The bedding plant industry has the potential to grow by £120m, according to research by the HTA. But if one message was clear from its inaugural Bedding Focus conference in October, it was that bedding growers need to market themselves better to capitalise on this.
Garry Grueber, co-owner of international project and idea management company Cultivaris, predicted that tomorrow's garden market will be dominated by customers having less time and expertise, with their gardens becoming a place of escape used more for entertaining. "Gardening will change and we are going to have to define new uses for bedding plants," he says. "We need to understand the consumer and how the product fits their lifestyle."
HTA research partner the Future Foundation account director Pippa Goodman supports Grueber's view, saying: "Our latest research really reinforces the fact that home still has a very strong appeal - our homes have become much more multipurpose and, along with our gardens, are an important backdrop for socialising. The recovery is expected to be quite sluggish in the housing market and people are looking at how to make their houses nicer, given how long they are going to be there for."
The study looked into several different approaches growers could pursue to take advantage of this shift in demand, including photo-marketing campaigns, garden centre displays, exploiting plants' environmental credentials, community involvement and taking full advantage of the internet.
Photo-marketing campaigns that link the consumer with the producer of the product are becoming increasingly popular in today's shops, especially in the food and drink sector. Big name supermarkets in particular are using pictures of producers on product packaging more and more.
This form of marketing has become an important tool in highlighting the locality of stock to consumers looking to buy the "best of British", says Goodman. "Almost seven in 10 people believe that large retailers should be forced to sell local products from local suppliers. When it comes to produce and plants, we have an expectation that there will be a similarly sustained demand for local produce."
Although this approach has yet to take off in ornamental horticulture, some growers including Johnsons of Whixley are using photo marketing to link their customers directly with the local grower. The Yorkshire-based nursery launched its Plantsman campaign at this year's Four Oaks Trade Show, with two plant ranges sporting labels with pictures of the grower and information on how the plant was grown.
This photo-marketing approach was endorsed at the conference by Webbs Garden Centre chief executive Boyd Douglas-Davies, who says: "Get a poster made of your team in your nursery growing your plants, and deliver that with the plants.
"We want your pictures because we want to tell your story. You are creating a great British product and we should be saying where our products come from - when did we last tell our customers about how local our products are?"
Another way of engaging customers with bedding plants is to show them how they can fit in with modern demands and lifestyles. "The challenge for the industry is to make bedding relevant for different types of consumers," says HTA market information manager David Denny.
"A lot of garden space has been given over to children, so we need to show people how bedding can fit with that," he continues. "Putting the plants into a display helps the consumers - many of the younger, more marginal gardeners are not giving bedding a go because of a lack of time and a lack of advice as well as a lack of inspiration from garden centres."
Former editor of RHS The Garden magazine Ian Hodgson adds that different plants are needed for different garden spaces including wall planters, window boxes, shaded balconies and terraces, as well as beds. "Personal and social horticulture is changing and we need to be able to promote and create attainable ideas with bedding that people can actually go and use," he says.
From a garden centre perspective, Douglas-Davies points out that it is up to growers to show retailers how bedding can be used so that they can pass those ideas on to consumers. "You are all selling bedding to garden centres and you can encourage them to be more creative," he says. "It won't cost you a thing to share the best of what's going on out there - encourage us to get better and help us to be more creative with your product."
Consumers are becoming more concerned about the environmental impact of the products they buy and this provides a golden opportunity for growers to promote their sustainability credentials, whether that is the use of peat-reduced or peat-free media or the use of biodegradable pots.
Goodman says: "The vast majority of consumers still agree that global warming and climate change is happening and they have every expectation that retailers will be doing as much as possible to help them understand how to make a difference."
Hodgson agrees: "RHS members are using recyclable products and are concerned about being able to send pots back to producers. It's something that will keep developing and something the industry as a whole needs to keep looking at."
New Leaf Sustainability Practice's Charles Drewe says retailers are also becoming more environmentally aware. "Some companies will look at choosing products with a smaller carbon impact and there have been increased sales in peat-reduced and peat-free," he adds.
Away from retail, growers are also being advised to involve their local communities and collaborate with councils' plant display planning committees.
"We only have to look at the RHS Britain in Bloom campaign to see the dedication and skill that goes into some of these displays," says Hodgson. "Local community groups are becoming much more involved in supporting plantings for local authorities and maintaining the displays."
Denny says: "Public displays of bedding plants are sources of ideas and inspiration. Once bedding is seen in a neighbourhood, it creates the drive to get people into garden centres. Roundabout sponsorship, in light of the cuts, is a potential opportunity to get bedding out there."
Douglas-Davies describes it as "gardening where peer pressure works" and says growers can "influence the way Britain will look" by working with their communities. He adds: "If you are not talking to them, you are missing a massive market."
Making use of the internet
The role of the internet and social-networking sites has become more important for businesses the world over, and growers are encouraged to harness the web. Goodman describes Facebook's "Farmville" application, for example, as "horticulture on a completely different scale".
She adds: "Social networks are becoming so important as a source of information and advice - we cannot underestimate the role they are going to have. The internet is a good opportunity to reach out to a new audience and get them involved in hobbies like gardening in different ways."
Hodgson agrees: "The internet has revolutionised everything that we do and we can use social networking sites to broaden and deepen our relationships with customers."
Goodman concludes: "Our homes are going to continue to be a really important backdrop in terms of leisure and we are really enjoying things that feel authentic but are also a novelty. Technology is key in everything but the local angle is critical."
Emphasising the local angle
Lancashire-based Arden Lea Nurseries has collaborated with North West supermarket chain Booths to highlight the local provenance of its products.
Nursery owner Duncan Taylor says: "There are about eight local people who supply the chain with bedding and vegetable plants. One of their slogans is 'Love Local' with a little heart on the label. In the store they have great big pictures of their suppliers with their plants."
He says of growers' relationship with retailers: "It's great to have a retailer that values us but obviously it is a two way street. When you have a customer who values you, you obviously want to do as much as you can for them and we strive to work closely with all of our other retail outlets."