According to several of the larger Continental suppliers, for every houseplant sold in the UK this year, a consumer in Denmark, Norway and Switzerland will buy five. Consumers in Continental Europe in general spend a great deal more on houseplants, so the potential to grow this market in the UK is huge.
The HTA's Garden Industry Monitor (GIM) figures for house plant sales have not been updated since 2007, when the figure stood at £168 million, which by anyone's standards is a large spend. But this was flat with the previous year, and anecdotally it does not appear to have grown. Indeed, many centres appear to be scaling back on indoor plant sales space. And Garden Centre Association trading figures for houseplants were down in October 2010 by 14.2 per cent year on year.
Of course, commercial pressures and opportunities have encouraged garden centres to evolve into leisure destinations, and in the process many have lost much of their plant status. As a consequence, they have also forfeited their point of difference when compared with sheds and supermarkets.
In the past, the houseplant sector has been a cash cow and most retailers have done little or nothing to market plants, other than displaying them on benches.
Many garden centres have a highly subjective and often very negative view of houseplants, not least because they represent as little as 2.5 to five per cent of turnover.
But there is growth to be had in this sector, and major growth at that. Here are 10 shortcuts to optimising your houseplant and orchid sales:
1. The "easy" factor
Author Dr David Hessayon, famous for his 'Expert' series of gardening books, has the distinction of being the man with the best-selling book on indoor plants (The House Plant Expert, Transworld Publishers, 1991), with more than eight million copies sold. In it, he writes: "Forget about green fingers. Anyone can grow the more popular varieties and make them look attractive ... Exciting displays are not difficult to make."
This has to be the message you should get out to customers. Houseplants are not difficult to look after. If they were, there wouldn't be millions of them sold every year.
But those customers who are teetering on the brink of buying need to be given that extra bit of confidence, and telling them that a particular plant is not difficult to maintain - providing one or two key elements in the growing have been met - will probably enable you to land the sale.
This applies to some orchids, too. Geoff Oborne, plant centre manager at Priory Farm Plant Centre in Redhill, Surrey, explains: "Houseplant orchids are incredibly easy (to look after); contrary to what most people believe, they are not difficult and temperamental. They are not meant only for heated and shaded conservatories. We must convey this to the customer."
2. Linked sales
Giving your customers a helping hand by offering houseplant books nearby to other products is one way to keep them happy.
Gary Wilburn, creative director of Southampton-based HPW Architects and Designers, has been instrumental in the design and layout of plant retail areas for more than 20 years (including for Ikea in Germany). He says linked sales are crucially important: "These days, we are all short of time and we want the instant gratification of having a pretty plant that comes as a package with the pot cover, a bag of feed, the stones or slate to go in the pot, ribbons, a good book about keeping houseplants and a pack of leaf wipes. We want to get everything at once. And that means the retailer needs to have linked sales very much in mind. Place the linked items close to the houseplant area. Promote them. And put up point-of-sale material."
Orchid plants could be situated near products such as containers, bags of orchid compost and fertiliser, canes, ties, specialist books and so on.
3. Being creative with displays
With the usual types of glazing fixed over houseplant display areas, there is space and natural light, and these are important: they enable you to be creative with your displays.
Using blocks of colour is the simple stand-out technique, but creative thinking is better still. Little room sets need not be expensive to create and can be a useful selling tool for home ware, furniture and gift products. With houseplants it can be worthwhile showing them in non-traditional locations - the hallway, bathroom and kitchen, for example.
Unfortunately, too many garden centres seem happy to stop once the benches are full. Rows of plants all neatly lined up, facing outwards like good little soldiers, have a strong walk-past factor. They need to shout "I'm here, look at me", and they need to emotionally engage with the customer.
4. Houseplant gifts
Wilburn says: "The houseplant customer is different from the general run of visitor to a garden centre, because they aren't necessarily gardeners. They're buying a gift - for themselves or for someone else."
Those buying for themselves are actually buying to decorate the home, and experts reckon this represents about 20 per cent of the gift purchase market. The classic 'gift for someone else' takes up the other 80 per cent.
