Many customers will grow herbs for use in the kitchen to flavour food. You can either associate your herb sales area with other vegetable products, or allied cuisine-based products, or you could link your herbs to other high-end, quality merchandise.
Remember that your customers could buy all the fresh herbs and spices they need from the supermarket, but clearly they enjoy the growing aspect.
On the other hand, if your customers want to grow herbs for medicinal, cosmetic and/or household purposes, they probably want to avoid using mass-produced flavourings, medicines, make-ups and household cleaners. This means that you can associate your herb benches with your green credentials to maximise sales opportunities.
Either way, your herb-buying customers are discerning people, and this opens the door for you to target their more sensitive and probably more environmentally aware attitudes and lifestyles.
Sad to say, the herb market has some ground to make up. The latest Garden Industry Monitor (GIM) figures from the HTA show that just £17.89m was spent in the 12 months up to December 2008, a decline of 32 per cent on the previous year. The worrying part is that the figures for the previous three years had seen steady annual rises at £20m, £24m and £26m respectively.
The reason for the sudden decline may be a combination of poor weather and the increasing popularity of pot herbs (which consumers may consider to be a kitchen product not a garden product and therefore do not record them as such in their diary for the GIM research).
So, as a retailer, the door is open for you to improve your volume sales of herbs and generate income.
1. Sell herbs as 'easy'
For new gardeners, herbs are a relatively low investment and can bring satisfaction year after year.
Ethnobotanist and TV presenter James Wong, who was responsible for the BBC series Grow Your Own Drugs, says: "Herbs are plants that generally look after themselves. Once planted they can usually be left to their own devices, making them perfect for the gardener who is short in time.
"Their flexibility in use makes these plants super for more experienced gardeners too, who might be trying out different planting schemes around the garden. It's crucial that you encourage new gardeners and inspire experienced gardeners with herbs.
"As a product group they are really versatile. Many herbs are very tolerant of adverse gardening conditions, and their foliage, flavours, uses and sometimes flowers are wonderfully varied."
2. Sell herbs as useful and decorative
Your customers should not think of herbs as being a "one-trick pony". These plants are often dualor even triple-purpose. Leading herb grower and show exhibitor Jekka McVicar says: "For a newcomer to the world of herbs the most extraordinary feature of these plants is their incredible versatility."
Taking wormwoods as an example, McVicar says: "Medicinally, true to its name, wormwood expels worms, especially round and thread worms. But the cultivar 'Lambrook Silver' and Artemisia pontica look good in terracotta pots."
With good point-of-sale (PoS) material - posters and bed cards - retailers can show how some herbs have multiple uses. For example, the Artemisia genus includes plants known as wormwoods, southernwoods and French tarragon. These all have huge ornamental appeal. All of the silver artemisias make useful plants for borders, and both southernwood and wormwood will make neat, low hedges; silver forms can be picked for bouquets, wreaths and posies.
In the kitchen, tarragon is used in Bearnaise, tartar and hollandaise sauces. Add shredded leaves to mayonnaise for fish dishes, salad dressings, soups, scrambled eggs and omelettes. Russian tarragon is good on grilled meat.
Medicinally, use the roots of Artemisia to help relieve the symptoms of toothache, and it is possible to infuse tarragon as an appetite stimulant and general tonic. In the household, one can powder the leaves of wormwood to make a moth repellant. Also, boil the stems of wormwood and southernwood to make a yellow dye. The only area where artemisias are not used, it seems, is in cosmetics.
3. Promote herbs as being health-giving
According to Wong, who trained at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, there is a big cultural divide between herbal medicine (which has the reputation of being a bit flaky) and conventional medicine (which is thought of as effective, proven and more serious). But almost half of over-the-counter medicines are based on chemicals that were first isolated from plants.
Wong explains: "Aspirin, for example, is made from the same chemicals isolated from willow, which has been used for thousands of years as a painkiller."
In these financially uncertain times, herbs have the distinct advantage of being cheap. Peppermint tea - which is useful if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, indigestion or heartburn - is made from just fresh peppermint leaves and hot water.
If pressed to pick a favourite home-grown remedy, Wong admits to having a soft spot for the restorative powers of chilli, which is something retailers can also promote within their vegetable plant areas. Wong says: "'Scotch Bonnet' or habanero chillis boost circulation and numb pain. We've used it to treat a whole team of battered rugby players."
Note: before anyone uses natural remedies they should always consult their GP, especially if they are already on medication, or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
4. Sell herbs as good for organic gardeners
Herbs are the perfect choice for any gardener who is organically inclined. These plants usually have strong flavours or aromas, owing to the strong volatile oils and other substances - including tannins, bitters, mucilages, alkaloids, saponins and glycoides - within the structures of the plants.
These scientific references have little application for the gardener but they do mean that, in general, herbs are unpalatable to many garden pests. Creatures from aphids to slugs, and from rabbits to deer, are known to avoid infesting or attacking many herbs.
This means that the gardener does not need to apply so many pest-control products to keep the plants healthy and productive - and that's music to the ears of the organic gardener.
Yes, there are a few less significant pests and diseases that do affect garden herbs. However, these are on a far smaller scale than, for example, blight on tomatoes which can devastate a crop, or caterpillars on cabbages which require labour-intensive vigilance on the part of the organic gardener, or massive pesticide use by the chemical-using gardener.
5. Sell herbs as good for wildlife
Herbs are not particularly known and grown for their appeal to most common forms of wildlife. However, your customers can encourage bees and butterflies with herbs - and make their own honey into the bargain.
