Reconnecting to the Next Generation

July 26, 2007
Written by Brian Minter
In a world that has made a significant move away from the activity of gardening, it is time to take a serious look at our future gardening consumers. Time poverty, smaller living spaces and lifestyle issues are some of the major reasons that we, as an industry, are not as relevant to today as we have been in the past.
In a world that has made a significant move away from the activity of gardening, it is time to take a serious look at our future gardening consumers. Time poverty, smaller living spaces and lifestyle issues are some of the major reasons that we, as an industry, are not as relevant to today as we have been in the past. As the demographics of North America change, the important challenge now is how can we connect or reconnect to the next generation.

At the 2006 American Nursery and Landscape Association’s (ANLA) Management Clinic, in Louisville, Ky., one of the most insightful, educational sessions involved a panel of young folks from across the U.S. Representing various backgrounds and incomes, they provided their views on the relevance of gardening in their lives. Some very clear messages came through:  they did not know much about it; did not have a great desire to participate in gardening; and did not feel that shopping in garden stores was a terrific experience. Wow! Are we listening?

Other comments were equally interesting and also contained significant messages. They might be interested in gardening if someone took the time to come to their homes to show them how – for free, of course, if they purchased the plants. Many of the women visited a garden store to purchase gifts, such as  containers and hanging baskets, for their older relatives and friends who they thought would appreciate flowers and plants. It was clearly not a choice they would have made for their younger friends or for themselves.

The disconnect between these younger folks and our industry seems enormous but as we move forward, these are the people that we will need to depend on as customers because there are lots of them.

In her book, Mind Your X’s and Y’s, Lisa Johnson identified generation X as people born between 1965 and 1979 and generation Y as people born between 1980 and 1997. Last year she estimated that there were about 62.1 million generation X’s and 74.2 million generation Y’s. These are really significant numbers because that is getting close to half the American population! We can be sure that a similar ratio would apply in Canada as well.

Currently, baby boomers are the dominant spenders, but as they age and begin to retire, as many are doing, their interests are changing. Soft adventure travel, golfing and RV escapes are high on their list of priorities. The activity of gardening is still on their list but it is changing to container gardening as they downsize their homes. They also prefer that someone else mows the lawn, prunes the hedge and makes their containers and baskets.

The X’s and Y’s have grown up in, and adapted readily to, a highly technological age. They look at the world differently and easily absorb, segment and integrate today’s fast pace of change. They are masters of multi-tasking and are very connected.

Johnson very carefully defines and differentiates between the X and Y generations. She has put together 10 consumer cravings that will better help us understand what these folks are looking for in their shopping experience. She also sets out some very clear parameters of how they view the world, what they expect as consumers and how they have the potential to make or break a new product through blogging.

As an industry we truly need to understand that the X’s and Y’s have a high expectation for transparency. They expect the truth, quality information and when something doesn’t work out, a full refund. They check products out on the Internet before they buy, compare pricing and buy online. If they are unhappy, the world knows it in about 10 seconds.

They also like to deal with places that share ideas and are receptive to input and criticism. It is not about selling herbs; it is about the unique flavouring herbs can add to their soups, salads and drinks. It is about providing them with a better, personalized eating and drinking experience.

Our X’s and Y’s are very much into experiencing their individuality in many different and seemingly disconnected ways. How they dress, what they choose to eat, the way they customize the technology they use and where they shop may seem disparate but that is their reality. While boomers may purchase pre-made containers, X’s and Ys would prefer to create their own to reflect their very personal and eclectic style.

Starbucks, Target and Apple Computers are just a few of the retailers who have made a strong connection to the X’s and Y’s. Based on information from the Louisville ANLA Management Clinic, virtually all the X’s and Y’s loved to shop at Target. “Expect more and pay less,” perhaps sums up a huge part of their success. Apple’s product innovation and Starbuck’s customizing and personalizing of drinks have certainly made a connection with these two groups.

Clearly we are on the outside looking in at these young consumers. Ironically we have so much to offer their lives, but we have not taken time to truly understand their lifestyles and how we can plug in.

As an industry, we are well positioned to create, nurture and grow this relationship. From the Louisville session, it is clear we have not made a great first impression. Our attitude towards these groups has to change from one of ambivalence to one of genuine interest, concern and understanding. We need to present ourselves as inspiring, honest and willing to teach them how to add value to their lives through plants. We also need to create ways to make the plant xperience adventuresome and fun.

The environment is our trump card because it is very important to them. We should be playing a leadership role in explaining how the planting of trees, lawns, fruits and vegetables can make their lives and their children’s lives better and healthier. We need to shift their thinking from the work of gardening to the joy of creating artistic landscapes and containers and the satisfaction of growing their own food.

The Ball Company has done a great job of showing how plants can personalize the office or home by adding value in accessorizing. They have introduced plants, like Isolepsis ‘Live Wire,’ as funky and innovative to appeal to the younger generations.

Perhaps the closest connection we can make is with food. In a world now full of viruses and bacterial problems, growing one’s own vegetables, herbs and small fruits, even in containers, has great merit. In New Zealand they’ve made a huge effort to make food planting exciting through a garden centre program called “Incredible Edibles.” This is a terrific approach and has great X and Y appeal.

Above all, we need to make plants a “wow” experience, and the shopping, planting and enjoyment needs to be presented in a way that makes all our customers feel great, but more personalized for the X’s and Y’s. This is the beginning of reconnecting to the next generation upon whom we will depend for survival. Let’s plug in now!

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