Live market research: customers choose pansies on colour while growers go for shape

The Meadow Croft Pansy and Viola Festival shows the way forward for growers and retailers, says Jack Sidders.

Meadow Croft Pansy and Viola Festival. Image: HW
Meadow Croft Pansy and Viola Festival. Image: HW

There are many things to be learnt from the Meadow Croft Pansy and Viola Festival, not least how impressive thousands of bedding plants in full bloom look.

For those who attended two weeks ago, it was a chance to see the most comprehensive range possible of some of the country's favourite plants and be refreshed by their riotous colour on a dank March day.

More importantly, the event offers an insight into what appeals to customers, as they pick their favourites from more than 900 varieties on show. The striking thing, says Meadow Croft managing director Michael Smith, is how different their choices are from those of growers.

"The public aren't worried about things like habits, not in the way we are," he explains. "They won't really take notice of an untidy habit because they buy on impulse, looking for uniqueness and for colour, and they are not paranoid about plant shapes like we are."

Michael and his father, Roland, set up the festival seven years ago to promote Meadow Croft Garden Centre. But the event quickly grew as breeders saw the advantages of a free independent trial.

They have developed a lucrative retail line from the event, Festival Favourites, which includes the public's favourite 40 varieties chosen at the event.

And they are not alone in their vision. In fact, as Michael acknowledges, he got more than a grain of inspiration from fellow British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) member Trevor Peacock, the owner of Cranbrook Plants in Huntingdon.

Peacock holds annual events to highlight certain plants, from Fuchsia fashion shows to this year's Begonia Bash. In his view, they are primarily a great marketing exercise.

"What we are desperately trying to do," says Peacock, "is get away from promoting these varieties in a way that doesn't mean anything to the general public. It's not talking about things like uniformity of flowering, it is trying to promote them in a different way."

The strategy is working for Cranbrook, as sales tend to mirror promotions. "The results speak for themselves. For instance, Fuchsias had dropped back for us but after a couple of years of promotions, they are back to being our number one product in the basket range, and it worked the same for Petunias."

Cranbrook has also attracted two retailers, Pole Hill Garden Centre in Kent and Scottsdales in Cambridge. The Primrose festival at Bypass Nurseries in Essex has been running for 27 years and last month's outing proved as popular as ever.

Garden centre manager Priscilla Amos said the event has shown time and again how different customer tastes can be to those of the grower. "For us, uniformity has gone out of the window and it is all about the range of colour. Where in the past we would have gone for uniformity of colour, now we look for shades right across the spectrum."

But despite the obvious successes, this type of promotion remains uncommon. Many companies open trial grounds to the public - Ball Colegrave, Thompson & Morgan and Claire Austin - but comparisons with Meadow Croft's event are limited. So is it time trade bodies took the initiative, eliminating the cost or logistical problems that inhibit individual growers and retailers?

The BPOA is considering just that. Chairman Sarah Fairhurst says: "It's something we are discussing at the next marketing meeting, so it is definitely on the agenda. We got the idea from Michael (Smith) and it has potential."

With the HTA's new bedding group looking to find new business development opportunities, it could be time for it to get involved, too. Business development manager Martin Simmons says: "It's an interesting idea. There are a lot of logistical problems, but it is something we would certainly consider."

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