With consumer spending tightening as the credit crunch deepens, high volume, high mark-up products with quick turnaround will be key to profitable garden centre trading in the year ahead.
A general industry trend towards smaller formats for growing media alongside the growth of specific-use products in the past few years has come to embody the sort of product that will keep the tills ringing in 2009.
While fierce price competition has devalued the price of bulk compost options in recent years, with product sold at rock-bottom prices at key times of the year, the development of smaller "grab bags" has opened up new marketing opportunities, bringing growing media into the indoor area, displaying it next to the product it was developed for.
Grab bags also offer a high number of items per pallet, which can then be dotted around the shop floor to boost impulse sales. The main appeal for many shoppers is their convenience.
A large percentage of garden centre visitors are now in the 50-plus age range, with a predominance of visitors over 60. For these shoppers, portability is likely to be a more important factor than price.
Responding to increasing demand from its retailer customers for smaller options with more specific uses, Growmoor Horticulture decided in 2007 that small was beautiful and proceeded to launch a range of 10- to 25-litre options across its core growing media range.
Already armed with adaptable modern production and packaging equipment, the County Tyrone-based business overhauled its product line, reducing size and incorporating a cut-out carry handle for added convenience.
Growmoor head of sales and marketing Bernard Hawkes says reduced-size formats have already proven successful.
"Big is bad," he says. "The infamous Growmoor 75-litre multi-purpose compost, which enjoys sales in excess of a million bags each year, is now heading for a 75 per cent replacement by sizes ranging between 50 litres and 60 litres. Actual sales were treble our projected volume sales for the 60-litre option in the first year of production."
Hawkes says a growing number of consumers are trying to grow more exotic plants with specific growing requirements such as orchids, which are currently enjoying high sales. Here, the customer has no need for large bags of growing media.
According to William Sinclair Horticulture marketing director Fiona Carrington, the popularity of smaller bags has gone hand-in-hand with the development of use-specific mixes. "People tend to buy large bags of multi-purpose compost because it has many uses around the home and garden," she says. "But if you are using specialist composts, you don't want to have to store away 10 different types of compost in 60-litre bags," she explains.
Such smaller, use-specific mixes can be placed alongside the plants they are meant for on the shop floor, creating good sales opportunities and encouraging increased customer spend.
Carrington says: "A customer may come with the intention of buying an African violet, but on seeing a 10-litre African-violet-specific compost option conveniently displayed next to the plants, they will likely increase their spend or return to make a later purchase when their plant needs potting up."
The company now offers 10- to 25-litre options across much of its multi-purpose and specialist composts.
For Bulrush national account manager Alan McDowell, the appeal of smaller bags lies in their year-round sales potential. While large bags are usually displayed outside, smaller bags bring growing media into the indoor sales area and help to create impulse sales. "On a rainy day or in winter, people tend not to venture into the outdoor area where larger compost options are displayed," he says. "The small bags are ideal for year-round impulse sales and target those shoppers who buy one or two plants and don't need 75 litres of growing media."
Bulrush has added a 20-litre option to many of its product lines, including specialist indoor mixes, as well as adding a smaller, 10-litre option for its Forest Gold sowing and cutting compost. McDowell adds: "The price point per litre is much higher with smaller bags. The consumer doesn't seem to be as price-aware with the smaller-size options as the larger and is happy to pay more for less volume and more quality.
"The size of packaging makes these grab bags conducive to supermarket-style retailing, fitting easily onto shelving units."
Bulrush offers an extra design service to its independent retailer customers and can produce exclusive brands of compost with own-company logos.
Scotts, meanwhile, has added many specialist compost products to its Levington and Miracle-Gro ranges in recent years, not least with the introduction of an eight-litre option across many of its lines last year.
It now has convenience-sized formats in its Levington John Innes Seed Composts 1-3, Levington Container and Hanging Basket Compost and Miracle-Gro Azalea, Camellia & Rhododendron Ericaceous Compost.
Westland Horticulture has expanded its range of West+ compost, making it the company's core product range for 2009.
The 50/50 mix of peat and West+ natural wood fibre has been refreshed with new packaging, which provides simple key messages and designs to enable all gardeners, regardless of skill, to choose the correct product for their needs.
The development of West+ is a response to consumer demand for improved performance from growing media and is a move towards the Government's 90 per cent peat-reduction target for 2010.
Westland head of marketing Keith Nicholson says West+ is the most significant development in growing media since John Innes and goes a long way to meet the performance and environmental requirements increasingly demanded of quality growing media.
Extending the West+ range further, Westland has invested more than £1m in launching a reduced- peat compressed bale. The new 25-litre West+ mini bales weigh up to 5.5kg and only take up one third of the fixture space of traditional larger sizes to the benefit of both retailers and consumers.
Nicholson says the development of the mini bale provides the opportunity to market growing media both indoors and out, while linking growing media closer to the products they are related to, be they seeds, bonsai, orchids, hanging baskets or bulbs.
The unique size of the new West+ mini bale, with its integrated easy-to-carry handle, is designed to maximise impulse sales and bring compost merchandising indoors.
Nicholson believes the new pack will open up an untapped market. "This unique concept will allow growing media to be purchased even when outdoor areas at garden centres are witnessing slower footfall," he says.
"On a bad-weather day it means a centre might still sell good volumes of compost despite fewer customers venturing through the outdoor sales areas.
"Our mini bales offer 25 litres of compost - still a good volume to work with but a more convenient size and weight for the user. Our West+ formulations are also 50 per cent lighter than peat formulations. The lighter weight helps those customers who find dealing with a large bale of compost tricky. The majority of smaller options retail at under £5, despite a higher price per litre. This is a key price point, low enough to act as a value-for-money incentive to buy."
Looking to maximise sales further, Westland supplies banners, posters, PoS displays and information leaflets on its products so garden centres can provide support and information to customers.
When paying just a few pounds to suit their compost needs, consumers feel they are getting value for money on a quality product, despite the actual price per litre being higher.
The move is putting value back into growing media for retailers while also filling a growing demand from a customer base that's looking for quality rather than quantity.
APPEAL OF SMALLER SIZES
- An ageing population is drawn to the need of easier carrying and use.
- Specialist composts on offer make it easier to grow more demanding plants such as orchids.
- Meeting different plant growth requirements allows hobby gardeners to experiment with exotic plants in ones and twos.
- There are more conservatories where single plants require potting up.
- Less waste than with larger bags.
- Can command a premium price without appearing to the consumer to be an expensive item.