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Generation Garden

March 23, 2011  By Andrew Hind

There are basically four generations living and purchasing in Canadian society today.

There are basically four generations living and purchasing in Canadian society today. Retailers need to understand the preferences and behaviour patterns of these demographic groups if they are to be successful in engaging them. Perhaps the most misunderstood of these demographic groups is the one that will become keenly important for garden centres over the next decade: generation Y, young people currently between the ages of 15 and 24. Garden centres will need to focus on this up-and-coming consumer base in order to keep your business thriving.


To begin to understand the next generation of garden centre patrons, we need to take a quick look at the previous generation. Retail sales in the lawn and garden sector boomed during the 1990s, buoyed by a generation eager to be hands-on, raised on do-it-yourself television programs, and with ample time on their hands. They embraced gardening as a hobby in a way never seen before; during the 1990s, 15 per cent of the North American population indicated that gardening was their main recreational activity, according to the National Gardening Survey.


Things have changed as demographics shifted. Retail sales in the lawn and garden sector dipped after 2002, and the same survey reports that today only five per cent of North Americans identify themselves as gardeners. The industry that had been built to cater to hobbyists had to change, rethinking the way they market and present their products to the new wave of customers, generation Y. 

To do that, you need understand the key differences between young homeowners and homeowners from older generations:

  • Your new customers are time-starved and place considerable value on personal time. They want projects done quickly, and don’t want to spend hours shopping for the materials. Successful garden centres will make it easy for these time-strapped shoppers to call in during the week or shop online for their purchases. That way, the customer can swing by on the weekend to pick up the supplies and begin the project right away.
  • They view homes as an investment and see gardening as a subset of the home improvement market. They see planting a garden as a way to add value to their home and increase resale rates. The new customer is motivated to garden by a desire to achieve the end result, not out of passion for the experience.
  • They are far more willing to trade cash for expertise than previous generations. Unlike previous generations of do-it-yourselfers, they’ve developed a different mindset where they have become specialists in particular areas, and come to terms with the fact that they aren’t experts in everything. Garden centres that offer landscaping services, on-site landscape designers, and informative seminars will be particularly valued by generation Y.
  • They have been bombarded with media messages that say gardening is work, not a leisurely activity. As a result, garden centres will have to focus on getting their message out in ways never before imagined such as through social media. This view of gardening as work also means that most casual gardeners will have only a small garden, largely maintenance-free, and one that gives instant impact. The challenge is to encourage casual gardeners to become hobbyists.
  • They want to achieve a higher quality of life, which for the home improvement industry can translate into increased demand for goods and services that will help homeowners create a more customized, personalized living space. With the growing trend of transforming backyards into outdoor living areas – pools, outdoor kitchens, heating and lighting, and so forth – garden centres can stand to benefit from this mentality.

Future trends and opportunities
While generation Y differs in many respects from those generations preceding it, its members nonetheless represent a largely untapped pool of customers for Canadian garden centres in the near future. In order to reach these consumers, retailers will have to adapt.

Generation-Y shoppers tend to be very visual and have grown accustomed to seeing set-up displays and showrooms. They want to know how things will look before they bring them home. As a result, garden centres will need to invest time and space in designing outdoor living area-demo spaces where the entire range of goods – from plants to décor to furniture to lighting – is displayed in an engaging, inspiring manner.

At the same time, store design that caters to Gen-Y shoppers frequently contains areas where young people may hang out. Think of a Starbucks in Chapters, or McDonalds’ recent move towards a café-style atmosphere in select stores. It’s about encouaging people to not merely enter the doors, but linger and become part of the setting. The element of offering more than just merchandise is becoming increasingly important to retailers, and garden centres must make an effort to follow suit.

Your generation-Y customers are heavy users of social media sites, and free content and downloads on the Internet. They tend to be early adopters of technology, are major contributors to blogs and online forums, and they are likely to research products online. Garden centres will have to embrace these technologies if they want to become relevant to young consumers. Forward-thinking garden centres are designing Facebook accounts where they can post information on new products, as well as promotions and coupons. They are also creating blogs where people can ask questions and get information, and even holding live webcasts during which customers can ask questions. 

Technology and social media have created a demand among generation Y for a positive shopping experience. These shoppers have a low tolerance for poor customer service and are raising the bar on customer expectation. They are drawn to longer shopping hours that fit their lifestyle, easy ways to return items, online price comparisons, and rapid (often automated) checkouts.

Online shopping is ever expanding, driven by the shopping habits of young adults. While online sales as a percentage of a brick-and-mortar store’s total sales remain small, it’s foolish to ignore this revenue stream. Not only is online shopping growing in importance, it represents the opportunity to communicate with consumers before they even set foot in your store.

Finally, it should be noted that generation-Y people are far more environmentally conscious than previous generations. Green products are a wave of the future, and efforts to educate consumers about the environmental benefits of gardening (home-grown vegetables, pollinator gardens to help sustain threatened bee and butterfly populations, and xeriscaping and composting) will be rewarded with customer loyalty. More importantly, once young people realize how important gardening is to the Earth they will be transformed from a casual gardener to a hobbyist.
The key for garden centres moving forward is to reach young shoppers aged 15 to 24, who represent the future consumer. Generation-Y shoppers are driven to shop at retailers whose “brand” suits their interests, needs, and values. The garden centres that best appreciate this reality will gain loyal customers for life and will be the ones thriving a decade and more from now.

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