With Christmas out of the way and spring plant sales still a distant prospect, garden retailers have few opportunities to capitalise on plant sales at this time of year. While the garden is too cold to spend time in, now is a good time to encourage customers to beautify the great indoors.
HTA figures (see chart, p22) show a steady decline in all categories of houseplant sales over the past four years. This has been blamed, in part, on a small range of cheap continental-grown plants increasingly available from supermarkets and other multiples devaluing the houseplant category.
To counter this, garden retailers need to differentiate their offer in the mind of the consumer. HTA retail group chairman and Scotsdale Garden Centre managing director Caroline Owen says: "We've managed to buck the trend on houseplant sales. We have a huge display and were 10 per cent up on the previous year."
She puts success down to plant quality, effective product displays and a price that appeals to the consumer. "We have constant deliveries - people know when they're coming in - and enthusiastic staff to sell them," she says. "We do our own leaflets to advise customers on how to care for their houseplants as they're not always easy to look after - they can deteriorate rapidly."
Owen adds: "You have to keep it up all year, so people always know they can get the complete range."
Lincolnshire-based Ceramic Gift Company (CGC) claims there is nothing inevitable about declining houseplant sales. It has succeeded in boosting sales of plants by 100 per cent, and of containers by 175 per cent, over an 18-month period at nearby Baytree Nurseries & Garden Centre.
Operations manager Dave Morris says: "Baytree is our local garden centre and serves as a test bed for new ideas.
"Twenty years ago, houseplants accounted for 10 per cent of a garden centre's turnover. Now, it's more like three per cent. Many garden centres are reducing the space they give to them. They see it as a declining sector - one that's all gone to the multiples. We're saying: it doesn't have to be like this."
What is needed is "fairly basic", he says - stylish yet functional displays showing an array of recommended plants and a range of ceramic pots, which customers are "invited and encouraged" to put together. Multi-buy offers, such as three for £10, can provide a further incentive, he adds.
CGC recommends garden centres source from Dutch plant supplier Green Room - "it has a marketing ethic in line with our own", says Morris - while CGC supplies the pots and benching itself.
It has not been plain sailing, though, Morris adds. "Two years ago, there were more openings - you could charge a premium price for a premium product. Now, it's much more price-sensitive."
However, this has not prevented the company from recently expanding the initiative in a further 12 garden centres.
CGC managing director Gary Gedney says houseplants are a vital part of the garden retail offer. "Some in the trade are openly questioning the viability of the category," he says. "Yet, without the plant content, a garden centre is just a department store in a country setting."
One consequence of the decline in houseplant sales at independent outlets has been the demise of the home-grown UK houseplant producers. Gedney says: "Twenty years ago there were half-a-dozen major UK houseplant suppliers. Now, hardly any supply on a national basis."
Lincolnshire-based grower and wholesaler KRN House & Garden Plants is just one of a handful of remaining UK houseplant growers.
Co-owner Paul Firth says: "Demand seems to be there for good-quality plants, particularly larger ones with a full head. Feedback from customers tells us that people can tell the difference."
KRN has managed to compete with the continental growers by concentrating on quality and speed of delivery, he says. "Our poinsettias are packed just 24 hours before the customer gets them. There's less travelling time, so you can charge a bit more."
However, he says the company could not survive on houseplants alone. "Some plants, such as Cyclamen, have a dual role, and these have been increasing year-on-year for the past four or five years," he says. "Many are bought for outdoor containers, particularly the hardier varieties, which have given sales a new lease of life."
Firth says growers and retailers need to find new angles to appeal to customers. "I see potential for a 'locally grown' product having more consumer appeal," he says. "We already have an organisation to promote Lincolnshire-grown products. We're also looking at joining Select Lincolnshire, which would mean branding our plants 'home grown'.
"Environmental issues might also have more impact. We tick the boxes when it comes to things such as biological control and peat-free growing media."
HTA business development director Tim Briercliffe points to orchids as one houseplant type showing promise. "They're one growth area we've seen over the past year," he says.
Specialist wholesaler Orchids For You co-owner Ken Everard says: "(Orchids) are perceived as difficult, but if customers are given the right advice, they are easy to look after. Unfortunately, most places don't sell them correctly - they pot them up wrong, use the wrong medium and don't market them in the right way."
The variety of the orchid family can hook customers, leading to repeat trade, he says. "The easiest is Phalaenopsis, the moth orchid. But once people have a few of those, they will want to try some of the more unusual ones." Owen says orchids are finding a ready market at her Scotsdale store. "They're not a specialist plant and are easy to look after."
CLEANER AIR FROM HOUSEPLANTS
Air So Pure is a Dutch marketing concept that aims to promote the air-purifying properties of houseplants.
Launched late last year, the Spathiphyllum (peace lily) plants, in a range of leaf shapes and pot sizes from 9cm to 31cm, are grown by a group of 10 Dutch growers. The brand's promotional material emphasises the fact that they are easy to care for and long-lived.
The plants are available in Marks & Spencer and B&Q, as well as Wyevale and Dobbies, though according to Dutch Growers Association representative Ronald van Schie: "Marks & Spencer does not mention the benefits."
As well as its consumer appeal, Spathiphyllum has been named as "Office Plant of the Year 2007" in Holland because of its health-giving properties.
The plants increase humidity in offices, says van Schie, which is otherwise on the low side, causing itching skin and irritation of the airways. The plants also absorb impurities in the air.
The message is starting to resonate with customers, he says. "In other parts of Europe and especially in the Netherlands, we have good results from consumers."
The largest Dutch garden retail chain, Intratuin, encouraged customers to leave feedback on its website. "You could see that they understood the message," says van Schie. Promoting such customer interactions raises awareness of the product, he says, adding: "It's not just a question of putting up a poster."
Other plants with air-purifying properties will be made available under the brand shortly.