Selling on the benefits of seed

With high food prices driving the sale of vegetable varieties and a focus on easy-grow ornamentals, seed firms are set for a bumper year, writes Kris Collins.

Grow your own and easy-grow ornamentals fuelling a seed boom - photo: Thompson & Morgan
Grow your own and easy-grow ornamentals fuelling a seed boom - photo: Thompson & Morgan

Vegetable seed has continued to see good sales growth throughout 2008 and suppliers are responding to the continuing grow-your-own trend with a host of product developments for the coming season.

But rather than lose focus on flower seed and ignore a whole section of the buying public, 2009 also looks to be a good year for stimulating sales in ornamentals seed, with a mass of introductions aimed at both the advanced and novice gardener.

Suppliers continually assess their ranges to identify varieties that are out of fashion or that need an extra push to get them back in the market. Some may be removed, leaving scope to introduce the latest trendsetters that will hopefully become the future staples for the home gardener.

While vegetable seed sales continue to gather pace, suppliers are also noticing a steady increase in flower seed sales and believe there is the potential to expand on this further if the consumer is given the confidence to grow from scratch.

Suttons sales and marketing director David Arnold has seen a six per cent increase in flower seed sales in 2008 compared with 2007. He admits that this is nowhere near vegetable seed growth but the company remains committed to flowers. Following the success of its Speedy Seed vegetable launch last year, the company is launching Fast Flowers and is hoping for similar success. Arnold says: "The development of Speedy Seed and now Fast Flowers stems from research carried out two years ago, revealing a perception among novice gardeners that growing flowers from seed was difficult, took a long time and you'd need a degree in horticulture to be successful.

"When we said that consumers could sow some vegetables and start eating them within a week, many people found it unbelievable. The Speedy Seed range indicates on the packet how long it takes from sowing to eating and it has been one of the most successful ranges we have launched in the past 25 years."

The company has moved the concept on to include flowers and has selected varieties that will flower in as little as six weeks from sowing. Arnold thinks this will benefit gardeners who need extra guidance to help them find what they are looking for. "When you look to stimulate the market and generate more sales, concepts like Fast Flowers and Speedy Seed are definitely the way forward," he says.

Arnold finds that consumers are increasingly looking for easy options. As such, direct-sow and open pollinator varieties that don't need a glasshouse or warm windowsill to get started have become an area of focus for Suttons: "Direct-sow items are also very economical; a packet of seeds may cost just over a pound and will give a fantastic display for the garden, whereas one finished plant could cost twice that. Convenience and the realisation that growing your own flowers is easy is really pushing sales, but economic factors are increasingly coming into play."

Where other sectors of the garden retail trade may be seeing a slowdown of sales owing to economic conditions, seed suppliers are moving towards 2009 confident that their low price-point goods will remain attractive to consumers.

Thompson & Morgan's UK retail sales and marketing manager Neil Sharpe believes the seed sector is in a good position. He told HW: "Where people are trying to save money they are looking at alternative ways to provide for themselves. At the end of the day, packet seeds offer great value for money compared to supermarket produce. A shop-bought lettuce may cost 89p but you can buy a packet of seeds for £1.89 and get 200 plants out of it. The value-for-money argument is certainly there, alongside an increased awareness of healthy eating."

Arnold agrees and has seen vegetable seed sales soar on the back of this - Suttons' sales for 2008 are forecasted to reach a 70-30 split in favour of vegetable seed and he expects this to continue while shop-bought food prices rise: "Growing your own is the cheapest and most nutritious option. In building the Suttons range, we are concentrating on ease of use, low cost and low energy use."

Kings Seeds, of Essex, saw its vegetable seed sales "go through the roof" last year and in response will launch a range of baby-leaf oriental vegetable seeds in November.

Marketing director Tony Ward says he has witnessed the effects of previous recessions on the seed market: "I've seen emerging trends come about due to previous credit crunches. A recession in the 1970s caused people to move over to vegetable seed from flowers - it was perhaps a five to 10 per cent switch but that was quite significant in the marketplace.

