Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog

HerbswithFish

Inspiring Summer Customers Without A Word Being Said

 

As temperatures climb and that manic spring customer flow slows to a trickle some days, it’s always tempting to take a deep breath, look at sales YTD compared with last year and relax… ”it’s over”. There used to be a day when that was somewhat true, retail garden companies (and many of their suppliers) could put a “Gone Fishing” sign on the door and literally, go fishing.

Of course that’s still the case if you are living entirely on seasonal pop-ups – good for you, tell me how you make it work!

But for the thousands of owners, managers and team-members who have been in overdrive for the past 12-16 weeks, the reality is that you can’t afford to take your foot off the pedal. The costs of being in business don’t take a summer break.

Now that the consumer has found, bought and planted what they need (hopefully), we have to sell them what they might like. And given the summer temperatures and competing activities, we have to make the shopping experience as enjoyable and successful as possible.

Traditionally that has meant a customer finding an employee who, by a series of questions and answers, narrows down what they think best suits the customer’s situation.  This assumption is now seriously challenged by such developments as on-line research before customers leave home (over 60% for L&G shopping) and You-Tube videos on their tablets as they walk the aisle.  Let’s not forget the other reality – the cost and availability of knowledgeable labor. 

Hand-Holding May Not Be “Full-Service” Anymore

The full-service Local Garden Center channel is still far too dependent on knowledgeable employees. Even if you can find and hire them to hand-hold every customer, shoppers today are used to (and sometimes more comfortable with) “discovery” on their own. With on-line research increasingly common there is a lot less need to start every conversation from scratch. Customers just want to know if they are interpreting things correctly for their own situation. The retail center becomes a validation center.

Customers who have spent time researching their project, product, size, brand or budget, need much less “discovery” conversation with employees. What they need is guidance, validation, assurance and confidence-building.  Merchandising can do much of that too. Garden shopping is changing from an assisted treasure hunt to a focused project. The mantra might be “Research on-line, validate in store.”

Silent Selling Can Be Compelling

So, if you are able to take some time off and tour some of your peers or your competition, see what you can find in the way of exciting, persuasive merchandising or “Silent Selling” with a compelling value-proposition. Take lots of pictures (if allowed of course) and build a training session around them because exciting, persuasive value propositions are still hard to find. But that’s what shoppers want right now. A simple clear vision of the end result, the products, the how-to “recipe” and the price of the project (or the cost of not doing it!).

Despite all the “merchandising training” and the digital media now available it’s hard to find merchandising that inspires summer spending in this way – without a word being said. 

See what you find out there and let us know in the comments section below. Happy value-propositioning!

Photo by Ian in an English Garden Center 2008

 

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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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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
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Last Child in the Garden?

As old friends and relatives would confirm, I was never a very gifted do-it-yourselfer. Though like many I wallpapered, painted and tiled my way through life until I could afford to pay someone else to do it. But being raised by über-hobbyist parents (a “workman” in our house was unthinkable) I had a choice of things to help Dad with and, no surprise, I chose gardening. Not because I had a love of plants, but because I just HAD to be outdoors.  If I wasn’t playing footy or tramping the moors, being Mum and Dad’s gardening go-fer was the next best thing.

So when I harvested over 40 yummy winter squash the other day, it was just another day in the year’s cycle. But some who see the picture are in awe. While this is great for the ego, it shouldn’t be a big deal. Should it? It’s not like I brought about world peace. I just stuck two seeds in the ground and applied water – easy for me!

We constantly hear of the challenge of getting younger people up off their you-know-what and into the woods, fields or even their own back stoop. Surveys suggest that Americans of all ages could be spending 12 hours or more per day in front of some kind of screen!

Screened–in?

If “gardening” is not to become something in old movies and family albums, the industry supply chain and all interested parties need to write their own future. Otherwise the consumer or society will write it for them. And that might not be good. The future of the $40+ billion DIY garden/outdoor living industry in the USA is in the hands of those driving it now.

