Over the past few decades the houseplant sector has been a cash cow and most retailers have done little or nothing to market plants other than displaying them on benches. But take a look at retail trends on the continent. For every houseplant sold in the UK this year, a consumer in Denmark, Norway and Switzerland is likely to buy five. So the potential to grow this market in the UK is huge.
At a recent British Ornamental Plant Producers technical conference, delegates heard JZ Flowers commercial manager Joanne Plant say sales of indoor plants are growing, with a 7.2 per cent increase in value and 1.2 per cent in volume over the past year. "Indoor plants are what's driving the market," she added.
Many garden centres have a highly subjective and often negative view of houseplants, not least because these can represent as little as 2.5 to five per cent of turnover. But think on. At the same conference, HTA market information manager David Denny said although plants are not recession-proof they are "relatively resistant to the economic pressures we've seen". So assuming there is growth to be had in the houseplant sector, here are 10 shortcuts to optimising sales of them:
1. Houseplants versus cut flowers
Compare some of the more staid houseplants to the instant hits of colour and scent from cut flowers, and for many lifestyle-conscious and youthful customers there is no contest. Sales of cut flowers have grown hugely in recent years and this is partly responsible for the decline in houseplant revenues. Whereas annual sales are around £170m, UK consumers spend more than a billion on cut flowers.
Potted plants do, however, represent much better value for money, and the best example of this is the orchid. In the case of Phalaenopsis and Cymbidium particularly, flowers can be had on a plant for six months or more, and this at the same price as cut flowers (or usually less), which can go over in a matter of days.
2. Sell houseplant as gifts
Sell houseplants in your gift department and put up "gift" signs in your houseplant department. Gary Wilburn, director of design and sustainability at Southampton-based HPW Architects & Designers, which has been instrumental in the design and layout of plant retail areas for more than 20 years (clients include Ikea in Germany), says: "Houseplant customers are different from the general run of visitors to a garden centre because they aren't necessarily gardeners. They're buying a gift - for themselves or for someone else."
Those buying for themselves are actually buying to decorate the home and experts reckon these customers account for about 20 per cent of the gift purchase market. The classic "gift for someone else" takes up the other 80 per cent.
Out in the planteria, it is generally accepted that staff tend to be horticulturists first and retailers second. But in selling houseplants, it needs to be the other way round. Gift-style presentation is different and that is what is needed.
3. The "easy" factor
Promote houseplants as easy. Dr David Hessayon, the author of the world's best-selling book on the subject (The House Plant Expert, Transworld Publishers, 1991), points out: "Anyone can grow the more popular varieties and make them look attractive. Exciting displays are not difficult to make."
Customers teetering on the brink of buying need to be given that extra bit of confidence and telling them that a particular plant is not difficult will probably give you the sale.
Sara Rittershausen of Devon-based Burnham Nurseries confirms that the popular mass-market orchids are easy to look after. She says: "Our orchid nursery really caters for enthusiasts who know what they're buying and how to look after them. But for beginners there are the easy-to-care-for Phalaenopsis. They just need light but not full sunlight and they don't want to be in cold draughts."
4. Converting space
If you have the space, there is no reason why you should not maximise display opportunity. Historically, orangeries were the protected cloisters of grand houses, where citrus and other tender plants grew. Recently, a new orangery opened at the Poundbury Gardens garden centre in Dorchester, linking the centre with its Engine Room restaurant. The green oak structure has wide double doors and a gently sloping ramp.
If your centre has open areas, consider glazing them in for houseplant sales. In inclement weather customers will frequent such places, so the conversion costs can soon be recouped.
5. Improving displays
Sadly, too many garden centres seem happy to display their houseplants in rows, all neatly lined up, facing outwards like good little soldiers. These have a strong "walk-past" factor. The plants need to shout "I'm here, look at me" and they need to emotionally engage with the customer.
