Greenhouse Canada

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Meet Your New Customer

January 5, 2009  By Amanda Ryder

You’ve all got those customers – the ones who have been coming into
your centre year after year, filled with a passion for gardening and a
love of horticulture. They come in every few weeks to see what’s new
and view gardening as a relaxing hobby.

How to adapt to a changing clientele


You’ve all got those customers – the ones who have been coming into your centre year after year, filled with a passion for gardening and a love of horticulture. They come in every few weeks to see what’s new and view gardening as a relaxing hobby.


But these loyal customers are growing older and starting to shop less. Instead, new, younger faces are making their way into your garden centre. These horticulture newbies don’t have a clue what to plant and are more interested in sprucing up the appearance of their yard rather than creating new cuttings and trying out new varieties. Your customers are changing, but the question is, are you changing with them?

Kip Creel of Standpoint Research, a U.S.-based company, recently spoke about this topic at the Independent Garden Center Show in Chicago and the CanWest Horticulture Show in Vancouver. He’s worked with the ICG Show and the American Nursery and Landscape Association to develop a research study on who the generation X and Y shoppers are and what they’re looking for in a garden.

A snapshot of the industry
First off, Creel presented to the audience the latest statistics on the garden centre industry to demonstrate how it’s evolving. According to The National Gardening Survey in the U.S., retail sales in the lawn and garden sector witnessed a seven to eight per cent growth each year in the 1990s up until 2002, where it began to see a decline that lasted to 2006 and increased slightly in 2007. Traditionally, eight of 10 households participate in the lawn and garden category each year. In the ’90s, 15 per cent of North American adults said that gardening was their main activity. Creel says that now, only about five per cent identify with the pastime. “We’ve built and marketed this industry to hobbyists – someone who makes gardening almost a day-to-day activity,” says Creel. This worked when the hobbyist was a garden centre’s primary customer, but the demographics are changing and garden centres need to rethink the way they market and present their products to customers.

Where did those familiar faces go?
Creel points to population charts to illustrate how older customers are aging and moving on from gardening. In both North America and Europe, there’s been a shortage of people to replace these customers, as the group of people that followed the baby boomers category has been historically small. Creel says his research shows the next few years will bring more fresh faces into garden centres because, beginning in 2010, the 20- to 34-year-old age range will see an increase in numbers. “The growth will start accelerating and you will see new homeowners and new faces in your garden centre,” says Creel. But don’t expect these new faces to mimic the habits of your loyal customers from years past.

The hobbyist versus the new gardener
There are a number of ways in which a hobbyist gardener differs from a new, younger customer. Your new customer is time-starved, used to having a variety of retailers to shop with and bombarded with media messages that say gardening is work, not a leisurely activity. Many of them didn’t grow up in an agriculture-based society as the baby boomers did and they weren’t raised on farms. Creel says the new customer doesn’t know what the gardening zones are and may be more inclined to understand temperature better. “We have to change how we educate the customer,” says Creel. These new shoppers are a consumer group that’s willing to trade cash for expertise. “This generation is comfortable not knowing what they don’t already know,” says Creel. He says this group has developed a different mindset where they become specialists in particular areas and have come to terms with the fact that they aren’t experts in everything.

Even the way they fork out cash is different from the hobbyist. Creel says the non-hobbyist will compress their spending and come out to the garden centre to do a big shop three or four times a year. They are more likely to spend a few intense sessions where they devote a weekend to the garden as opposed to dabbling with plants on a weekly basis. The casual gardener usually has a small garden and is looking for plants that give instant impact – they want to be able to enjoy the plants right away on the back porch or have them blooming just in time for their weekend party.