For the best nectar production and pollination your customers should grow herbs in full sun, and plant in groups of five or more.
They should erect some form of windbreak if the site is not sheltered, or bees will be buffeted by the wind. A hedge of holly or ivy acts both as an effective windbreak, and as a supplier of nectar flowers in spring and autumn. Clovers, oil-seed rape, sainfoin, mustard, charlock, willow herb and dandelion are the most important nectar plants for bees, but lavender, rosemary, bugle, catmint, borage, thyme, Echinacea, catnip, hyssop, sage, fennel, valerian, marjoram and the mints are all favoured by honey bees.
6. Capitalise on 'grow-your-own' trends
The "grow-your-own" phenomenon has been with us for almost three years now, and industry pundits wonder how long it will last. This year retailers should be making a further attempt at capitalising on the trend, and herbs could be one way to do it. A spokesman for the Golden Acres Group in Dorset says: "Herbs in containers are top sellers for us."
The firm also stocks a Home Allotment range of wattle containers in natural brown or painted white. These troughs or windowboxes have handles and are lined - so they're perfect for smaller vegetables such as leafy salads, and herbs.
Alan Slack, marketing manager of The Stewart Company, which is one of the two manufacturers that dominate the plastic container market, says: "This grow-your-own trend must be tackled head-on by retailers. Some are doing it really well, while others are just dipping their toes in the water.
"Our ornamental herb and strawberry pots are suitable for retailers to plant up and sell as complete. Tell your customers - with PoS or leaflets, or both - how easy herbs and vegetables are to grow in containers."
7. Distinguish between plant and seed benefits
Customers who buy herb seed that has been selected by reputable companies know they will probably be rewarded with success. Others are attracted by the foliage and condition of herb plants on sale, and the instant effect they will have when they are in the garden.
Similarly, some gardeners prefer buying starter plants instead of seed so they get a result sooner.
Jamie Robinson, technical director of Westland Horticulture in Dungannon, County Tyrone, says: "Gardens are smaller today. This means there is not always sufficient space for seedbeds or for transplanting small plants. One solution is to buy young plants. This is particularly useful with slow-to-establish plants, such as parsley, and it also enables the small-scale grower to have a succession of plantings, thereby extending the picking time."
Annual herbs (requiring replacement every year) include anise, basil, borage, chervil, coriander, dill, florence fennel, sweet marjoram, annual poppy, purslane, and summer savory.
8. Offer pre-planted herb containers
The younger, working customer-base, who make up an increasing proportion of the market, want instantly ready containers, baskets and themed concepts. And they are prepared to pay a premium for reliability and results.
People often do not have time to nurture young plants. And often the bigger the plant, or the planted-up container, the more attractive it is to this sector.
Increasingly, customers are buying finished products in large pots, and herbs are just as feasible as bedding plants in such containers.
But garden centre consultant Eve Tigwell says garden centre managers must ensure that containers precisely meet their customers' expectations, and market research will help establish this. She says: "Check which magazines your customers read and follow the trends. There's no use going for a downmarket woman's weekly when all your customers read Cosmopolitan."
She adds: "Most ready-planted containers can be marked up to reflect both the physical content and the labour required to create them."
9. Train your staff
Make sure that your key sales staff are trained in at least the basics of herbs and herb-growing (remember, these are some of the easiest of garden plants - see item 1). They should be able to answer customers' questions swiftly and accurately. This can pay dividends.
Tigwell says: "It is important that staff know what they are talking about when it comes to plants. If plants are wrongly recommended or poor siting is suggested, and the customer has a significant failure, then this not only reflects appallingly on the garden centre - and the customer will think twice about returning - but it could also put a beginner off growing plants again. Then everyone loses out."
10. Herb weekends and activities
Long Barn Growers and Distillers is set in an idyllic setting on the edge of Alresford, Hampshire, and is the focus for seasonal events throughout the year. There is a seed-swapping weekend, floral workshops, a Mother's Day posy-making workshop and, in the height of the summer, a week-long Lavender Festival, with a school hosted by herb specialist Natasha Thomas. There will be talks and displays, lavender foods, workshops and entertainment.
Even if there are no lavender fields next to your particular garden centre, that should not deter you from organising your own Lavender Week (or any other kind of herb week) with offers, multi-buy deals, giveaways, demonstrations etc. If it is a new type of event for you, it could be worth trying to get some PR courtesy of the local press.
The "official" Lavender Week, organised by the Lavender Trust, is in March each year to raise awareness of breast cancer in young women. From a retailer's point of view it makes sense to promote lavender when it is in flower (summer), but you could make a donation to the Lavender Trust after your event.
HERBS: IN THE GARDEN CENTRE
1. Create interesting displays. Racks or benches of green plants can be very dull, even with adequate point-of-sale (PoS) material.
2. Always stock a range of new plants and lines, also make sure you keep the traditional favourites well displayed.
3. Be original and be different from the multiples. Jazz up the display areas with interesting design, and "living labels". Use attractive, good-quality planters or baskets and, if necessary, use back-bone plants (small shrubs, conifers, ivies, etc) to aid the display.
4. Place trolleys, or half-trolleys, of herbs close to the tills to help encourage impulse purchases.
5. Don't get fixated about price. Customers are more interested in quality, choice and expertise. As long as the "promise" of good results is there (assisted by the PoS), customers will be happy to pay a decent price.
HERB PLANT SUPPLIERS
- Arne Herbs
Tel: 01275 333399
- Gardeners Kitchen
Tel: 01386 870341
- New Forest Garden Plants
Tel: 01590 612398
- Worfield Gardens Nursery
Tel: 01746 716510