Now the topic of “connecting kids with nature” is becoming a hot one, garden retailers of all shapes and channels should be emphasizing that nature starts with the first step outside. Typically kids experience a garden space before woods and trails. Let’s start them right in their own backyard.

Baby Steps – Literally

This idea is not new, but is taking years to activate. After years of “food gardening” being the only real growth sector, how many locally owned garden retailers are now the community leader in this core activity?

I don’t expect Home Depot or Lowe’s to plow up parking lots and install how-to community veg gardens any time soon. But over half of the independents I know have spare land somewhere adjacent to retail. Many outdoor sales areas are too large, filled with slow-turning inventory. Why not become the place for parents and families to learn the ultimate screen-time antidote?

Why have long-standing, community–based “nurseries” not established themselves as the place with community gardens and local know-how? Why not partner with a local farmer or non-profit who wants to show their crops growing nearer to the market?

The “eating local” trend has opened up many opportunities for the smart, nimble independent.  Back-to-natural emphasis by “big retailers” from cotton to coffee brings added possibilities for garden retailers to become the local thought-leader. If corporate America is talking about bees and monarchs, can’t local nurseries use this to get the community off the couch?

Do you know how cool we could be?

With the clear trend away from DIY tree and shrub planting, America is set for years of decorating outdoor space and/or food gardening but most outside sales areas don’t reflect that. There is little if any emphasis on such entry-level successes as growing a few radish let alone squash. Garden center websites still feature trees, shrubs, roses and the like with little emphasis on “owning” the secrets to catching a firefly, photographing a hummingbird or growing milkweed for monarchs.

In the last decade the Home Centers have dominated garden retailing to which some purists still say “that was our industry, our product.”  As corporate America begins to put the pieces together for the consumer’s foray into nature, I would hate to hear similar cries of “We were the original outdoor retailers, we should have done that!”

Yes we were, yes we should.

So who has progress to report?

Reading Recommendation (& Title Reference):  The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv

Photo credit:  Ian Baldwin

Nov 17, 2015 4 Comments
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Crash! The 2015 National Gardening Survey Returns Us to Reality

An edited version of this story was originally published August 10, 2015 at Today’s Garden Center, the edited / published version can be downloaded HERE, or you can read this slightly-more-candid / pre-edited version, and share your comments below: 

There Is a New Elephant in the Room!

When I first saw last year’s National Gardening Survey (NGS) results from the 2013 gardening year, I was wary  of the massive jump (18%) in total DIY garden spending or 21% rise in spending per household, as that did not reflect what we were hearing from our clients out in the retail trenches.  So this year’s survey, showing a drop of 23% in total spending and 24% less per household, comes as a leveler. No behavior survey is perfect so we expect ups and downs, but we now have data from the same questions for over 30 years and the overall trend is pretty disheartening.

In reality the previous year’s numbers were an anomaly and this year’s report just shows garden spending returning to the doldrums of 2010 to 2012. (Well below 2008.) Now that’s disheartening.

Any Good News?

Yes.  Despite all the distractions available, householders are still “gardening”, though I suspect fewer consumers now use that word. Participation in gardening has been statistically flat for the last 5 years with around 70 per cent of all homes doing something. That is still eighty four million homes, a market many industries would love to have, but we used to be the nation’s sunny spot. Remember, less than 20 years ago, we were America’s “favorite outdoor pastime” with Martha Stewart hauling in great armloads of perennials and 4-5 gardening magazines at the supermarket checkout?

Well that “good thing” has changed to a so-so thing for many. You can almost hear them saying “If I have time and can figure out what to do – is there a good gardening app?”

The dilemma we face is that, despite all the competition for their time and money, householders continue to do something in the garden, but are spending less and less money doing it.  Even as household spending picks up again after the recession, garden spending has not. Has competition reduced unit prices? Are consumers still buying the same number of products as 6 years ago?  I don’t think so. If anything, with the exception of warehouse clubs, the price-driving “big box stores” have increased prices lately. Similarly the Local Garden Centers (LGCs) we know have steadily increased prices and all our clients show an increased average sale per customer (but maybe not from garden products).

