Target the organic market

Healthy eating and green thinking are putting the seed sector at the top of the retail agenda.

With television programmes such as You Are What You Eat, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver crusading to reintroduce proper cooked meals in place of calorie-packed vending machines into schools and, of course, the Government’s “five-a-day” campaign, it’s not surprising the British public is more interested in the quality, standard and origin of the food they eat.  Concern over air miles and pesticide residues in food have also contributed to a growth in the sales of local produce and organic food. The good news is that this is having a knock-on effect at the garden centre.
The desire for a healthy lifestyle and good home-grown food has resulted in an unprecedented surge in the sale of seeds and young vegetable plants. The trend began a couple of seasons ago and there is no sign of a let-up.
“It started with a big increase in things like herbs but has now spread to all categories of vegetables,” confirms Mr Fothergill’s Seeds marketing manager Ian Cross. He acknowledges the “Jamie Oliver factor” as playing a huge part and adds: “Sales are also being driven by the interest in cookery and fresh food. There’s also a fear of chemicals, and what goes in and on food, plus the environmental implications of delivering food to the shops. It has all come at the same time and people are now far more inspired to go out and grow their own food.”
As a major seed producer, Kings Seeds of Colchester is well positioned to report on the trend. Kings supplies vegetable seeds to other companies as well as operating a mail-order service and packeting its own brand, plus the Suffolk Herb range for sale through garden centres and other retail outlets.  Sales director Tony Ward says: “Vegetable seed is our forte. Driven by the healthy-eating campaigns and other factors, our mail-order business increased by 35 per cent last year.” With a high demand for organic produce, the Suffolk Herb range has been upgraded this year.
Vegetable seed is believed to be outselling flower seed by a ratio of 60:40.  The split, and the growing importance of the edibles market, is reflected in terms of strategy and developments from the seed companies for the coming season.
“For 2007 there are 59 new and/or exclusive variety introductions. These are weighted towards vegetables to reflect their increasing popularity,” says retail manager Neil Sharp of Ipswich-based Thompson & Morgan (T&M).
One of T&M’s main promotions for 2007 is “Hot Spots”.
“These are an effective way of achieving incremental sales,” says Sharp. “They highlight key trends and product groups in a way that entices the consumer purchase.”
Each Hot Spot theme is supported with a “Buy two, get this packet free” promotion at no cost or loss of margin to the garden centre. As well as new, easy-to-grow and customer favourites, themes for 2007 include the Kitchen Garden, to focus on healthy eating and salad bar production, and Natural Garden, which focuses on organic vegetables as well as wildflowers.
Also reflecting the trend towards healthy eating is the T&M Sprouting Seeds Hot Spot display. This features the full sprouting seeds range and a new Seed Sprouter growing unit — a one-stop Sprouting Seed Shop. The seed varieties — selected for being rich in essential vitamins and minerals — are economical, simple to grow and ready to eat in salads, stir-fries or casseroles in less than a week. The Sprouting Seed display rack is purpose built to accommodate linked sales of the Sprouter and the seeds. It comes complete with 17 varieties and 48 Sprouters, highlighted with informative point-of-sale material.
Last year Suttons Seeds emphasised its Family Health campaign — a drive to encourage people to grow and eat more of their own vegetables. The campaign started big, caught the public’s imagination and this year is even bigger. “Retailers from the smallest stockist to the largest garden centre have seized the opportunity to create their own in-store promotions, developing customer interest and leading to soaring sales of vegetable seeds,” explains a company representative.
Buoyant vegetable seed sales in 2006 have prompted Suttons to introduce a number of new varieties to drive sales early in the season. Included in the new line-up are Cabbage F1 Kilaxy, which is said to set new standards in club-root resistance, nutritious Broccoli F1 Green Magic and Swede Invitation — a new “super swede” high in vitamin C.
But as well as looking for “organic” and “fresh” traditional foods, there is also a trend towards more adventurous culinary tastes.  Probably driven more by the cookery media than the garden media, this new demand is being met by introductions such as Suttons Seeds’ Chilli Pepper Red Demon — described as an easy-to-grow variety for those that like it hot. Also promoted under the Family Health Campaign, Suttons is introducing three new collections — Herb, Patio Salad and Grow the Taste. The last of these comprises three region-specific collections to meet the growing interest in ethnic cookery.
T&M is hoping to satisfy the taste for something different with Vita Sementi — The Taste of Italy. This is a range of 60 varieties of typically Italian vegetables selected for their popularity, flavour and ability to grow in the UK climate.
The range has a simple pricing structure with only two price points of £1.69
and £1.99.
The demand for grow-your-own vegetables does not stop at seeds. After a successful trial season in 2006, T&M is launching fully into the seed potato market for 2007. Sharp confirms: “Last year’s test has given T&M the strategy and pricing structure to make a real impact on the market. For 2007 we are working exclusively with WCF Phoenix, a market leader in the horticultural seed potato sector, as a partner to bring the highest-quality potatoes and services to the garden centre trade.”
Bringing its seed philosophy to this area, T&M is focusing on depth of range with traditional and exclusive varieties together with quality packaging and high-impact, informative point-of-sale material aimed at creating impulse purchases while maintaining competitive prices. In all there are 42 varieties in two pack sizes of 2.5kg and 25kg covering first-earlies, second-earlies and main crop production. Completing this non-seed development, T&M is also offering onions, shallots and garlic sets.
The non-seed theme is also picked up by Mr Fothergill’s with the launch of Marvellous Mushroom, a choice of Shiitake, Pearl Oyster, Pink Oyster, Winter Enoki and Yorkshire Oyster suitable for growing on straw, logs or even old books. “Not widely available for grocery retailers, these species are set to attract those who like to grow something different and exotic,” says Cross.
While the seed market is satisfying a demand for locally grown, fresh and organic vegetables, to be successful it needs to ensure it caters for all levels of gardening experience and enthusiasm.  For 2007 there are new products and collections aimed at attracting the gardening newcomers. One of these, Mr Fothergill’s Pots of Flavour, comprises growing kits of lettuce, pepper, rocket and tomato — all packed into colour co-ordinated patio planters complete with compost and full growing instructions.
Gardening has long been synonymous with a healthy lifestyle — providing both exercise and nutrition. It also solves, in part, many of the concerns over food freshness, pesticide residues and air miles. A new generation is now growing up on Jamie’s School Dinners. Let’s hope that by showing this generation how easy it is to garden, seed sales can enjoy the positive trend for some time to come.

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