Retailers in every sector know they turn more trade from those selfish "me" gifts that become regular purchases. There is another issue here, and it relates to staff training. Planteria staff tend to be horticulturists first, but when selling houseplants, they need to be retailers first. Gift-style presentation is different and that is what is needed. Create some excitement - hit them in the eye with colour and dominant positioning.
5. Offering a wide range
In the UK, the moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) is the most popular, with Cymbidium next, despite there being 30,000 types of orchid in nature and commerce. UK sales of orchids, generally, have been very buoyant in the past five or six years, and as a consequence the public's taste for them has evolved. So, where possible, retailers should offer as wide a range as possible.
At Priory Farm, Oborne says: "We had a real emphasis on orchids in 2010, both in spring and summer, and this has worked very well for us. In 2011 we will be having a two-day orchid event, with talks, hands-on demonstrations and a lunch with an orchid expert. We see this as an important growth area for us, and as part of this we will be increasing our range of orchids offered."
Sara Rittershausen, proprietor of Devon-based Burnham Nurseries, which specialises in orchids, says: "We aim to provide desirable orchids to hobbyists, as well as to attract casual and impulse purchases. For this reason we have a huge range available. Typical garden centres won't be able to offer anything like this variety of product, but they can certainly aim for more than just five different colours of moth orchid."
Ninety-five per cent of potted orchids supplied to UK are grown in Holland - the other five per cent coming from other parts of Europe or further afield. Lincolnshire-based V-Flora UK is setting up a factory in Taiwan to micropropagate orchids for sale in the UK. Nurseries here will grow them on, especially for the home market. Chief executive Heng-Hsuan Lee says the factory, which is due to open in March, will produce 30,000 Phalaenopsis every day. Watch out for 1.5 million plants flooding the UK market over the next year, all sitting under the Glorchid brand. Asda and Tesco have already signed up.
6. The importance of pricing
Burnham Nurseries' Rittershausen is pleased that centres are reflecting more sensible prices. She says: "For many years, specialist suppliers like us were accused of selling orchids at very high prices, but now the wider garden retail trade is coming up, which is good for everyone."
A good model is the typical Phalaenopsis on sale in centres for £12.99. But you could sell two for £20 and improve volume considerably.
Even better, as a result of increased production and availability, the wholesale price of orchids has come down in the past few years. This means you can charge a sensible price to the customer - and improve your margins.
Oborne at Priory Farm Plant Centre explains: "It is important to get a quality plant in front of the customer - and at the right price. We get many of our houseplants from Javado of Holland, and the plants are regularly topped up. If necessary we clean them up and swap stock to keep them fresh."
7. Promote British-grown
Houseplants, because of their weight, are relatively expensive to trade over distances. So it is surprising that so many plants are imported from the continent. Half the indoor plants sold in the UK are home-grown, and most UK-grown plants are flowering types. The rest are imported, mostly from Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Italy.
And, increasingly, consumers are asking about "plant miles". So you could save on shipping costs, and score a few environmental points as well, by announcing that your plants, or a range of them, are UK-grown.
UK growers produce a good variety of indoor plants, including African violets, azaleas, begonias, kalanchoes, pot 'mums and potted bulbs. Union Jacks appear on labels to denote that plants and produce are UK-made. Sainsbury's and Asda have 'Buy British' policies, and it is understood that the production of British-grown poinsettias in 2010 rose above the two million level.
To source trade/wholesale quantities of UK-grown indoor plants, visit the Flowers & Plants Association website (see Contacts panel).
8. Fashionable room plants
Houseplants are often considered dated: just think of the Victorian parlour palms and potted Aspidistra. So tell your customers to treat houseplants as a contemporary statement in the home. Do this, and the perceived value of them rises, as does the appeal across the market.
If you think traditionally, houseplants can be a tough sale, but if you sell indoor plants as a lifestyle fashion category, it becomes a very significant sector and easier to sell. Orchids are the evidence for this.
Oborne says: "Sales of orchids have gone through the roof in the past four or five years because they are perceived as exotic, yet the price is now seen as attainable."