Category High Lights and Low Lights

Fortunately, the shining star of the last 5 years – Food Gardening – has held its own and is clearly here to stay. This is the only activity that has steadily increased its share of garden spending since 2005. Everything else has had highs and lows.

Some individual products have done well despite the spending malaise. Cyclical spending such as machinery, as well as “maintenance” tasks like Insect Control rise and fall with need. Yearly spending to keep the property looking tidy such as Lawn Care and Flower Gardening have just declined at the same rate as everything else, but there has been no growth in any of these categories in the last ten years. The survey does not allow for more modern “color” planting using flowering shrubs, grasses and perennials instead of annuals, so this activity  probably continues to rise, which is great news given the higher ticket and extra tie-in products!

“Age Shall Not Wither Them”

It comes as no surprise that over 55 year olds are the biggest spenders of the age groups. This was not always the case. The 55+ group’s spending share averaged 37% from 2003 to 2008  it rose to 44% in the 2009 recession and has now reached the highest ever recorded – a staggering 51% in 2014. So the Lawn and Garden market is even more dependent on the Baby Boomers, just as they adapt to retirement, fixed incomes and health care issues.

At the other end of the spectrum, the recent surge in gardening by the youngest group in the survey, the 18-34 year olds, seems to have faded. Could it be they were tempted to try it and weren’t thrilled with the process or end result?

On Average, Things Are Not Even “Average”

Gardening is clearly not capturing the consumers’ imagination and dollars like it used to do. But because one year’s data is always suspect, we took a look at two sets of data, averaging results from 2009 to 2014 and comparing them with similar averages from 2001 to 2008.

The average household spending from 2001 to 2008 was $435, but from 2009 to 2014 it was $359. This explains why many LGCs (even the best) are still not seeing their sales top those of 2006 or 2007. It also validates the move by the sharper operators into other categories, departments and services as they see core gardening products stagnate.

Remember the NGS asks householders about garden spending irrespective of where they shopped. So if the whole retail sale is down and the national chains are increasing their share of a shrinking pie, it puts even more pressure on the LGC channel.

Unlike other recoveries after recessions, garden spending is not expanding as the economy improves.
“But My GC Peers Are Doing Well Now”

Yes. The surviving independents who weathered the recession are looking forward to some good years. The operative word is “surviving”. Think how many LGCs and greenhouses are no longer in business in your area or on your contact list. Did all that business go to the big guys?  Obviously not. The NGS tracks spending at all retail outlets, not just LGCs, in 16 activities from Lawn Care to Water Gardening. Results show flat to declining purchases over the last 10 years in everything but “Food Gardening”, irrespective of where they shopped. So most LGCs “growth” is probably from categories outside the NGS scope such as gift/décor, patio/outdoor living, food, apparel, Christmas, installation and so on. A good P.O.S. project might be to compare core garden department sales and customer count, before and since 2009.

What IS Going On?

The NGS data shows:

Total garden spending peaked at $39.6 billion in 2002

Spending per household peaked at $466 also in 2002

Participation peaked at 91 million households in 2005

If ever there were three statistics that called for “Re-Inventing Garden Retail”, these are they, yet we have clung on to the same model hoping for a better economy, more housing starts, improved weather, new politicians or whatever.  The garden retail model has worked so successfully for decades; consumers driving to a store (when they are open) and in their spare time(!) being told what to do and buy, then going home and hoping for success. This is clearly not the way forward.

Now think about how the consumer’s “spare time” has changed. In 2002 there was very little (if any) broadband internet, on-line shopping or streaming video. In 2005 there were NO smart phones(!), while Netflix mailed DVDs, Google was a start-up desktop search engine and Facebook was for Ivy League students!

Think of the burgeoning choices consumer now have to spend their discretionary time and money – most of it involving staring at a phone, tablet, computer or a TV.

