Pointing out the many ways in which technology is impacting consumer behaviour, he said: "Google believes the whole internet will change in the next five to ten years with things like voice-activated searches. It’s already become hard to get people to visiting [brand] websites. They expect to be able to read reviews before purchasing, and they share content online all the time. We need to engage with that – they may be telling us things we are missing."
On the trend to online sales, he said: "Already Amazon is offering deliveries in an hour with its Prime Now service. People get a ‘high’ from an Amazon package, but they are now saying, ‘next week isn’t good enough’. Businesses and residential properties are being redesigned to have drop-boxes with one-use codes, and you can even have a package dropped off in your Volvo."
Among other changes he noted, "Consumers are now more prepared to share stuff rather than own it, even their homes and vehicles – look at sites like car2go. That’s the opposite of the American Dream."
Meanwhile, "People around the world are moving to cities and they want shade and drought-tolerant, less vigorous plants – they will have a smaller yard or maybe just a balcony. They are also increasingly confused about what to do with our products."
This means "even the guy with the hose" in the garden centre needs to be trained in the range, as otherwise "you miss an opportunity to make a connection with the struggling shopper", he said. "Stores like Gap are realising this."
And giving the example of "do-it-for-me" online service Thumbtack, he pointed out: "Baby boomers are getting older and don’t want to haul stuff around. If gardening doesn’t change with them, they will find other things to spend their money on."
He warned: "Gardening was the number-one leisure activity in the US – now it’s fourth or even sixth. There are only two gardening magazines in the US with subscriptions over 50,000. We need to put content in the right place and in a way people can use. If we aren’t inspiring people, we are in trouble."
On the importance of accommodating wider trends, he noted that in women’s magazines, "everything is ‘tall’, from candles to coffee cups, so you can put your hand around it – the same goes for smartphones", and demonstrated this with a taller, slimmer pot format that Proven Winners has adopted.
"Your industry is predominantly male but your customers are predominantly female," he said, adding that men are poor judges of female tastes, particularly in colour. "I can usually tell if a garden centre buyer is male or female, with men favouring lots of reds."
Businesses should not be afraid to offer their own materials up for public vote, including their advertising, he added, saying this combined with eye movement tracking had brought a refinement of PW’s own advertising hoarding designs.
Gardenex commercial director Charlie Parker added: "We need to keep up with and get ahead of these trends."
Proven Winners "is becoming a worldwide brand, managed locally", Dirks explained. "People are shocked that Proven Winners is a not-for-profit organisation – all royalties go to support the brand. We have 15 employees dotted around the US, with just five in our head office. It’s a virtual company. We have photographers and copywriters creating content for us."
Inspired by a visit to the UK a decade ago, Dirks began selling plants to the public by mail order and now does $1m of sales a year this way. "I partnered with a retailer, not a wholesale grower, as he knows what a product should look like when it goes out," he said. "We deliver in two days and hope for two hours with Amazon."
Meanwhile, GfK has analysed retail marketing activities’ influence on shopping decisions, finding that retail promotions ranked as an important factor.
Some 44 per cent of shoppers cited information at the shelf as influencing their shopping decisions, slightly ahead of in-store displays and product samples and demonstrations, both at 41 per cent.
More than half of all shoppers (58 per cent) compare prices between stores.
GfK said: "The message is clear: consumers pay attention to promotions and so you need to as well."