Greenhouse Management magazine has published a report on "What do consumers want?" Plant brand companies Proven Winners and Ball horticultural conducted a consumer survey this spring and the results are here. The first thing we see is we call our customers "consumers". We can't pick on Proven Winners or Ball for this as it is wide-spread throughout retail. We are not individuals each with different want's and desires but rather consuming machines whose sole purpose on earth is to "consume" goods. I truly wish we could come up with a better term for the individuals that either shop at, or would like to shop at our stores.
The bad news is 11 million fewer households participated in gardening from 2005 to 2010. The average amount spent by household also decreased from $532 to $355. Ouch, that has to hurt and of course shows up in the rash of garden center closing going on around us. According to nursery consultant Ian Baldwin, "Younger generations are much less interested in gardening". Another interesting figure according to Proven Winners, "women make up 93% of the customer base". So according to the article we are supposed to, "continue to serve the baby boomers as they downsize and retire," and secondly, "we must quickly develop products, services, and programs that appear relevant to the lives of consumers under 44 years old." Great, our target market (matures) is shrinking and downsizing, and we are not relevant to people under 44. Quickly now, start becoming relevant!
It is a shrinking market and we are going to continue to see a shrinking trade. More small INGC will close, more wholesale suppliers will close, and more distributors will close. These closed businesses will not be replaced by new business, so we are going to see a continuation of the shrinking horticultural trades. This of course worries the large concerns like PW or Ball Horticultural. They depend on a broad market to sell their goods and are not good at niche selling, which is where the action is in the trade. So you have to look at these surveys with a certain amount of skepticism and an abundance of local knowledge.
Questioning someone like Annie's Annuals in the SF Bay Area about the percentage of annuals sold vs. perennials you might find they have results way different from the survey suggests. Go into any hydroponic shop in the area and watch to see the male vs. female ratio and you will find it is predominately a male customer base, and well below the 44-year-old criteria. The survey also asks, "What are you interested in?" with 10.78% saying perennials, 10.64% saying containers, 9.84% shade plants, etc. Where is the percentage of the one area the survey say's is growing, vegetable gardening?
I get a feeling we are trying to hold on to a way of looking at gardening that was more appropriate 10 years ago. There is no "average" gardener anymore. There are a myriad of different types and styles of gardening that get missed by these surveys. The surveys are really more appropriate for large concerns that try to appeal to a large swath of customers over a large geographic area. The survey tells a smaller garden center what? That purple is the favorite color for 2010? Remember how we we're told back in 2007 that DIFM (do it for me) was the next big trend? Many of the same people giving advice now we're telling us to jump on the DIFM bandwagon. How did following that trend work out?
We have been saying for years that the way forward for the smaller garden center was to "make the trends" rather than follow them. Again and again its businesses that create trends that set the course. There are lot's of them out there, but you won't find them listed in the trade magazines, or in these surveys. We mentioned Annie's Annuals, but there is also Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, which jumped on the organic bandwagon before there was a bandwagon. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, which this week is putting on the Pure Food Expo at The Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The Cactus Jungle in Berkley where they only deal with cactus and succulents (which didn't even show up on the survey), and make their own potting soil. Two Green Thumbs, the only miniature garden center around. The list goes on.
Don't follow trends. By then it's too late. Look out into your region of influence and find out what needs are being poorly met by the current players. Or better, create a whole new category that you can call your own. The smaller and more niche oriented your business the better chance you have of attracting, and creating "passionate gardeners".