"It is worth remembering that people also moved away from novelty strains like pink beetroot seed and pink carrot seed to more traditional varieties - things like beet Boltardy, green runner beans and broad beans. The attitude is that they know these types will be successful, whereas the novelty types that they haven't tried before may not perform as well. When they are relying on them for food they want to be sure their vegetables crop to their requirements.

"Traditional varieties remain the best sellers and that is likely to increase as we move into the credit crunch - beet Boltardy sales have grown by about 12 per cent this year. I'd advise retailers to stock a good range of traditional types this year."

Similarly, last year was the first time that vegetable seed sales overtook flower sales for the Mr Fothergill's and Johnsons brands, although marketing director Ian Cross is keen to continue pushing up flower seed sales and believes market conditions are right for that. He says: "Moving towards 2009, people will more likely look to produce their plants cheaply from seed rather than buy more expensive finished plants.

"We're already seeing this with vegetable seed but we are keen to keep the flower sector stimulated. Flowers are still popular and we hope hope retailers won't focus all seed sales on vegetables and take their eye off flower seed options.

"We made some major launches in the vegetable category for 2008 so in a way it's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Aiming for growth in flower seed sales and following the success with its World Kitchen branding, Johnsons this year launched World Botanics, a range of 44 varieties of unusual and exotic flowers sourced from around the world. The branding is similar to World Kitchen with distinctive, pictorial packets.

Cross is keen for retailers to remain focused on flower seed sales and not let the demand for vegetable seed push them from the shelves. He says: "It's possible to generate good vegetable sales without a wide range but with flowers you need the range there - if you start cutting back on varieties you risk cutting into sales.

"A few carrot varieties sell very well and introducing a host of new carrot types won't necessarily extend sales. There is a danger of retailers looking at their best-selling veg lines and planning to add a few more varieties, but these will likely be small-volume sales. We've tried to avoid that this year by adding quite unusual items that won't rob sales from standard vegetable varieties.

"We're saying to hardened growers, 'Keep your standard varieties but here is something that you might like to try alongside them', with the aim of expanding sales rather than spreading them out."

Cross's biggest tip for retailers is to not lose focus on flowers. "There is a big sector of flower buyers that are not necessarily going to buy veg if you take flower options away, so that will just be a lost sale. There are lots of great veg products and we are extending that, but don't shove flowers out of the way - it's a different product category and a different customer who buys them."

Thompson & Morgan is looking to generate sales by teaming up with prestigious names within horticulture. Sharpe says the company's biggest development for 2009 is its Duchy of Cornwall organic seed range (see Retail News, HW, 31 July) and alongside that sits the RHS Garden Explorers range aimed at children, with a mix of 10 vegetable varieties and seven flowers. Sharpe says: "This is probably one of our strongest years in terms of what we are putting forward. Certainly the Duchy development is a strong move in the market at a time when consumers are looking for organic vegetable options.

"In the 13 years I've been with Thompson & Morgan I've seen a total turnaround from flower seed to vegetables becoming a major part of the business. It is important, though, that flowers aren't marginalised - but developments with direct-sow varieties and novelties should keep things going.

"We also enter some flower types with low trial prices to get the consumer interested. If they buy one full-priced packet, they can pick up another for just 69p. Offering varieties at 99p also gives a price point advantage over veg to keep the interest.

"As an industry we need to be careful we don't put all our eggs into one basket - at Thompson & Morgan we offer a wide range as well as full listings in our catalogue, but in garden centres if people can't find what they are looking for, the consumer could be disappointed."

MAXIMISING SPACE

Seed suppliers understand the pressures faced by retailers when it comes to maximising profit per square metre. Aiming to boost sales and maximise on space, they all look to develop instore display units. For 2009 the Johnsons display has been developed in line with the Mr Fothergill's PoS, reducing the mix of plastic and metal stands and moving towards EuroHooks. Marketing director Ian Cross says the move has given the range a fresher look, while making the most of available space.