The new Elephant in the gardening room might be “screen time”, estimated to be at least 12 hours per day for the average American adult.

So Is the Glass Still Half Full?

Absolutely.  Americans like gardens, they just don’t like “gardening.”

How did that happen?  The world seems to have defined gardening as hot, messy work that involves commitment, knowledge and some mysterious intuition, not to mention the expense and risk of failure?  Hmmm, that sounds like cooking too!   How did they manage to make cooking so exciting and desirable?

We have allowed others to define our image which, as any politician will tell you, is not a good strategy.  But despite this image, eighty four million households are gardening, with probably a few million more wishing for the end result.

We have to change the image. We need to talk about at-home entertaining or home grown veggies, family time with nature, kid’s projects, saving Monarchs, relaxation and escape, or pride in property enhancement and style. We should take nothing for granted and look at everything as an opportunity.

End-Game?

If you are looking to retire in 5-10 years, why care?  You will probably be OK as an owner, though employees might not be thrilled with the strategy.

But if you are building a saleable asset or a business for the next generations, the time to start changing is overdue. No one (least of all a consultant!) truly knows the future, but leveraging your skills and reputation into a garden-success-resource center or “village,” based on a wide range of services seems attractive. These might include conventional retail, with design-build indoors and out, at-home maintenance, garden-coaching plus mobile everything including real-time diagnostic services. There will obviously be great niches in up-scale life and outdoor living centers or gourmet food and cooking/brewing centers. I see a strong niche in all-natural, organic/local, environmental activities or decorating/party planning or a complete do-everything-for-me center. There are opportunities in agro-tourism, apparel, weddings, cafes, community centers and whatever your local market can relate to.

The timing is perfect now that “local” is in vogue as consumers turn back to their communities. Meanwhile most LGCs have under-used land and buildings, empty seasons, talented teams, under leveraged borrowing capacity and a safe, strong balance sheet.

But as the National Gardening Survey has shown for ten years now, there is no time to waste. Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines….!

What can you DO?  Some Calls to Action from the 2015 NGS:

Food Gardening Solution Centers:  Food gardening is the only garden category with consistent growth since 2008 but the plant portion of that spend is a small part of the total spend. LGC must get into the “Food Gardening” business not just the “Food plant” business and become the go-to retailer for every aspect from irrigation to raised beds (“Raised Bed” soil was a big seller at Home Depot this year) to canning supplies. All backed by how-to classes on You Tube and tasting/cook-off events. Celebrate your local-ness with local food how-to knowledge!

Drive Traffic: After 10 years of declining customer count, the immediate strategy for most LGCs should be to drive more traffic using a combination of competitively priced, driver-item products and categories that extend the season such as apparel, food, bird, homebrew, indoor gardening and so on.

Go Mobile:  Many younger consumers are interested in gardening but are very dependent on their mobile device. LGCs MUST invest in making their website and marketing methods “mobile friendly”. Generation Y is trending towards smaller independent retailers but only if they can find and use them on a mobile device!

Know Your Numbers: Analyze category trends (unit sales, dollar volume and customer count if possible) since 2006, just where IS the growth? Is it in gardening or all those other categories?

Look in the Mirror: Take a long hard, unemotional, objective look at your company’s image. Does it still look, feel (smell?) and operate like a 1995 GC? Profitable means more than just pretty!

Be the Answer Place (for New Gardeners):  Take a clear strategic look at what it will take to become the local community “One-stop, first-time garden/landscape success center, including “Do It For Me”. (Editor’s note: you probably aren’t as friendly and approachable as you think you are!)

 

*As a reminder the NGS is an on-line survey by Harris Interactive of a statistically representative sample of householders, drawn from a data base of 7 million households. The survey was carried out early in 2015 about a householder’s participation in and spending on gardening in 2014. The data is compiled into a 260+ page report, (available from The National Gardening Association). The NGS’s 30+ year’s history, gives us a huge database of consumer participation and spending.

Aug 17, 2015 16 Comments