At Donaghadee Garden Centre in Northern Ireland, orchids and pot plants are known for being sold on simple, coloured cubes. Sales always go up when plants are displayed in this fashion. The displays include half-a-dozen different coloured cubes of different heights, and these are used mainly for plants with single-coloured flowers. It helps customers to visualise how the plants will look when they get them back home.
6. Promoting British-grown
Houseplants are heavy so relatively expensive to trade over distances. It is surprising, therefore, that so many plants are imported from Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Italy. About half the indoor plants sold in the UK are homegrown and most UK-grown plants are flowering types. Customers are aware more than ever of "plant miles", so you could save on shipping costs and score a few environmental points as well by announcing that your plants, or a range of them, are UK-grown.
UK growers produce a good variety of indoor plants, including African violets, azaleas, begonias, kalanchoes, pot chrysanthemums and potted bulbs. Union Jacks appear on labels to denote that plants and produce are UK-made. Many supermarkets now have "buy British" policies and it is understood that the production of British-grown poinsettias in 2012 rose above the two million level.
To source trade/wholesale quantities of UKgrown indoor plants, use the Horticulture Week Plant Suppliers Guide 2013 (an annual publication).
7. The importance of pricing
Rittershausen at Burnham Nurseries is pleased that garden centres are reflecting more sensible prices. "For many years, specialist suppliers like us were accused of selling orchids at very high prices, but now the wider garden retail trade is coming up, which is good for everyone," she says.
A good model is the typical Phalaenopsis on sale in centres for £14.99. But you could sell two for £25 and improve volume considerably. Even better, as a result of increased production and availability, the wholesale price of orchids has come down over the past few years. This means that you can charge a sensible price to the customer - and improve on your margins.
8. Health-promoting houseplants
Point-of-sale posters, cards and boards should be displayed to emphasise the health-giving merits of houseplants.
More than a decade ago, NASA scientist Dr Bob Wolverton first revealed that indoor plants are good for us. They remove the carbon dioxide that we emit during respiration and release oxygen into the air for us to breathe.
Wolverton said: "All plants remove impurities from the air, to a lesser or greater effect. They remove benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene from the environment by absorbing them through their leaves or via the growing medium."
Research has shown that the best houseplants for this purpose are the peace lily (Spathiphyllum), Scindapsus/Epipremnum, Aglaonema, kentia palm, spider plant (Chlorophytum) and Boston fern (Nephrolepis). Unusually, orchids, cacti and succulents exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide at night, making them perfect bedroom plants.
9. Fashionable houseplants
If you think of houseplants as dated - Victorian parlour palms and potted aspidistra being the main culprits here - tell your customers to treat indoor plants as a contemporary statement in the home. This will raise the perceived value of the plants that you are selling.
Lilies and clean, modern-looking forms of Dracaena and Spathiphyllum all make a chic statement, but orchids are arguably best proof of the contemporary indoor plant ethos. Sales of them have gone through the roof over the past decade because they are perceived as exotic, yet the price is seen as attainable. Ikea, that arbiter of contemporary and affordable interior design, has invested heavily in orchids.
10. Planning ahead for Christmas
Back in October last year, florists and growers presented poinsettia displays at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London to show retailers new ways of using the plant.
At the event, project manager Dr Susanne Lux of the EU-funded Stars for Europe scheme said UK poinsettia sales have the potential to grow by 250 per cent. She added that almost 0.5 per cent of Germans buy a poinsettia on average, against 0.18 per cent of people in the UK. German retail prices for standard poinsettia are lower at around £1.20, which is the UK wholesale price.
The British poinsettia market could grow with promotion from the Stars for Europe scheme, which runs in 16 countries. Some garden centres even play a Stars for Europe video on a laptop in the middle of their poinsettia display. Customers can group around it and this frequently leads to an increase in sales.
Flower Council www.flowercouncil.co.uk
Flowers & Plants Association www.flowersandplants.org.uk
Burnham Nurseries www.orchids.uk.com
HPW Partnership www.hpw.co.uk
Stars for Europe www.stars-for-europe.com.