Value, Relevancy and Authenticity

March 20, 2013
Written by Brian Minter
It’s no secret that the sale of all horticultural plants in the United States has been in decline since the year 2000.
It’s no secret that the sale of all horticultural plants in the United States has been in decline since the year 2000. I do not have the Canadian data or believe it exists, but by close association, I think it’s safe to say a similar scenario has been happening here. Dr. Charles Hall of Texas A & M University has been tracking the U.S. data for some time. In the ’80s, Dr. Hall found plant sales were growing on average 14.5 per cent per year, and in the ’90s, the growth rate was still averaging 9.6 per cent per year. Sales levelled off in the year 2000, and they have been dropping ever since. Why? Well, both the U.S. and Canada have become urbanized countries in the past few years, meaning folks are living more closely together in various styles of units, leaving little outdoor space. Traditional homes with even small gardens have been replaced with tiny patches of lawn and patios.

Our bread and butter consumers, the Boomers, have been retiring for some time and downsizing as their children have left. Their new lifestyles are focused on travel, grandchildren, volunteerism and social activities. The younger Boomers still provide most of our business, as do the folks in the first wave of generation X, who are much more specific about what they want and prefer a more personalized approach.

They are also high-tech users and online purchasers who are well aware of where prices should be. The Y’s are brand aficionados who live for technology, are constantly engaged with social media and are not into plants.

These are some of the main reasons why traditional plant sales are not happening, but there are many more subtle causes, including that independent garden stores have not changed significantly to address the evolving lifestyles of all generations.

There was an incredibly important seminar at the Ohio Short Course last July that addressed the issue of plant relevancy in this new changing environment. Dr. Hall, Dr. Marvin Miller, the trend analyst from the Ball Corporation, and Stan Pohmer, a brilliant industry consultant, came up with three issues that could reposition plants and people: value, relevancy and authenticity. Before you dismiss this as old news, let me assure you the meanings of these words are quite different than you would expect.

The old values we apply to most plants and flowers are essentially over and have been over for a long time. We need to reassess people’s lives and reinvent values that are relevant to their lifestyles and their environments. Food gardening is a prime example. Folks of all generations, especially the Ys, want to grow not only the foods they like but also foods that have better flavour and nutrition. They need to do this mostly in containers and often they have minimal skills, time and patience. We were slow to pick up on this as an industry, but we’re finally getting it right with new foods like Brazelberries, high antioxidant “Gold Standard” cucumbers, and hanging basket hot peppers like “Renzo” and “Loco.” In other words, we need to offer  the foods they love to use in their culinary dishes and we also need to make them dead simple to grow and easy to harvest.

The new wave of aeriums – glass containers of all shapes and sizes, hanging and otherwise, filled with cool looking tillandsias, succulents and other super tough tropicals – is another step in the right direction. They are unique, self contained and very easy. Interesting cacti, ferns, new sansevierias, sago and ponytail palms, Lucky Bean and zamioculcas are the order of the day, along with bromeliads and anthuriums floating in glass dishes. Easy tropicals that help clean the toxins in homes are important to consumers.

Unique, cool hardy trees in pots that can be value added with lights is where consumers are going. Espaliered trees that screen out neighbours and grow in pots are a big part of their plant needs. Shade and flowering trees that grow in limited spaces and screen and provide shade are the next big thing. If they have colourful foliage, flowers or fruits, attract wildlife, sequester carbon and provide oxygen, so much the better. Designer plants that provide multiple and unique values are the ones that have relevance for today’s lifestyles.
Relevance means taking these new plant values that can add significant quality to consumers’ lives and presenting them in a format they will believe in and want to try. The challenge is to be relevant on their terms and with their beliefs and abilities.

This brings up authenticity. In our new world of mistrust, who can you believe? Which government, institution, charity, industry, philanthropic group, think tank or media outlet can you trust? Unfortunately, the answer is very few. Authenticity is an open, transparent and engaging way of communicating that needs to share both the opportunity and the challenge of anything. Bringing out the potential negatives along with the positives lends a credibility that has been sorely missed. It is also a process of matching the values of new plants with their relevancy and usefulness to each individual. In today’s new realities, one style meets the needs of fewer people – hence the trouble for RIM. How many styles of laptops, mobile phones, digital scanners and cars do we have today? And they keep coming!

Authenticity is matching the needs of each individual to a product that most closely aligns to those needs, while at the same time being transparent about the good, the bad and the ugly.

The sooner we understand the paradigm shift we need to make and connect new valued plants back to people’s lifestyles, the sooner we can turn the ship around. The “same old” has been over for quite a while and the opportunity to grow the plant business has a phenomenal future as long as we understand, believe and enhance these three new paradigms.

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