Eyetracker technology, which shows where customers look when they are shopping, is proving a useful tool to help garden centres sell more plants, says the HTA.
The recent Ball Colegrave/HTA seminar saw a range of speakers approach the subject of merchandising plants in a variety of ways. But all agreed that to be "fit for the future" retailers need to recognise that customers need guidance to help them buy the instant seasonal colour they favour today.
HTA market information manager Dave Denny said plants should be at eye level if possible because the typical customer - a 60-year-old woman - does not want to bend over to shop.
Barriers to sales
Small fonts on signage can be a barrier to sales while signs in front of rather than behind plants are also off-putting, he added. A lack of baskets near bulky plants also stops sales, as does lack of pricing and trip hazards such as hoses.
Denny said evidence shows customers engage with colour blocks of plants, like backboards advertising "three for £10", and they like "touch and smell" signs, such as on herb displays.
Some 12 per cent engage without a sign while 40 per cent do so with one. Signs should show the end result - a plant in flower - and using some quirky props also helps engagement, Denny advised. Staff cannot always be on hand so sometimes signs have to do the selling, he said.
The research took place at Hilltop Garden Centres. Chief executive officer Boyd Douglas Davies said friendly signs cut "fear of foliage". He would use tracking in all nine of his stores, he added.
Andy Bunker of Alton Garden Centre said human interaction with customers is also important to help sales. He positions himself near the compost in season as a meeter and greeter to offer advice to the customers, many of whom are not experienced gardeners.
Customers want instant, container gardening and they buy with their eyes, are time poor and less knowledgeable about plants than previous generations. This has led to a shift towards seasonal plants that are "must haves" and a reduced focus on price.
Echinacea, dahlia, hydrangea, gaillardia, salvia, hebe, lavender, Festuca and lupins all fit the bill, said Bunker. He cited West Country Nurseries and Allensmore Nurseries as good suppliers that have helped him towards a record season in the planteria. Gerbera garvinea from Cobbins is a plant for the future, he added.
He said growers, retailers and breeders are now sharing information earlier and retailers should visit the Dutch Flower Trials, a point agreed on by Plants for Europe's Graham Spencer.
Customers will get bored if they do not see new plants, which have media exposure and lead to add-on sales, said Spencer. Stocking new plants gives garden centres a point of difference from competitors.
His award-winning "premium patio plant" Salvia 'Love & Wishes' launched in 2015 with Darby Nursery Stock and Kernock Park Plants, is a good example of a plant that has generated a buzz that can be exploited by retailers, said Spencer. If the plant is in demand, price is less important, he added.
He used the "thriller, filler, spiller" catchphrase and said retailers should take notice of new plants from growers such as Bransford Webbs, Ball Colegrave and Farplants while also reading trade press, meeting agents, attending shows and looking at social media to see what is becoming fashionable.
Value in novelty
Ferndale Garden Centre's Neil Grant agreed that price is not the be all and end all, saying he has done well selling Magnolia 'Star Wars' at £46.99 because of its novelty.
He said price perception only exists on bedding strawberries, herbs and alpines. He tells customers that a £9.99 plant is the same cost as a bottle of wine.
Ball Colegrave marketing manager Stuart Lowen said creating the link between the breeder, young-plant grower, finished-plant grower and retailer is more important now. He wants more retailers to visit Ball's trials each summer to see what is available.
Improved sales Colour displays helping customers to find plants
Outdoor plant sales are eight per cent up this year, according to latest figures from the Garden Centre Association. HTA figures show overall garden centre sales are 10 per cent up this year.
Meanwhile, plants sold in the UK may be grown overseas more often thanks to the weak euro, which is leading to more imports. Squire's says as well as the traditional A-Z display of plants by name, it has introduced plant displays by colour such as its yellow Coreopsis 'Flying Saucers' or Crocosmia 'Carmine Brilliant'.
Deputy chairman Sarah Squire says: "We have found that many customers simply don't know what type of plant they want in their garden but they know that they'd like red flowers or perhaps pink and white.
"Customers have said that our displays of plants by colour really make it easy for them to select the right plant for their garden - and it also makes a fantastic display in the garden centre."