Suttons also has a new range of stands for this autumn. Sales and marketing director David Arnold says: "We're trying to mimimise the effect of the stands, making them more space efficient - there is a lot of pressure on retailers in terms of space. Our product is relatively small anyway but it's important we maximise space and the new stands will do this."

NEW FOR 2009

Antirrhinum Lampion - Suttons: A trailing Antirrhinum, producing a compact mixture in a wide range of rainbow colours.

Antirrhinum 'Snappy Tongue' - Mr Fothergill's: A colour mix for borders and good for cut flowers. Around one in six bear a tongue in the middle of the "mouth" of the flower. Blooms June to October.

Aster Playtime - Johnsons: With narrow, twisting and incurving petals, this plant is good for borders and cut flowers.

Delphinium Avalon - Johnsons: A mix of dark and light spores, all with a white heart. Good for height in borders.

Echinacea 'Dreamcoat' - Mr Fothergill's: First coloured mixture that can be raised from seed. Blooms offer a range of colours around a raised central cone. Plant in clumps for best effect. Also makes a good cut flower.

Osteospermum 'Limpopo Mixed' - Mr Fothergill's: An easy-grow option, even in dry, sunny spots. Daisy-like blooms emerge in a range of pastel colours.

Sunflower Garden Statement - Johnsons: A short form at just 90cm. Blooms have an additional row of petals for extra effect.

Viola Maharaja - Suttons: Ideal for baskets or containers, it produces large blooms with deep-orange centres and purple surrounds. It will flower throughout the summer and will also spread out to give a colourful display.

World Botanics - Johnsons: A range of 44 plants from around the world, offering unusual and exotic flowers. Highlights include Allium cernuum 'Pink Giant', Gunnera manicata Award of Garden Merit and Miscanthus sinensis.

Broccoli Kalibroc F1 - Johnsons: An early-cropping variety, fast-growing for tender shoots. Three crops per season.

Broccoli Rudolph - Suttons: East Grow Range Long cropping period, heads can be picked from October to December (from early sowings) right through to January and February (from later sowings in areas that are suitable).

Beetroot Boltardy - Suttons: A top seller that is recommended for early sowing and provides lots of delicious, smooth-skinned beetroots. Buyers can try them roasted or juiced (raw), and they can even make beetroot chutney. The variety can be grown in abundance with Groweasy tapes.

Carrot Grace F1 - Johnsons: A long, smooth carrot that is resistant to splitting.

Dwarf bean 'Flagrano' - Mr Fothergill's: A delicacy on the Continent and new to the UK. Produces olive-green, kidney-shaped flageolet beans.

Dwarf bean 'Orlando' - Johnsons: Plump, pods with good disease resistance.

Duchy Originals Organic Collection - Thompson & Morgan: A range of vegetable seeds developed for the organic gardener.

Marvellous Mushrooms range - Mr Fothergill's: A relaunch of the range to include three new varieties: White Button, Chestnut Button and Golden Oyster.

Pak choi Yuushou F1 - Johnsons: Grown as a mature plant in summer, it provides edible baby leaves for much of the year.

RHS Garden Explorers - Thompson & Morgan: A range of vegetable and flower seeds aimed at encouraging children to take up gardening.

Runner bean Scarlet Empire - Mr Fothergill's: An improved form of the best-selling 'Scarlet Emperor'. Bred for disease tolerance, flavour and longer, slender beans.

Super Seeds Growing Kits - Suttons: Each kit features a tray, propagator top, 12 expandable peat pots and three varieties of seeds for easy windowsill starts. The range includes:

- Tomatoes - cherry, standard and beefsteak types;

- Peppers - chilli and sweet varieties;

- Patio salads - contains tomato, cucumber and lettuce; l Windowsill herbs - basil, parsley and chives;

- Garden herbs - basil, coriander and thyme.


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