Malaise and Mobiles and Midterms, Oh My!

Nov 2, 2014 3 Comments

Based on recent conversations with local garden center (LGC) owners, I am sensing a selective malaise afoot in the nation, depending on product and demographic.

In terms of product, it’s easy to see where the money is going right now: smart phones and systems. Lisa and I went to the Apple store on Thursday to get a case/cover for her new i6 Plus – $40 for a piece of colored molded plastic, no moving parts, bells or whistles – they probably have less than a couple of dollars into it.   (The store was totally jammed and we probably bought the cheapest thing in there that day.)

Yesterday I went to my mobile phone carrier’s store (by appointment or a 40 minute wait) to get help with my too-smart-for-me phone. Again the place was jammed at 9am.

If you take a look at the options that both these companies offer for “essential” spending as a smart phone owner (i.e., 70% of the adult population and probably 90% of your customers), it is pretty impressive. While talking about lowering your monthly fee and giving free minutes or kilobytes, they try to sign you up for all manner of vital extras (an international navigator even though never leave your own county, ad-free Spotify for those songs you never missed until they were on-line, a redundant set of backup data protection and so on and so on).

I read somewhere that the average cell phone bill is now over $250 a month per household and that’s $3000 a year they are not spending in our industry.

Sadly, I have no a-ha moment ideas to share, but we should certainly talk about the ease with which these companies “sell up” from their basic low-price product/service. Every associate is trained accordingly. There is a learning somewhere for LGCs in this process. Those “phone stores” used to be a place to pay your phone bill and buy a new wall mount, and they have become a totally immersive high-tech service facility in the last 15 years.

What has garden retail done in the same time frame?

In terms of demographics, we have 85 million households participating in some form of gardening (yeah!!) but many of them are living paycheck to paycheck. America hasn’t had a raise for years and along comes a “must-have” $250 a month cell phone industry.
(There goes our lawn food budget.)

On the other hand, some LGC owners are telling me that fall has been strong on color, decorative and small self-indulgences and Christmas has started strongly. Talking in more detail to a few operators suggests that it is the bigger, more permanent ticket items that have stalled, especially woody stock. Even those with landscape divisions and re-wholesale departments concur, consumers are simply not committing at present to as many big ticket perishables as they used to in a plan or project.  Is this because they are influenced by those high energy landscape TV programs full of kitchens, swing sets and pavers? Or have several years of winter damage made householders tree and shrub shy?

I think one of the main reasons we are seeing that malaise is the uncertainty of future paychecks, so they are buying low cost / low risk or fun and immediate gratification. The midterm elections and the political rhetoric swirling around on every media channel certainly aren’t helping with that sense of uncertainty.

The good news is that consumers are not turning their backs on a good looking, value-enhancing, fun outdoor space around their homes – our challenge is to figure out how to maintain a share of that business! Re-inventing Garden Retail remains the name of the game (or at least re-presenting Garden Retail).

I look forward to hearing your thoughts: please leave a comment below (or just Facebook me, since I have an upgraded data plan now and I am ready for this brave new world!)

Image credit: Rickyysanne via morguefile
  1. john heaton
    Nov 3, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    nice thought provoking thoughts.

  2. Jack Davis
    Nov 4, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Ian, I have to agree. Using plants to decorate and/or for immediate gratification is strong and will continue. Another opportunity is for industry to do a better job at promoting the increase in value and salability of well landscaped homes. This would certainly boost sales of higher priced shrubs, trees, and perennials. I continue to be amazed at all the homes, old and new, that have little or no landscaping. Let’s take some of the money going to kitchen remodeling! There is plenty of information out there to build a case.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Nov 20, 2014 at 11:09 am

      Jack, my apologies for a tardy reply; we were in England for a few days where the garden retail scene is rapidly becoming the food, cooking and cafe scene. You make a good point on the value of plants in people’s lives and homes, there is a huge opportunity. With the exception of Scotts Miracle Gro who are addressing the subject more aggressively now, there are no suppliers remotely big enough to raise the nation’s awareness. The big box home and garden retailers that have the resources have not yet shown much sign of using their marketing resources on this challenge. There is no national “voice” for the value of green is there? Cable TV audiences are so small that even those high-energy garden makeover programs can have little national effect. Who/what is going to move the green industry’s needle? With 86 million households participating in “gardening”, but severely under-spending when compared to their other household improvement projects, the upside seems big enough to tempt Wall St to have a go but someone has to take the first swing…. Great topic Jack, thanks!

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