The new gardener is also gardening for a whole other purpose. They see planting a garden as a way to add value to their home, increase resale rates and generate curb appeal. A garden also serves as a perfect project for a new couple that’s just bought its first home. The new customer is motivated by projects, not activities, and views gardening as a subset of the home improvement market. The generation Xs and Ys grew up watching half-hour, project-based, home fix-it shows and are ready to take on their own projects to spruce up their home and yard. Creel says his research shows that 30 per cent of people cite home improvement as the number 1 thing that motivates them to get off the couch. To cater to this mindset, Creel suggests that garden centres look at how they can package “projects” at their centre. Make it easy for these time-strapped shoppers to call in during the week (or go online) to pick and choose what they’d like in their garden bundle or feature a weekly project as a special. That way, the customer can swing by on the weekend to pick up the supplies and tackle that project right away.

Do it for whom?
While many of your younger customers are looking to take on projects of their own, some of them still need – and want – your advice and expertise. This has led to changes in how much work the new customer wants to take on. Creel divided the North American homeowners into three categories: “do some of it for me” (DSOIFM), “do it for me” (DIFM) and “do it yourself” (DIY). Here are the percentages of people who preferred each of the segments in 2000 and 2008. Note how preferences have changed over the last eight years.

(Source: StandPoint)  

The “do it for me” category has increased since 2000 and this could be a reflection of the aging population who aren’t able to take on the tasks they used to. Creel predicts that the “do it yourself” segment will also see growth after 2010, when the younger population spikes and begins shopping at garden centres. The generation Xs and Ys won’t yet have the extra money to pay someone to garden for them so instead they will opt to do it themselves.

Why do shoppers go to a garden centre?
According to statistics presented by Creel, the independent garden centre is a planned destination for shoppers. Research conduced by StandPoint and the American Nursery and Landscape Association reveals that 71 per cent of customers plan ahead to shop at an independent, while 29 per cent end up there on impulse. When it comes to other retail channels, the data shows that 77 per cent of home centre shopping trips are planned, while 23 per cent are made on impulse, and 45 per cent of discount department stores outings are intentionally planned, while 56 per cent of customers end up there on whim.

One explanation for these differences is that shoppers visit the various channels for a number of reasons. Creel says consumers shop with an independent garden centre because they view it as a plant destination that offers variety, in-store service and expertise. He says that, as of right now, a lot of customers don’t know to go to an independent garden centre for non-plant categories and this is an area that garden centres need to promote.

Future trends and opportunities
Creel finished his presentation by speaking on the upcoming industry trends for the three age segments – baby boomers, generation X and generation Y. Baby boomers (aged 45-60), he says, are becoming more reliant on landscape professionals to create a manicured lawn and garden. They are also spending more time outside than ever. “Baby boomers are leading the way to supercharged patios, decks and kitchens.” Creel says that soon, they may even be looking to install a luxurious outdoor bathroom in the backyard – and one that’s a far cry from an outhouse. These baby boomers are loyal to independent garden centres and are at the peak of their earning power when it comes to income.

The generation Xs (aged 35-44) now have more money at this age to spend than the baby boomers did and also appreciate all that an independent has to offer them. Creel says they are motivated by design and home décor, which is popular again, thanks in part to home and garden television.

Last, but not least, the generation Y group (aged 21-34) are just starting to purchase their first homes. Creel says that with the first home, fixing up the interior is always the top priority and that usually takes approximately eight months. Then, generation Ys turn to the outdoors and this is where Creel says they will start to actually mirror the baby boomers in a few areas. “They’ve [generation Y] received more environment information and are more plugged into the environmental movement than generation X,” he says. “They will realize how important gardening is to the Earth and will see gardening more as a hobby.” Keep in mind that this new generation is very visual and want products that reflect their personal style. They’re also accustomed to seeing set-up displays and showrooms in places like Ikea or Home Depot and want to know what how things will look before they bring them home.
In order to cash in on these opportunities, Creel says, as retailers, you need to be prepared to help nurture new gardeners. Be patient, provide them with a do-it-yourself plan, show them the ingredients and give them advice along the way. By identifying and catering to what different age segments want, a garden centre can grow a brand new crop of loyal customers that will be shopping at your business for years to come.

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