Ten Ways to Sell More... Climbing plants

With many consumers keen to make the most out of limited growing spaces, plants and sales should both head skywards, Graham Clarke suggests.

Passion flowers: split labels can help retailers to show off the plants’ ornate blooms as well as their attractive fruits - image: HW
Passion flowers: split labels can help retailers to show off the plants’ ornate blooms as well as their attractive fruits - image: HW

We all know that average garden sizes are getting smaller and this has been a significant factor in suppressing plant sales for many years. However, one plant sector benefits from smaller gardens — climbers and creepers. This is big news for retailers.

The one thing that all garden designers do when planning small garden schemes is to travel upwards. Boundary fences, building walls, archways, pergolas, arbours, obelisks — they can all feature in small gardens and provide an opportunity for plants "on the vertical".

There are no current sales figures for climbers, but according to an HTA Ipsos MORI survey (June 2011), 44 per cent of adults in Great Britain with a garden/somewhere to grow outdoor plants had climbers growing in that space. This leaves a significant 56 per cent of garden owners with space for a climber, so the opportunity for retailers is clear.

With a bit of an extra push and promotion, just how many more people could grow climbing plants on their walls and fences? Here are 10 ways to make sales of climbers go sky high:

1 Promote the versatility of climbers

Matthew Wilson, managing director at Clifton Nurseries in London, says: "Climbers add a vertical dimension that is especially useful in smaller spaces. They also excel at hiding ugly features such as fences, can be trained over attractive features like pergolas or arches, or can stand alone, trained onto an obelisk or a simple wigwam of canes or posts."

Simon Caterall, sales manager at Preston-based Garden Centre Plants, adds: "People underestimate climbing plants. They have a multitude of uses, particularly in the smaller gardens of today."

Climbing plants can frame windows with flowers to fill the house with scent and they can mask a stark boundary wall with colour and fragrance. By using different climbers together or combining them with shrubs, gardeners can compose planting schemes that will offer constantly changing pictures throughout the year. All this while taking up minimal ground space. This has to be the key to shifting lots of stock — the climber is a versatile commodity and the customer needs to be told this.

2 Put climbers with other plants

Tell your customers to choose climbers that flower at different times. This will offer the longest display. However, combining plants with flowering seasons that overlap with each other often provides the greater interest. Combining different climbers — roses and clematis is the classic combination — gives a long season of interest.

Wilson says: "Some climbers are useful for extending the season of interest by allowing them to grow through other plants. For example, an old apple tree can become a living support for a climbing rose or an early-flowering shrub can be combined with an easily controlled climber like the glory flower (Eccremocarpus scaber)."

3 Encourage multiple purchases

Your climbing plant stocks are competing with everything else in the store, from compost and watering cans even to cups of coffee, so consider attracting more sales with value-for-money promotions. Try a multi-deal to encourage customers to pick and mix from your climber benches.

You could, for example, consider a pack of three climbers for a north-facing wall — such as Clematis montana, Hydrangea petiolaris and a variegated ivy. Centres could even offer a three-for-the-price-of-two rate for different clematis varieties.

Other plants, too, make good companions to climbers — such as pots of seasonal bedding or low-growing evergreens — so these should be sold in close proximity.

4 Maximise linked sales

Ian Gibb, sales manager at East Sussex-based Saxon Plants, says: "Retailers should tell the whole story by linking sales. This might just be placing products close to the plant display. For example, climbers could be situated near products such as containers, bags of compost, fertiliser and so on."

Climbing plants use a variety of methods to cling on and ascend. Some have twining leaf stalks that wind around supports or other plants, others have aerial roots that can burrow into brick and mortar while others still have tendrils, adhesive pads or thorns to haul themselves upwards. You should point customers in the direction of all the different supports, trelliswork and ties that you stock.

One of the things that will often deter a customer from buying a climber, especially one of the many types of clematis, is the method of pruning required — are the plants in the group 1, 2 or
3 pruning category? Put up cards explaining the differences and point customers towards the secateurs.

5 Get the point of sale right

Effective point of sale (POS) is the best way to draw offers to customers' attention. Many producers of climbing plants supply a wide range of POS material — huge posters, banners and streamers. These are not always free, but they are usually supplied at cost.

