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Growing in the Green: Forecasting spring sales activity

April 4, 2008  By Melhem Sawaya

Whether it’s a good season or not pretty much depends on the … weather

For many – if not most – greenhouse operations, the spring crop brings 70-80 per cent of their income. For some growers, it’s 100 per cent.

As I am writing this article, seeding, rooting and planting are well underway. By the time you are reading these words, it will be only two to three weeks before the rush to ship the spring crop.
There are many factors involved with growing, shipping, selling and getting paid for the crop, and, more importantly, having a happy consumer who wants to buy more plants next season because his or her experience with gardening was successful and fulfilling.


Despite all these variables, there is one factor that unequivocally stands out and that is the weather!

In producing a crop, we follow certain criteria:

• Dates to plant.

• Temperatures to grow the crop.

• Watering and fertilization regimes.

• Light levels.

Effective signage is well illustrated here.

All of these are calculated to meet a certain selling period with a product that is in its prime. I am assuming you are following a schedule and practices that worked for you in producing that optimal crop in previous years. However, how do you adjust for weather changes or periods of less-than-optimal conditions, such as cloudy or sunny days for extended periods, or enduring rainy days when you’re ready to ship?

Here are some suggestions that will help you in smoothing out the weather ups and downs.

We have certain dates to plant a crop. Hopefully, these dates are fine-tuned through the years so we can grow the crop with the least production time but still obtain the highest quality

Over-programming a crop is always a bad idea. For example, a pansy crop sown in late summer – to avoid heating costs – for spring sales has been proven to be less economical to produce. It also results in a poorer quality product. Further to that, giving a pansy crop only enough time to get the first set of flowers, without providing for temperature toning, is just as bad because pansies are scheduled for early sales. If the crop is not acclimatized to handle cold temperatures, consumers who buy these plants early risk having them freeze within a day or two of their purchase. This guarantees losing a customer for a long time. They will probably no longer buy early pansies if they buy pansies at all. This is simply another good recipe for negative marketing!

On the other hand, if we give our pansies enough time to root, and we drop temperatures gradually to meet the sales dates, we are then providing a fresh product well conditioned to handle early spring temperatures. Then, and only then, are we a factor in positive marketing.

Providing extra time for toning is a good idea when growing crops to handle cool temperatures. However, avoid overdoing it, so that your crop ships fresh. Also, if we have to hold them, we can drop temperatures for cool crops and buy some time.

Some crops cannot take cold temperatures. These should be programmed for late sales and only given the minimal growing time to be ready. Some examples are vinca, angelonia, lantana, coleus and even the perennial hibiscus. These crops, if used for early sales, will result in an unhappy consumer, because 95 per cent of the time, the plants will die or be set back to the point where the consumer will dig them out and replace them. Even worse, they will give up on gardening for that season. He or she will also be less enthusiastic about buying plants next season. If that doesn’t put a damper on plant sales, consider also the number of other gardeners those consumers will talk to who will also not buy that product.

On the other hand, the same customer will be much happier if he bought the same product in late May or early June, fresh, to be planted in generally warmer weather. This is our cheapest, positive marketing vehicle.

When we are growing plants, important interactions take place among three main factors – water, light and temperature. These factors are the main essence of growing a plant but not the only ones. Manipulating these factors involves the skill of a grower in achieving a high quality product.

We can control the amount of water and the temperature in late winter and early spring and, up to a point, we can reduce the light intensity when it is sunny. However, manipulation is especially important when we have a few days of cloudy weather:

• Reduce watering.

• Drop temperatures by  4-5ºC below levels for sunny days.

There is not one garden crop that requires lower light levels, but there are crops that cannot handle high night temperatures. Knowing this, we should try to cool the greenhouse by venting rather than pulling shade curtains. This should be our first response, and if we cooled things as much as we can and it is still too hot, then and only then should shading curtains be used.

This will produce a stronger plant acclimatized to handle the summer sun and won’t be scorched as soon as it is planted outside. In our trials (Sawaya Garden Trials), I planted two pots of non-stop begonia. One was grown in full sun all the time and the other was under a solid canopy of hanging baskets. The plant grown in full sun kept growing without any setback, and the pot under the hanging basket blackout burned totally. Which growing practice is the negative marketing process and which is the positive?