The arbiter of contemporary and affordable interior design, Ikea, has also invested heavily in orchids. Its plant range expert, Adrian Webster, says this year's best sellers are 12cm-pot Phalaenopsis and Chrysalidocarpus. The former dropped in price from £6.59 to £3.99 earlier this year.
Potted lilies and clean, modern-looking forms of Dracaena and Spathiphyllum also make a chic statement for discerning consumers.
9. Houseplants v cut flowers
Compare some of the plain green (and frankly boring) houseplants to modern, contemporary and instant hits of colour and scent from cut flowers, and, for many lifestyle-conscious and youthful customers, there is no contest.
Sales of cut flowers have grown hugely in recent years - and this, at least in part, is responsible for the decline in houseplant revenues. Whereas annual sales of houseplants are under £170 million, we in the UK spend more than £1 billion on cut flowers.
But potted plants do represent much better value for money, and the orchid, again, is the best example of this. Orchid blooms, particularly on Cymbidium and Phalaenopsis, can be had on a plant for six months or more, and this at the same price (or, more usually, less) as cut flowers, which go over in a matter of days.
Encourage husbands, for instance, to buy their wife a pot plant instead of a bunch of flowers - it will last longer and be more meaningful as a long-term present, and at the same time he can show her how frugal he has been with the spending.
10. Promote health-giving houseplants
Point-of-sale posters, cards and boards should be displayed to emphasise the health-giving merits of houseplants.
According to Dr Bob Wolverton, a US research scientist at NASA, indoor plants are good for us. He says: "All plants remove the carbon dioxide we emit during breathing and release oxygen into the air for us to breathe. Similarly all plants remove impurities from the air, to a lesser or greater effect. They remove impurities such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene from the environment, by absorbing them through their leaves or via the growing medium."
Research has shown that the best houseplants for this are the peace lily (Spathiphyllum - which performed exceptionally well), Scindapsus/Epipremnun, Aglaonema, Kentia palm, spider plant (Chlorophytum), the Boston fern (Nephrolepis), pot 'mum, Gerbera, weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) and umbrella plant (Schefflera).
Orchids, and cacti and succulents, exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide at night, unlike most other plants that do so in the daytime. This makes them perfect bedroom plants to refresh the air around us while we are sleeping.
TOP FIVE SELLING TIPS
1. Be original ... and be different to the multiples. Jazz up the pots through packaging - use attractive, quality containers and incorporate material such as moss, stones, coloured glass beads, pine cones, driftwood, gravel and bark into the displays.
2. Place small plants in areas that catch the eye, such as near tills and at cafe entrances. They will also brighten up a sundries section.
3. Create dramatic block displays using one colour for added effect and continuity throughout the garden centre - think of pre-Christmas poinsettia and cyclamen displays. Group many plants together, not a measly half-a-dozen.
4. Keep stock turning over. Do not have a discount section for weary-looking specimens.
5. Package the plants as the kind of gift that people want to give to friends and family.
IN-STORE CARE OF ORCHIDS
Temperature - Keep orchids in a place where the daytime temperature is 18-19 degsC or higher. In nature, orchids experience a difference in temperature between night and day. You can simulate this change by dropping the temperature by 10 degrees at night. This will keep blooms looking fresh. They do not like a draught, so keep them away from doors.
Watering - Use room-temperature water: ideally rainwater or soft water (to avoid lime markings on the leaves). Watering once or twice a week should be sufficient. An orchid in full flower uses slightly more water than one just in leaf. Mist foliage daily.
Light - Orchids thrive in bright, indirect sunlight. Advise your customers that once taken home, the orchid should be placed close to a south-facing window, but not in the direct glare of the sun all day long.
Looking after orchids - Garden Retail award-winning Orchid Myst sprays by Growth Technology make a great add-on sale. Orchid Myst is an alternative to drip feeders such as Fito Orchid Drip Feeders. Chempak from T&M is another good option.
- Flower Council of Holland 01425 657872
- Flowers & Plants Association 020 8939 6472
- Burnham Nurseries 01626 352233
- V-Flora UK 07827 340575
- Javado +31 174 615 444
- Cameleon Orchidee +31 174 612 700
- HPW Partnership 02380 811808