Gibb says: "Selling climbers can be difficult for retailers — it is not easy to make a bench of sticks tied to canes look exciting — and it can be relatively difficult to create attractive 'living labels' because climbers need supporting and they are generally bulkier and more fragile than smaller shrubs and low container plants.

"Therefore, good POS becomes much more important. Climber benches are often large so they should be supported by equally large and striking POS. Retailers should make sure that they get pictures of the blooms and information on how to plant and support the climbers."

6 The importance of labelling

Climbing plants do demand attractive and accurate labelling. Steven Lee, director of New Place Nurseries in East Sussex, says: "The label is the most important part in the sale of climbers and the picture is crucial — the bigger, the better."

He adds: "I remember the Notcutts labels some years ago for clematis, where the label was cut out in the shape of the flower. From a distance it looked as though they were flowers. When a climber on sale is not in flower, then the label really comes into its own."

Split labels showing more than one season of interest are commonplace. Clematis, for example, have attractive seed heads so a label could show the flowers and the seeds. Climbing roses could show the flowers and the hips (berries). Passion flowers could show the ornate blooms and the attractive yellow fruits, while Virginia creeper (Partheno­cissus) could show the green summer leaves as well as the red autumn leaves.

7 Promote award-winning and new plants

Because there are so many varieties, it really helps the less knowledgeable consumer if you can point them to the plants with the best chances of a tip-top display. The RHS has its Award of Garden Merit scheme and the British Clematis Society has a list of clematis of special merit.

In addition, watch out for the new-to-market introductions. For 2013, Raymond Evisons's Guernsey Clematis Nursery will be launching a number of new varieties. The pale-bluish cream-white 'Chelsea' is named to celebrate 100 years of the famous RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Meanwhile, 'Giselle' is a dusky purple-pink with a contrasting red-purple centre.

When you stock any such noted or new plant varieties, make sure that the bed cards or other labels promote the fact that the climber in question has a distinction.

8 Display climbers well

Where you stock climbing plants in your centre is crucial. The area should be sheltered from the wind because they will blow over easily. Climbers frequently come in three-litre pots, which gives them a deeper root run. They look and grow better in this pot size and are more stable.
Many nurseries now sell them in six-up plastic carry trays.

Caterall says: "You should make sure the bed is backed or divided, or both, with trellis panels. This helps the customer to understand that they are in the climbers section and that plants will need some form of support. More practically, it helps to prevent the climbers from toppling over."

He adds that you could also "sink empty four-litre pots into the bench. Into these you can place climbers in standard three-litre pots. Being sunken means they will not fall over. Make sure that you trim off the rim of the larger sunken pot or customers will think they need to pick these up also."

Some centres install an open trelliswork frame over the bench. Pots of climbers are then stood in the trellis holes.

9 Keep plants looking good

Lee warns that if hygiene at your centre is below standard, then all sales will suffer. "When a customer is searching for a climber, they will be drawn to healthy plants. Generally speaking, they are looking for something that has no sign of pest or disease, no weeds and no roots coming from the bottom of the pot." He adds that more than one stem at the base of the plant can put customers off, as can mottled or discoloured foliage.

Caterall suggests keeping a stock of 1.2m canes handy. "In a sunny week, many climbers can quickly put out new growth. Once a week somebody should insert the longer canes and tie in the climbers as needed. It's a five-minute job but can make a big difference to the appearance of the bed."

If a garden centre cannot afford to maintain climbers on a regular basis, Lee suggests they turn it into an opportunity. "Why not hold a demonstration day on looking after climbers? Talk about the pruning and aftercare, and do it as you go."

10 Order less

Finally, there are ways to resolve the issue many retailers have of masses of tall climbers clogging up the planteria and constantly toppling over in the slightest of breezes — reduce the size of your regular order. This is a serious suggestion, and from one of the major wholesalers.

Caterall says: "This sounds counterproductive but the point is retailers should place smaller, more regular orders. It means that there will be freshening of stock more regularly and plants won't be left unsold for so long. A climber that is unsold continues to grow and that means it can grow into its neighbouring plants or become top-heavy."

Useful contacts

Garden Centre Plants    01772 863531
New Place Nurseries    01798 873774
Saxon Plants    01323 763355
Guernsey Clematis Nursery     01481 245942


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