Ian's Bits & Bobs: The Blog

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


After working on and with garden retailers through at least 7 Presidents and several Popes I feel as qualified as the next man to weigh in on the current branding issue. Do I think garden retailers should be their own brand? Yes. Do I agree that they should not carry brands consumers can find elsewhere. No. Do you think independent garden retailers should carry their own brands? Yes and No. Huh?

First you have to define what goes into the brand memory of a consumer or their reaction to brand exposure. Branding is way more than a slogan or logo, service experience or after-sale reputation. It is all those things and more. Branding is the effort to create and hold a positive, value-based image in the consumer’s mind. So it encompasses any and all contacts with the product, the company, even the message itself. A measure of brand value is the retained impression. So EVERYTHING impacts the brand value, from the employee’s body piercings to the amount of tomatoes produced by that “heaviest cropper”.

Brand Value for Independent Garden Retailers

The brand value for most independent garden retailers is the shopping experience and the after-sale success with the product or service. Sure the retailer can go to private label in hard goods and/or annuals but if that complicates the shopping experience or reduces the end result, the brand gets a negative score in the consumer’s mind – period.

Independents are proud of their reputation, experience and information for good reason. But the end result is what matters to the consumer and they trust the retailer to be on their side in that quest. If that means carrying brands the consumer is familiar with and have confidence in, then so be it. To not carry a national brand seen on TV that morning confuses even the best customer who might think “If it’s the only name in gardening I know, why don’t they carry it?”

National Brands Can Make the Shopping Experience Better for Some

I had a spirited discussion with a manager a couple of years ago when I asked why he didn’t carry ‘Round Up’. He explained that they had an independent-only brand with the same ingredients and gave a higher Gross Margin percent, adding that they serve all their customers and tell them it is the same as Round Up only better.

To me, this makes as much sense as a grocery store not carrying Coke or Pepsi. How much more business could they do if they switched that employee from justifying their short-sighted policy, to selling to those consumers who genuinely needed help to spend real money? Way more dollars on the bottom line than they’d lose on a few bottles of herbicide.

National brands can be self-service: making the shopping experience better for those get-in-and-out-quickly customers, as well as for those too nervous to engage in conversation and go somewhere that they know carries the brand. (And there are indications that younger generations, having done their research on-line before they arrive in the store, don’t want to be “served” anyway.)

The Bottom Line

So, do I think retailers should have their own brands where feasible? Yes, but a 2 (not 3, 4, or 5!) brand strategy covers all the bases; the confidence and self-service of known names plus the differentiation of your own “image”. But remember that the memory of the shopping experience and after-sales success IS the brand image for most retailers. The experience and end-result is the lasting value, not the name on the label.

(photo credit: mr_write)

Jul 28, 2012 6 Comments