On their recent study tour to nurseries in the USA, the British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) and Horticultural Development Company (HDC) found lessons that can be learnt by UK bedding producers.
WD Smith director Michael Smith, who led the tour, said visiting 14 US east coast nurseries such as Metrolina, Bell Nursery and Rockwell Farms gave pointers on what to do in the future - and what to avoid - to build better business.
Among those taking part were two David Colegrave Foundation-funded young growers as well as the BPOA's Simon Davenport, Bryants Nurseries' Richard Bryant and almost 20 others.
The foundation money covered the cost of Delamore apprentice Dylan Pettit and part-funded Jamie Satterthwaite, a student working at Pentland Plants. The rest of Satterthwaite's costs were covered by the Peter Seabrook/BPOA bursary.
Smith says previous tours were more than 20 years ago, when he saw transplanters for the first time. There have been "drastic" changes since then, he notes, with workers everywhere making up hanging baskets, while the lack of any "flats" (pack bedding) was the "most frightening thing I saw".
Twenty years ago automation and transplanting were everywhere, Smith adds, but now there is a move back to hand transplanting because plants have to be put in large containers. "There's a lot of hand labour," he says. "It's not dissimilar to a lot of things happening in the UK but they have gone to the extreme."
US reports suggested that the pack bedding market had dropped by $15m since 2005. But Smith believes that pack bedding remains important in the UK because growers have introduced higher-value larger bedding, something on which he feels the Americans have missed out in their shift from pack bedding straight to containers.
He likens the desire for instant solutions to the US appetite for fast food. "I think they've gone too far and missed the opportunity of selling high-value jumbo pack lines."
Meanwhile, the robots he saw moving plants are not ideal because they have short battery lives and need to be supervised, he explained.
One thing Smith did see that the UK has caught up with is basket refills, so rather than buying new containers customers return to store and drop in a refill. Jersey Plant Direct's Garden Wants system, launched at the Garden Press Event this February, is the first of this type of home-delivered solution in the UK.
Jersey Plants Direct says customers choose a "plant continuity plan" hanging basket, container or trough, then pick one of eight colours for the pot and choose their bedding plants. The plants are grown in biodegradable inserts designed to be easy to remove and replace. The inserts are also compostable. The idea is to keep the display fresh by replacing the pot inserts with new ones that regularly arrive by post.
Smith says Bell Nursery was supplying confetti types to Home Depot and Metrolina was supplying Lowes, with plants also contract-grown at Rockwell Gardens. Refills are available every few weeks to fit containers.
There is more of a gardening culture in the UK, he notes, while in the USA some gardeners might want to do less work so desire an instant solution. "It's not like you're selling a promise," he says.
"I've always liked the idea of helping people to fill containers quickly. It takes the problem away and sits perfectly with the box stores. It fits the person without free time but who feels they've done a bit themselves and who doesn't want to buy a container each time."
Ball Colegrave and now Roundstone have shown some interest in the idea.
The British Protected Ornamentals Association and Horticultural Development Company are hoping to organise another study tour in 2017, this time to the north-west USA.
Study tour findings - Pay-by-scan system shows potential for UK
Study tour leader and WD Smith director Michael Smith says Bell Nursery runs a pay-by-scan system with retailer Home Depot and category manages the plants at the chain with up to 900 (in season) merchandisers looking after the plants at 500 stores. Metrolina does similarly at Lowes and Walmart.
The system allows suppliers to place more inventory at retail sites to reduce out-of-stocks. The grower maintains ownership and control of goods until sold at the checkout. Once scanned, both the sales report and an invoice are created by their electronic point-of-sale system and sent to the grower.
UK DIY retailers prefer to keep control themselves, says Smith. But after an initial outcry the idea of pay-by-scan could work in the UK and probably will happen, he adds, but only if nurseries take complete control of the category.