Toning plants is not only important for the ultimate consumer – the gardener/home owner – it is just as important for retailers. That same product, if shipped without being temperature-toned or grown under high light exposure, will look like garbage and no amount of discounting will sell it. By not being able to sell it, the display area will soon be full of un-saleable products. We’ll wonder why customers aren’t ordering more plants. Many times, when pointing a finger at someone else, we have three fingers pointing at ourselves.

The weather also plays a big role in how we apply growth regulators. If Bonzi or Sumagic are applied to plants that are grown under 15ºC, the chemical will stay in the plants for a long time. In the meantime, if these plants are sold and planted when soil and air temperatures are below 12ºC, they will never grow at all throughout the summer.

There is nothing wrong with these growth regulators. However, if they’re used, the plants should remain in the greenhouse for three weeks after treatment at 16ºC or higher before they’re sold. If this practice is not followed, and we don’t respect the power of the weather in relation to our growing practices, then we certainly don’t have to worry about making that sale the next season! If this is not negative marketing, I don’t know what is.

Weather impacts our growing practices but it will impact shipping and sales even more since the shorter response time requires faster action. We know all about weather and shipping – be it winter or summer. Plants ship better at specific temperatures. For example, with a truckload of pansies, if the shipment takes two days and the temperature is not kept at 6ºC, the plants will arrive five centimetres taller and they’ll be spindly. If poinsettias are shipped at a temperature cooler than 11ºC, bracts are damaged.

We know we can grow terrific crops. But if shipping temperatures are not right, we might as well deliver our product to the garbage dump. With spring shipping fast approaching, use caution when shipping product in unheated trucks during freezing temperatures – especially for non-acclimatized product. The best place for our spring product to be when cold, rainy or snowy weather is forecast is in our greenhouses. Here we have the means to control environmental conditions much better than inside a store or on an outside display. What is more important in bad weather is that sales are bound to be slow or negligible. Our product is going to sit in display areas longer than planned. The product will deteriorate to the point of being un-saleable. The retailer won’t order more product as long as he or she has an area of un-saleable product he doesn’t want to dump.

Every grower knows, or should know, the sales capability of each retail customer. If a store orders product when we know bad weather is approaching, we have a responsibility and duty to either stop shipping or send only a minimum quantity. If we think that shipping the product from our greenhouse means our responsibility is over, think again.

All of our products are pay-by-scan, whether it is formally set up this way or not. I am sure you have heard of advertising charges, rebates, volume discounts, profit margin target rebates, or whatever the chargeback description. The bottom line is that if it is not sold, we are paying for it directly or indirectly. If the store doesn’t meet its profit margin this year, here are its options:

1. Buy less product.

2. Ask for a rebate.

3. Demand lower prices.

4. Shrink the plant sales area.

5. Quit selling plants.

Which of these options are good for your operation?

Short-sightedness may be profitable for that moment, but in the long run, it will kill your business – and everyone else’s. But yours will be the first to go. A grower once told me that if we send product we know won’t be sold due to weather or poor quality – or even if it is sold and the ultimate consumer is not be happy with it – it is like a hungry cat licking a file. It is eating it’s own blood and feeling happy about it.

We cannot ignore realities. We don’t have to be pessimistic or optimistic – we have to be realistic and the most realistic factor with a huge impact on the future of the greenhouse business is the weather. Treat it with respect and adjust to it. We have the tools. We know the outcome, and reality will not change by shipping product at the wrong time. Out of sight is not out of mind, but it will definitely lead to out of pocket!

The principles of a successful industry are still the same. Understanding supply and demand is the basis for all of them. When supply is greater than demand, we are on a downturn. When demand is greater than supply, then it is a healthy industry. Look at the gold market. The number one factor for the high price of gold is the control of its production. Closer to home, look at the price of oil where, when prices are on a downturn, supply is reduced, and vice versa.

We can be a positive marketing influence by doing everything within our power to provide a quality product, with quantities that meet but do not exceed demand, and by controlling product flow to sales outlets to ensure shrinkage is minimized. Watching and responding to the weather is the number one factor in affecting shrinkage at production or sales.

We saw the power of weather during last fall during the poinsettia season. During the last two weekends before Christmas, temperatures were -16ºC and conditions were snowy. A lot of product remained on the shelves, even though sales had been better than average prior to the weather turning bad.

Respect the weather and respond accordingly, because short-sightedness will definitely lead to blindness.

Melhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research coordinator to the horticultural industry. To comment on this or any other article, please
e-mail .

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