) Basil on your balcony? We can show you how to do that. Hiding that nosy neighbor? We have all you need.

We are seeing a change in commitment. The L&G industry has to adapt to a consumer which thinks of us as a place to get them started in spring with flowers veg or lawn care or as a place to get solutions and products for their quick weekend projects.

We can do this, but it will take some work.

We have the products, the answers and talent to become much bigger than it ever was when depending on hobbyists; but only if we re-invent ourselves in the consumer’s mind.

(photo credit: taylorschlades)

Aug 6, 2012 5 Comments